Friday, February 4, 2011

***Response to Class and Black Identity Post***

Here is a very intriguing and insightful response from a White Australian friend here in Mwanza to my Class and Black Identity Post from January 24th, 2011.  I've got a lot respect for people who are willing to put themselves out there like this and challenge their sense of self.  Read it.  Think about it.  Comment. 

Hi Chris,

This was a really thought-provoking post. As you know, I’m super interested in issues around race relations, ethnic minorities and racism. Your point about being defined first by your class and then by your colour intrigues me. Did you mean that YOU define yourself first by class, then colour? Or that Tanzanians do?

Ok, I think I’ll focus mostly on your last main paragraph which prompted this question: Are experiences of black and white ‘racism’ comparable? Whilst there may be some overlap, I think that to be a Black Canadian in (largely) White Canada and a White Australian in Black Tanzania is quite different.

It seems to me from things you’ve said (but correct me if I’m wrong) that to be black in Canada is to get a type of ‘look’, attention or sense that you are not supposed to be there? Or that they think ‘less’ of you. Would it be right to say that many white (and shockingly sheltered, ignorant) Canadians think that Black Canadians are out of place in ‘their’ country and…possibly even inferior? Again, I’m not sure if that’s an accurate take on the state of white/black relations in London, Ontario so feel free to amend away…

But if that is the case…then I think the type of differential attention we both receive on account of our skin colour is not really ‘equivalent’ across western and African cultures. I don’t know what it’s liked to be looked down upon for my skin colour or made to feel unwelcome. I can’t say I understand what it would be like (even after living in Tz) because quite simply I’ve never experienced it. So…I guess what I AM trying to say is that I’m not going to pretend like I can empathise with you. I do however; feel saddened and dismayed that in 2011 and in an ostensibly multicultural society, you still feel as though you are treated differently because you are black. How I wish that wasn’t the case (ditto for Aboriginal Australians and ‘African Australians.’)

So I want to try and elaborate on how being white in a black country might be different. I feel as though the attention I receive is not generally flavoured by condescension or coldness (although in my first 3 weeks here I was berated by a daladala driver in front of everyone in the bus because I couldn’t understand his fast, fluent Kiswahili. I wasn’t really made to feel inferior though…more like plain dumb!)

Typically though, I think that the harassment and the ‘mzungu’ thing probably stems from Tanzanians’ fascination or curiosity with white people. I get the feeling that they don’t often see wazungu here and it’s always a bit of an event when they do – especially once you venture out of the city centre.

I think the underlying reasons for differential treatment vary even if the outcome is the same. I can only speak for myself here but I would guess you feel uncomfortable when you feel stared at/unwelcomed? I feel similarly. Even if calling someone mzungu is a direct result of un-intentional ignorance, little exposure or education (and hey, that’s the best case scenario here) it still makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. To be a white female, I think – is even worse and garners you not just racial attention but inappropriate gender-specific harassment too. Like you talked about class first and then colour, I feel as though I’m seen as a mzungu first and a (white) woman second.

Whilst I can’t understand what it’s like to experience the type of racism specific to Black Canadians I think I can safely assume that you are not called ‘black person’ 27 times a day by just about any stranger you come into contact with (and sometimes by people you have met before too). Maybe I’m taking it a little personally, but there is something deeply offensive about calling, identifying and addressing someone solely by their skin colour. (I should probably point out, that I don’t mind when kids under the age of 5 or 6 do it cause I figure they know no better.) To call someone ‘black person’ is the closest thing I can compare ‘mzungu’ with. Also, the word mzungu was derived from the Kiswahili word ‘mzunguko’ which means to wander around and around aimlessly. I’m not sure about others – but I don’t like the confused, connotation that word brings, (granted I’m sure the first Europeans here probably seemed a little disoriented!)

Just as I don’t know what it’s like to have my skin colour thought of as ‘lesser’ you may likewise not be able to relate to incessant and frequent ‘mzungu’ calling. But what I’m saying is I don’t think we can ‘equate’ our experiences of racism when what constitutes that exact experience in either country varies. You were not necessarily arguing this –I just wanted to flesh out this point in more detail :)As for the long, drawn out stares I get (the kind where people’s eyes follow you until you are out of sight) – maybe that’s a point of commonality. It grates on me just about as much as the mzungu-ing.


My second reflection is this: I didn’t choose to be born white, just as you didn’t choose to be born black. We are what we are and we had no control over what family, continent or culture we were born into. Truth be told, if I were given a choice to be anyone, anywhere – I probably would have chosen to be Black and living in Europe or North America (but maybe not London, Ontario..somewhere a little 'blacker' or at the very least...mutli-cultural :). I’m not proud of being white because I don’t like what ‘we’ have done for much of human history.

I know I wasn’t there & had no part in the European invasion of Australia – but because of my skin colour (that uncontrollable, ever-visible, factor) Aboriginal Australians will always associate me with a brutal colonial past and an apathetic present. When Kinanga and I walk down the street and meet an Aboriginal person, they will always – without fail – greet him and ignore me. I don’t blame them – but their perception of me is something I feel powerless to change.

I hate the fact that on just about every continent, white people eroded and annihilated indigenous cultures. I’m appalled when I hear about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade or that slavery in southern America was an acceptable part of a ‘progressive, modern’ society for so long. I am grieved that just about every black culture on the planet has been adversely impacted by white rule. I’m ashamed when I hear of white people of all ages and socio-economic levels, who still think less of black people and in a million not-so-subtle ways, convey this sense of inferiority or condescension.

I’m horrified when I think about what evils such a belief unleashed on Europe in 1945 or on black South Africans for the greater part of the 20th century. I’m afraid when I hear about the activities of neo-nazi’s in post-modern Germany or that the KKK is alive and well in the States. I don’t want to be a part of an ethnic group that thinks they have unique claim to the best standard of living in the world and that everyone else can just go and jump; or that to be white… is to be morally superior or more deserving of life, health and happiness.

So no, I’m not proud to be white. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities I have received because I was born into privilege - but by the same token, I feel sadness and shame that others – on account of their skin colour & place of birth – may not be so lucky. Co-incidentally that’s part of why we’re here :) But I’ll leave that post for another time.


  1. "I think the type of differential attention we both receive on account of our skin colour is not really ‘equivalent’ across western and African cultures."

    There is no comparison, because the attention that White people get when we are in the minority is rarely negative, nor is it motivated by fear or hatred.

    Question for Chris and friend:

    Do Tanzanians have the same curiosity about Asian tourists, or only Mzungus? Is it the different appearance that is so intriguing, or is the intrigue somehow tied up in the power dynamic between difference races?

  2. Good question. I have my own thoughts on that but I'll see what other people have to say first.

  3. Hi Kendra,

    I agree - I agree the attention we (white ppl) get is rarely motivated by fear and hatred. Good point. I do think that even if it is motivated by curiosity or fascination though, the effect can still be a negative one (i.e. lingering stares and being addressed/called by your skin colour only.)

    It's not an overley positive experience to feel 'exocitised' and the culmination of all the stares and verbal attention is that I quite often feel like a circus freak.

    As for the question about whether this is unique to Mzungu's - nope. I have a Canadian girlfriend here who is Asian in appearence. She believes the attention she gets is worse than white people. Not only does she receive the stares and calls of 'Mchina' wherever she goes, she also has to contend with people making mock, imitative Asian language sounds as she walks down the street. She's been here for a year and half and it hasn't now she doesn't walk, she takes taxis.

    That's an excellent question about whether the intrigue is tied to a difference of appearence or the power guess is that it would be a bit of both.