Tag Archives: Kibera

Talking to White Girl

“I don’t want a video of me giving a lap dance to be on some white girl’s phone,” I said. Honestly, we weren’t even friends. We would go back to our different schools on the same campus, and she would have that. Would other white students, strangers, see it? That’s just what I needed: to be sexualized by more white people. People had finally stopped expecting me to twerk on command. Enough time had passed since The White Boy Who Tried To Colonize My Vagina had demanded I send him sexual pictures of myself (and looking back, Why did he feel so justified in doing that? Had he seen a different video? Had he just assumed?). I didn’t need anything new popping up now.
“Some white girl?” the white girl repeated, clearly offended I’d mentioned her race. It’s funny. Black people know that they’re black. Hispanic people know that they’re Hispanic. Casually tell a white person that they’re white, and nine times out of ten they’re dumbfounded that you can tell races apart. “I’m a person, you know,” she said defensively, white tears already forming in her eyes. I sighed.
“Oh, I know that,” I told her. Believe me, I thought, Doesn’t no one doubt that white people are people. In fact, when speaking politically correctly, white people are the only people. You have African Americans (qualified Americans), Latinas, Asian Americans (qualified Americans)…no one else has ‘people’ next to it other than White People.
I don’t dance for white people. It’s a principle. I’m not here to entertain. If I dance for my friends, that’s one thing, but if we aren’t friends, you have no right to possess what I’ve done. Enjoy yourself in the moment, then let it go. It’s Not For You.
“Listen,” I said, trying a different approach. “There is a history of women of color being sexualized. I don’t want to add into that.”
“There’s also a history of simply women  being sexualized,” she said, and this was so exasperatingly White Feminist, I didn’t know whether to groan or laugh. I decided to do neither.
“That’s true,” I told her, “But it’s a little worse when it comes to women of color. That’s their role.” I hurried on, before we could get into a ‘black women are beautiful v. ALL women are beautiful’ situation. I also needed to ignore the fact that despite attempting solidarity with the ‘all women being sexualized’ bit, her filming me without permission and feeling entitled to keep it wasn’t exactly feminist. To point that out would derail the conversation. “Why do you think people were so upset with Miley Cyrus?” I asked, inwardly groaning that I had to bring this girl up again. “It’s not because they thought she was a slut, despite what some people were saying. (Some white feminists, I thought, but didn’t say to her. No one wanted the white tears to fall.) It’s because of the wall of women of color she had behind her, the oversexualized women of color who were only used to validate her sexuality as a white woman. This is a problem.”
“Yeah well, I deleted the video, so I don’t get what the problem is,” the white girl said. It was funny. Her head bobbed from side to side, she barely looked at me, her teeth were slightly bared, and her voice was mean. I was talking slowly, quietly, looking straight at her, my hands at my sides. Watch me do everything you’re doing right now, I thought. You’re already telling me that I’m being aggressive as I am. Is that a default? Are all black men thugs, and all black women aggressive?
“You and I just don’t get along, and I don’t see why we need to interact.”
“I agree,” I said, “But for different reasons. I still need you to try to understand why you weren’t in the right.”
“Oh, so you just understand everything, Khalilah? You just have all the answers to the situation, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t know everything.” But I understand more about the situation than you do, white girl.
“Well, if you’d just asked politely, I would have deleted it the first time. You need to be nice when you want people to do things for you.”

So here we were. This white girl was teaching me how to properly behave myself in White World, where you have to politely beg people to consider respecting your rights. Where telling someone that they have to delete something that doesn’t belong to them is the height of rudeness. Where speaking seriously is aggressive, but yelling, “Jesus Christ…you need to chill out!” is not. Where you aren’t allowed to do anything to better yourself, improve your situation, or have any sense of pride, because it either leaves white people out or makes them uncomfortable. Shutting a program down because it’s ‘reverse racist’, and refusing to listen to someone because they’re ‘aggressive’ are the new forms of oppression.
And honestly, who are we even kidding? How can we be surprised when people who have been silenced and oppressed for centuries are even slightly hostile? Do you know one of the reasons the Rwandan genocide happened? The Hutus were tired of being forced into subservience. All of the coups, all of the uprisings, they’re violent. You don’t go up to your oppressors and say, “Excuse me, but would you please give up the majority of your privileges and respect my opinions and see me as a valid person so that we may actually be equals?” It won’t work.
They say, “The Revolution will not be televised.” Some say, “The Revolution will not be on World Star.” I think it should be added on that “The Revolution will not be polite,” because it seems that people do not understand this yet. Particularly those with power.

