In the following days, I mentally replayed the encounter many times. The scenario with the little boy bothered me for a number of reasons. The way he shouted “mzungu” to me highlighted myself as the outside “white” person, and he as the local Kenyan who reminded me of my foreign status. According to him, I can never truly fit in because I am “white.” By demanding that I “feed him,” my skin color not only alienated me, but also turned me into a symbol of money; and thus I was obligated to give him money, food, and be content with having to pay higher prices for my race. And finally, when I showed no signs of acknowledging him, he tried to reduce my worth to my “swagger,” a.k.a. ass. He was implying that because I, a mzungu woman, didn’t comply to his initial demands, he now has the right to objectify my body and humiliate my sex.
I, a mzungu woman.
A “white” woman.
|View of Nairobi from the KICC building|
***I have really come to love my life here in Nairobi: I love my job, I have great apartment-mates, I can get around easily with public transportation, I am part of a great church community, and I surrounded by amazing Kenyan friends. For the most part, I have found Kenya to be a beautiful country, filled with amazingly hospitable people, incredible landscapes and wildlife, and a rich culture to be proud of. I’m not looking forward to leaving my life here behind. However, I never expected to wrestle over a strange new set of racial dynamics. The chessboard of race, it seemed, had flipped and completely rearranged upon my arrival from Los Angeles to Nairobi. In the United States, I am confident standing in solidarity with my black and latino community and familiar with the racial issues-I know the values I stand for and why I choose to fight for them. I understand the privilege that being Asian-American brings, but I also know that I am part of the “model minority,” until I’m not (see Peter Liang.) Nevertheless, we tend to be silent in the racial discussions- so if I really wanted to, my asian heritage allows me to stay out of the civil rights spotlight. But in Nairobi, some (not all) Kenyans have roped me into the same category as white people- there is little distinction between me- an asian mzungu, and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mzungu. (To be fair, even with my olive complexion, whenever I take pictures with my Kenyan friends, I still look pretty pale compared to their darker skin tones.) All of a sudden, I can no longer hide behind my asian ethnicity as an excuse to avoid racial conflict. People are just as likely to charge me higher prices as the white man standing in line behind me. Street children are just as likely to harass me for money as they would another American tourist.
This is not to say that the little boy was in the right or that I should be guilted into giving him money, because "whiteness" and privilege are not sins. However, I have to acknowledge that that generally, white ex-patriots do have more wealth; and if I want to live like Jesus, I need to discern how to bless my Kenyan community with the blessings I have been given. I am reminded of this income gap every time I pay for rent, splurge on a $4 drink or $20 meal, and come home to greet my apartment’s security guard knowing that he makes less than $200 a month. At the end of the day, I am the one going home to my gated apartment complex-with unlimited internet, hot showers, huge bed, and refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods. I may experience prejudice, but unlike African Americans and Latinos back at home, it is because I am easily part of the 1% here. It’s a twisted and sobering identity to grapple with: while I try to extend grace to the few Kenyans who see my skin color as profit opportunity, I am also trying to figure out what it looks like to use my privilege for good- and be smart about it.
|A friend's neighborhood in Kibera, one of the slums in Kenya|
|Thankful for my Kenyan friends <3|
Con tanto amore,