A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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Cultural observations: the case of race July 7, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 8:00 pm
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I saw Pastor Frida roll up her car windows while stopping at a traffic light. A dozen youth had surrounded the car to cross the street. They peered into the car from the other side.

 “Is it ok to roll up your windows in front of people?” I asked. “They won’t get mad?”

“They don’t care. They’re not paying attention,” Pastor Frida said.”

Hmm…

Where I grew up, in Georgia, someone could potentially get upset, if the person raising the window was being really obvious and obnoxious. Especially, if it were a black person who was walking and a white person who had raised the window. It’s like clutching your purse tighter when a black person walks next to you.  It’s sad that I see color, but I was raised in a country that was built on color divisions; in a country where your color is used a measure of your worth,  your sophistication, and in extreme cases, your humanity.

This is the racism that I grew up with and many Americans will say they are not racist. But, one must look at the meaning of the word, racism, particularly from an anthropological perspective. Racism implies the use of race or color in a social system. Someone is racist when they use this system. I am guilty of using this system, as many of us are. And in Kenya, I am becoming more aware of this.

“Do you know Clarissa (name has been changed), that black girl?” A colleague from K24 asked me today.

“The skinny one?” I asked in response, trying to use what I thought was a more PC description.

“No, she’s not skinny. She’s black. Blacky,” he said.

Ummm…..okay.

His frank description was harmless, because it was simply a description. From his demeanor, I could tell that he did not place any value on that description. There was no implication that she was lesser, poorer, richer, prettier, more educated, or what have you.

Let’s compare that to descriptions commonly used in America.

“The nappy-headed black girl.” It’s a common phrase-you hear it in movies and in real life. And there is always a value being implied in that description. I don’t need to spell it out for you, because, sadly, the notion of black ugliness is too familiar.

But in Kenya, I’ve seen color lines being crossed in beautiful ways. I see Indians holding hands with black Kenyans. In my American skepticism, I am doubtful about the trueness of such a relationship, but it’s good to be psychologically challenged. I saw a white lady ask a black Kenyan if he could move and let her friend take his seat so she would be able to sit close to her friend.

 I watched the scene and realized that my eyebrows were furrowed. My face was tense. My mind was racing.

“Go find your own seat! What kind of discrimination is this? She has some nerve!”

 My mind went back to the night I awoke to the sound of my white neighbor tying our gate with string so we would no longer play with his children. His wife enjoyed us. He never did. The scowl that I saw on his face as I sat at the dining table in his home with my sister and his family, eating the ridiculously divine strawberry shortcake that his wife prepared is like stone, it won’t disappear from my memory. It just won’t.

My mind went back to the time when a  tiny white man in overalls stuck his head out his blue pickup truck and yelled, “Stay in your lane, you black nigger!” to my father as my dad steered toward the center of the road to avoid a parked car.

My mind went back to the times I was called “African booty scratcher” in 1st grade. In 5th grade, I was the black girl who my Vietnamese best friend’s mom feared. We had to keep our friendship a secret.

“Go find your own seat! What kind of discrimination is this? She has some nerve!”

 “No problem. Your friend can sit with you.” The black man stood up with a smile and went to the next table.

 My eyebrows remained furrowed, but my face had somehow…softened. My lips, moving on their own, turned up to smile.

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6 Responses to “Cultural observations: the case of race”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    Somebody said WHAT to dad???

  2. catherine nasimiyu Says:

    Chika your very welcome to kenya to take this amazing journey to discover some of the different cultures we hold n i can almost relate to the way your eyebrows popped coz many of us here dont realize when somebody is down looking on u n we do some of this things with utmost genuine respect which was kinda inflicted in us since childhood… however, the best way to relate to us is to take things easy enjoy yourself n hope u fulfill your dreams….. karibu kenya

    • chikainkenya Says:

      Hi Catherine,
      thanks for your comment. I wrote that piece to illustrate that the Kenyans I’ve met so far do not discriminate based on color. I’ll surely take your recommendation and enjoy myself here.
      Asante!

  3. Frida Says:

    Chika – Am happy you are enjoying our beautiful and weird country. Have fun!

  4. Bobby Alioha Says:

    You paint a picture with your words. Even if the picture consists of only emotions. I wanted to say “Get your own seat!” after I finished reading this. lol


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