Tag Archives: Colonization

Impressionable Childhood

I love my nose. I’ve always been supremely proud of it, to the point where it’s almost a fault. As a child, I was somewhat obnoxious about it.
I have an African nose!” I used to walk around saying. “You see how it curves so beautifully out of the arch? You see the symmetry of the sides? Look at this bridge, free of crookedness or bumps! My nose is perfect, and beautiful!” Even thinking back on those days, I can’t help but laugh with glee at the tremendous amount of satisfaction my perfect nose gives me.

The funny thing is that all this nasal confidence came completely by accident, due to a childhood misunderstanding of ‘big words’.

In elementary school, we had this program called WINGS, which I guess was sort of our public school system’s version of the ‘gifted children’ class. We all went to regular classes, but at certain times of the day, or on certain days of the week (depending on which grade you were in) all the WINGS kids would go to a classroom downstairs to learn about other things. We did advanced math; studied Greek mythology and ancient societies; looked at abstract art; played chess; all that great and random stuff. The class was taught by Ms. Leonard, an African-American woman who still visited her family on The Continent and would sometimes take breaks to talk about it. Looking back, Ms. Leonard was probably the first person outside of my family to ever give me somewhat of a grounded and positive representation of Africa. I did not fully appreciate her at the time. She was a little too testy for someone who worked with children, and we were never completely comfortable in her classroom.
One day in WINGS, we were talking about mummies. It was the Ancient Egypt section of class, and I was excelling. I was super into learning about ancient societies, Egypt in particular, and I was very much being a know-it-all explaining the mummification process, pyramids, and the systems in place to trap and confuse pyramid robbers.
“That’s right,” Ms. Leonard was saying. “People throughout time have broken into and stolen from a number of pyramids. In fact, it was in the news a little bit ago that some men found mummies in one tomb, and hacked off their noses.” This seemed like a very strange, randomly rude thing to do. We wanted to know why the noses had been hacked off. “Well, African people in particular are known to have very prominent noses,” she told us, “And the men were attacking that.”

Understand that I had no idea what the word prominent meant at the time. Ms. Leonard was actually telling us about a hate crime. Whoever broke into the tombs saw the noses sticking out on the mummies, and hacked them off to make them smaller and respectable, effectively ‘fixing’ the large ‘African nose’ problem. It’s beyond disrespectful, and pretty disgusting.
I thought that prominent meant something like stately, and important. So to my understanding, Ms. Leonard was telling us about a different sort of crime, still disrespectful, but of jealousy. In my mind, when the vandals saw the magnificent noses on the mummies, they recognized that their own noses were unimportant and worthless in comparison, and out of jealousy for the gift God had given the mummies, they hacked off the noses to feel better about their own. It made sense to 9 year old me.

In the car going home that night, I retold the story to my mom.
“And then they just hacked the noses off, Mom!” I said, “Because the mummies had African noses, and they didn’t like that! Imagine if that had been me. I mean, look at my nose. It must be pro-mi-nent. I have an African nose too, right?”
I could tell that my question had made my mom confused and slightly uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure why. She made some noise in between agreeing and disagreeing, and I realized that she must have been embarrassed about her own nose, which was very nice on its own, but rather small in comparison to mine. Looking in the rear view mirror, I began to compare my nose to my mother’s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how amazing my own nose was. If someone were to come up and want to hack it off out of jealousy, I wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe my mother wasn’t just embarrassed, but worried that this might actually happen. Bad things happened to beautiful people all the time, people with noses much less perfect than mine. And it was, I decided, a perfect nose.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her, as she still hadn’t completely responded. “You don’t need to worry; you can just be happy for me!” I went inside the house, and have loved my nose ever since.
I loved my nose because somehow the idea got into my head that it was something to be proud of. It was only in that one not-even-discussion, too. I had never thought about noses before. No one ever said anything else about noses for years after, until we read Tintin comics in a French class, and people began to talk about how racist Herb├ęs drawings of black people were. By the time I realized that this was something that might cause people shame and hurt, it was too late for my self conscious to switch gears. I simply decided that all the racists out there were particularly stupid in this area, and I even felt a little sorry for what they must obviously have lacked.

Sometimes I wonder, if my vocabulary had been better back then, would I love my nose today? If someone had said something negative about big lips to me, would that have stuck, also? I was lucky to grow up in a world with Angelina Jolie and J. Lo, paving the way for me to accept my larger body parts and understand them as things to be desired. It’s just scary to think about the little ways in which our perceptions about right and wrong; good and bad; attractive and unattractive have been shaped. There are so many insidious influences waiting to warp us as we grow up. This is how we have so many social institutions that we can barely understand.
Thank goodness my nose escaped, perfect and safe.

Third World Black America?

I went to the Union Square vigil last night, the National Moment of Silence for victims of police brutality. I spent a minute chanting with the protesters, but decided that I wanted to hear what people at the vigil had to say, rather than walk through NYC. It was nice, being surrounded by people I did not know, who had all come out to support the same cause. There were a lot of us. We were a community with potential.
Community.

One morning on the walk through Kibera, there was a sort of mob forming at one of the intersections of our path. It seemed ominous, although its animosity was not directed toward us, but at whatever was happening at its center.
“Mzungu!” One man called out to the volunteer in front of me, “Come and look at this!” Other members of the crowd laughed, but we didn’t pay attention. We had to get to school, and despite being curious about what was happening, the vibe coming from the people gathered was scary.
We later found out that we had passed by a stoning. Someone had been caught stealing, and when this happens, the perpetrator is stoned to death. In this case, they stopped before the guy was actually dead. It was still slightly unnerving to hear about.
The way that it was explained makes a lot of sense, though. Kibera is a community. An actual, beautiful community, “where everyone looks out for each other. If someone is having a party a few houses down from you, you go to it, even if you don’t know them that well. You go, because they’re your neighbor. When you buy, say, a radio, that’s only possible after taking the time to save up for it. Once you have it, it is precious to you. If someone steals your radio, they are also stealing your security. You cannot trust them, because the same people who steal from you will also come into your house and rape you. A community without trust between its residents is not a community at all, and Kibera can’t function the same way unless that trust is restored. So the community must punish the person who breached trust severely enough to ensure that it will never happen again. They do not trust the police to help them, because they know the police are not their allies; they only hurt, and never help.”

Throughout the experience, I would be annoyed with other volunteers for looking at things that were happening in Kibera as sad aspects of a developing (some people actually still said Third World) nation that was behind the United States. Certain people actually seemed to believe that in four weeks, we would make everything better and set a good Western example for the people we supposedly helped. Meanwhile, there seemed to be no reflection on the United States’ own issues.

This was one that I almost missed. I didn’t really think about it until, while listening to speakers at the vigil, I found myself wondering about Mike Brown’s body lying in the street. When you find a body in the street, who do you call? Who do you expect to move it? It’s funny, because my automatic reaction would be to think of the police. You’re supposed to be able to call the police when you find a dead body, and they’re supposed to rush over and then do their detective thing, find the killer, and put the killer to justice. Right?
Right?
But what if the police put the body there in the first place? That sounds crazy.
That sounds crazy. What if the police shot the body and left it there to rot in the middle of an active street? And what if they shot the body for no viable reason? What if the police are actually killers?
Who do you call now?

There are those stupid Youtubers who have their racist “In the Hood” pranks, where they harass black people into beating them up. One especially stupid one involves them going up to random black guys and snatching the cell phones out of their hands to “check” the time. They Know it looks like they’re stealing the phones. They Know they’re going to be beaten up. They Know they’re creating extremely fucked up situations, but they keep creating them because they Don’t Know that they’re participating in yet another form of racism.
If you can get shot for being black, are you really going to call the police when a shrimpy white boy takes your phone? That’d be stupid. You have to take care of it yourself because you don’t even have a community to stone with you. Black people are not enough of a community yet. I have hope. It can be done. If black people continued to come together and didn’t just wait for the next abominable killing that made headlines, there Could Be a community.

But for right now, it seems that we’re behind Kibera. This must be when what Monsignor Ivan Illich meant when he told volunteers to stay in America and fix its own inequalities first. Who will fix this?

Reiteration: Helping Ain’t About You

We weren’t important.

That’s the thing to understand about the situation. That’s the thing people back here don’t understand, and how could I really expect them to, when I only recognized it myself after two weeks over there? We taught, but we weren’t teachers. We participated in a program that we weren’t running. We were substitutes, filling in for the Real Deal while it went off and upgraded itself. We weren’t important, and it’s questionable whether we were completely necessary. What we were, was helpful. And really, that’s all that matters.

When we first walked through Kibera, we thought how friendly the area was. “How are you!” was shouted to us by every single child we met on the street. Some smaller kids even took to chanting it as we went by, and it was as if their cries alerted the children still inside their homes to come outside and pick up the call, so that not one moment of the trek between bus and school was without greeting. Others came right up to us to shake our hands. We’d been told not to refuse anyone’s hand, regardless of its state of cleanliness, as this was the height of rudeness and cruelty. It wasn’t a problem. Everyone was so kind and adorable you wouldn’t want to refuse them, even if you’d seen them sucking the remains of a treat off of their fingers, or sneezing, moments before coming up to you. This happened a few times, but it was okay. We were welcome.

By the second week I realized that with the exception of men, people were only calling to me a little less than half the time. Hands were actually being pulled back when the greeters saw my face emerge after another volunteer’s.

“You look like one type of the locals,” I’d been told in a brief orientation. “People won’t expect you to be with the rest of the group. They’ll be annoyed when you can’t speak Kiswahili.”

It was happening. One morning, the only person to greet me was a woman who wouldn’t let go of my hand, and rapidly spoke to me as the rest of the group continued on their way to school.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “Kiwezi kusema Kiswahili. I’m sorry.” She finally let go, scowling, and I was in the predicament of wanting to catch up with my group, but not wanting to run from her. It didn’t help that later we had a meeting with one of the organizers, who talked about what a great job the volunteers were doing, and how loved all of the mzungu teachers were. Though I was sitting in the front row, it didn’t register that she was excluding me from the praise. In Kibera, I’m not a mzungu. I’m not lumped in with the others. People don’t care about how I am, the majority of the time. Am I not supposed to be volunteering? I’d wonder. Am I not at the mzungu level? Is it only the white people who are expected to volunteer abroad, who are expected to come into other lands, sprinkling their white fairy dust and making things better? Should I have stayed in the US, if my services have no value?

No, as it turns out. Two nights later we learn that “how are you” is not a greeting. It is a name. The Howareyous are the whites. The children chanting and pointing are not asking about the volunteers, but counting them. “There they go!” is what they may as well be saying. I’m slightly more okay with this. Some of the other volunteers are not.

“What is a ‘howareyou’ anyway?” laments one guy, actually the only male American. “It’s just another volunteer, who are like a dime a dozen here, who come in for a little bit, and then leave, and don’t come back. They don’t do anything. And if you think about it, when you say, ‘how are you’, you aren’t really saying anything. You aren’t sitting down with a person and getting to know them and their troubles. You’re just saying it to say it, and it’s all meaningless, just like this!”

I wonder how many white volunteers came through Kibera, saying “how are you” to people, before the name stuck. The guy is still going.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been a minority, and now I know what it feels like,” he’s saying. “It feels awful. All these people are calling me this thing, and I can’t do anything about it. I don’t have the power to stop it.”
“Wait,” I say. “You’re talking about ‘Howareyou?'”
“Yes,” he says.
“So you feel like a minority, because people are calling you Howareyou and you can’t make them stop.”
“Yes,” he tells me. “What am I gonna do? Tell them all not to call me that?”
There’s no way he’s comparing this to the n-word right now, I think. If this mzungu thinks “howareyou” comes close to “nigger”, he is demented.

“But you know they’re calling you that because they recognize the power you have,” I say out loud, telling him, rather than asking him. “You are a minority here. But you only have this experience. Volunteers here are freaking out because passersby are touching their hair. My hair gets touched all the time back home. You’re counted, you’re seen as ‘different’. It’s the same way people of color see you back home, only there you have so many other white people around you, you don’t have to think about it. So you can think about it here, and recognize its problems, but don’t cry about it.”

This seems harsh, so I decide to talk about myself, instead.

“When we were in Margaret’s Safe Place, that was hard for me,” I tell him. MSP is a gated home in Kibera that’s somewhat hidden from the rest of the community. It’s a safe house for girls with undesirable family situations. ‘Undesirable’ meaning anything from having parents die, to being abused, to being raped, to I don’t know and don’t really want to think about it (sorry). It’s where girls go who desperately need it, and it’s good that it exists. I’m happy my girls have somewhere to go, but I have mixed emotions when, on a field trip, one of the girls in my homeroom excitedly tells me that we’re going to eat at her home, at Margaret’s Safe Place! It fills me with something, sadness, and a desire to track down whatever evil is responsible for making MSP a necessary place for my girl to go, and punish it. You don’t hurt my girls. Please.

“When Marte walked into the living room, I wanted to cry,” I continue. “I wanted to cry, because she’s my favorite girl in the whole school, and possibly the world, and I didn’t know she lived there. And wondering why she had to live there, and what sent her there, made me so angry and sad. I wanted to cry, but I knew that I couldn’t. She’s happy there, and she isn’t crying. Who would I be to sit there, crying over her misfortune? What if she had to comfort me? That would be too selfish. All I could do instead was stay there, and try to make her feel better for a little bit.”

“Do you think that’s what this program is like?” Our mutual friend asked. “Is that what we’re doing? Staying here and trying to make them feel better for a little bit?”

“No,” I said slowly. “Actually, yes, just not with those words. I used the wrong words. I think that what we’re doing is like the time at Margaret’s, except we aren’t really making them feel better. They don’t need to. They aren’t unhappy. We’re just staying with them, and allowing them to keep going. The teachers are training, and developing curriculum. The school will advance, and more grades will be added. We aren’t important, but we’re helping them to keep going.”

It was something we all came to recognize, not without some difficulty. One volunteer confided in me the nervousness she felt about returning to the US. She’d gotten a lot of sponsors for her trip by telling them that she was going to an impoverished place to empower girls and make their lives better.
“And now, when I go home, I’ll have to speak at a bunch of meetings and tell them how this went, but I haven’t empowered anyone,” she worried. “I haven’t done what I told them all I would do. I’ve just been here.”
“Well, you’ve done some good work with the girls,” I told her, trying to find a way she could have the experience sound more meaningful to superficial ears. “But wouldn’t it also be better for them to know that America wasn’t the answer to Kibera’s problems? That they didn’t need us to fix everything.” That maybe it was incredibly ignorant to think we held the answer to their problems in the first place, and more people should be made aware of the reality.
“Oh, definitely,” she said. “I’m not going to say I changed their lives or anything. I just want them to feel that their money went to something worthwhile.”

I think it did, just not in the way anyone expected it to. We came in thinking about all that we would be doing. We wanted to be actively helping. It turns out that the most help we did came passively, by allowing Kibera to take care of itself. We weren’t important. Allies are never the most important part; helpers should not expect to outshine those they are giving aid to. They probably will expect to, anyway. But they shouldn’t.
We weren’t important; we were needed, like tools used by the community to fish for the rest of its life.

To the White Boy Who Attempted to Colonize My Vagina

Dear White Boy,

Once I came across a tumblr post that read something to the effect of “this white boy lookin at me like he wanna colonize my vagina.” I can’t remember who posted it or if there was any real context behind it, but it’s stuck with me ever since. I was especially reminded of it when I had my unfortunate encounter with you.

Everything about it was wrong. Your timing, your approach. Your race. I met you at a cocktail party in a friend’s room. You claimed to already know me from a class we’d had one year earlier, but for me, it was the first time being aware of your person, outside of that vague kid who spoke once or twice over the course of a semester. It could’ve been the start of a friendship, because that’s what I think about when I first meet people. Friendship. Did I mention I’m asexual?

It didn’t seem like you were interested in friendship when you were messaging me at 3am, telling me to come to your room. The key word here is telling, not asking. Oh, White Boy. Where was my agency? Are you so used to getting what you want when you want it that you don’t even realize you are ordering others? I suppose that was your form of an acceptable request. It didn’t offend or annoy me; it interested me, and I talked back with you. Your commands, your rapport, it was all different from what I was used to, and for a moment I almost enjoyed it, even though I knew that I would never actually go to your room.

I didn’t trust you, White Boy. It was clear that I interested you physically, but I did not trust that interest. I do not want to be someone’s exotic experience. When the Europeans colonized Asia, the men were intensely attracted to the native women. And why wouldn’t they have been? They had never seen such features, never been aware of other sexual possibilities outside of their own women who paled in comparison. And so in order to preserve European supremacy, it was established that men could take concubines, or generally go after the women they saw as sexual objects, but white women were known to be the only women you could wife. White women, pure women, were held to a high standard of moral righteousness. They became the backbone of greatness, the ones needed for progression and positivity. Women of color, conversely, were only good for sexual distraction.
Those ideas may have been created centuries ago, but they are still very much embodied today. You can tell by the issues feminists find salient. When white pop stars dance suggestively, half nude, singing sexually charged lyrics, people take notice. It seems that half the population rushes to condemn them as whores without morals, while the other half rushes to defend them for being sexually empowered. Yet who is talking about the wall of women of color behind the white pop star, dancing just as if not more suggestively yet without any real agency of their own? The women of color who have been shipped in to authenticate the white pop star’s actions in the first place. No one pays attention to them, whether to condemn or defend, because their actions are not seen as anything other than what society would expect of them.

What did you expect of me, White Boy? Was I supposed to sexually satisfy you? Even after I told you, 36 hours after meeting you, that I was asexual, you still wanted me to send you “…ahem…” sexual photos of myself. How in the world could you think I would want to do that? I couldn’t get anything out of the situation, other than the worry that pictures of myself would be exposed all over the online world. It would be purely for your benefit, and White Boy, I did not care about giving you any benefits.

Why am I calling you White Boy? Part of it is to preserve your identity. I know your name; no one else needs to, and you’ll probably be thankful for that. More of it has to do with the way I saw you the entire time. I do not look at my friends, or anyone I’ve known extensively, in terms of their race but when it comes to new people, especially guys who are expressing some sort of interest in me, I am hyper-aware of race. How can I not be, as a light-skinned girl? I know my privilege, and the potential hidden politics behind actions. To the white boys who will see me as black, I do not believe I can truly be attractive without them knowing my personality. To the black guys who will see me as closer to white, I am not trying to get into a mess of colorism, which again is more likely to happen if we are more attracted to each other’s bodies than our persons. To everyone else, I do not know what to expect. You are a white boy, and 36 hours after knowing you and seeing your attempts to get with me, you remained a white boy.

When you realized you would get nothing from me, conversation stopped. No more texts, no messaging, and I’ve seen you in passing but once since. I have heard, however, from an actual friend who was in our class, that you have a girlfriend. A white girlfriend.
White Boy! I feel a sick sort of satisfaction, knowing that I was right about you, and right not to trust you. Imagine if I had been to your room, or sent you pictures, while you were attached to someone else. Did you think that you could dip your dick into the campus’s SOC community because the perceived chances of you getting caught were small? Are you stupid?

You allosexual people need to realize and appreciate the blessing you have been given, being able to completely connect emotionally and physically with others. It’s not something to waste with cheating and physical selfishness. And White Boy, you need to recognize that the women of color around you are more than mere sexual objects. We do not exist to be used and flung about at your “whim.” My vagina is not open for you to colonize.