She’d had enough, I could tell. She was about to leave, and she wouldn’t know anything.
“They tell us to respect SHOFCO youth and the people of Kenya, because we’re coming from different situations, and we don’t understand how we can be offending them,” I said. “And we do that. But we don’t practice it with each other. You and I, we come from different situations, and you won’t understand that. We go to different schools.”
“You’ve said that already,” White Girl said. Offended again, because I guess she thought I was unnecessarily emphasizing our racial differences. I put on my Educate White People Cap, and slipped into my softest, most possibly docile voice.
“When I got accepted to Wesleyan, behind my letter was a page that said, ‘We have great programs for students of color – LIKE YOU.’ That was my first label. Then, they sent us to our separate WesFest – “
“Wait, they were separated?” She was interested now. “Like, at different times?”
“No,” I said. “Well, yes. SOC WesFest was two days before, last year. Otherwise, it’s just separate events.”
“That’s fucked up,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “So then, you come to campus only knowing a small amount of people, And now, I don’t know if you know this (you probably don’t) but the administration pushed SOC into five majors only: English, Psych, Soc, Economics, and AfAm. But as you may know, we only have one and a half professors left in African American Studies. It’s a failing department. That’s why we had all the protests and the march, because what they’re doing to us isn’t fair. And,” I gave a sad laugh, “It was pretty much only students of color who showed up, except for maybe three white people. No one is there for us, and in our majors we’re stuck learning about institutionalized racism, and recognizing micro-aggressions, and smaller-scale racism, but no one else knows and we’re left to deal with it. And then everyone else wants to know why ‘they only sit with each other’ and why there’s ‘self-seggregation’ as if we weren’t behaving the way the administration set us up to! Wesleyan doesn’t care about its students of color.
That’s where I’m coming from, and now here, it’s worse, because there’s no one on this trip to understand me, except maybe Roshanna. And every indication is that we aren’t supposed to be here. People only say ‘howareyou’ to us half the time on the streets.”
“But isn’t that what they call white people?”
“Yes, but we didn’t know that.”
“Ture,” she concurred.
“And besides, that doesn’t always lessen the feeling that we aren’t welcome. People who smile at you, won’t make eye contact. They put their hands out for you and withdraw them when they see us. We aren’t counted…even by SHOFCO! They only praise ‘the great work the mzungus are doing,’ and it’s as if we don’t even exist. We aren’t important.” I was almost talking angrily at this point, so I had to pause and calm down.

“So when I dance on my friend, my friend, and someone else records it, and refuses to listen to me when I tell her she needs to delete it; refuses to see me as a valid enough person to respect – “
“Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t understand,” the girl said.
“I know that you didn’t,” I told her. “I’m not trying to be condescending.”
“I didn’t know it was like that,” she said. “I wish you’d have said that before.”
“White people don’t like being told about the racial undertones of situations,” I explained. “It makes them uncomfortable.”
“Well, not me!” She said. “I want to know when I’m being racist. I don’t want to be racist at all!”
“Alright,” I told her.

I chose not to point out to her how messed up the situation was. That in order for her to listen to me, I’d had to be as nonthreatening as possible. That despite the fact that she’d wronged me, I’d had to stop and apologize multiple times throughout the story to appease her, and allow her to keep listening. That I’d had to stand below her and make sure she was comfortable before she could take me seriously, despite the fact that this was a part of my life I was talking about, and so had always been serious to me. And most annoying of all was the fact that I’d had to play educator in the first place, and that the amount of contrition she felt was directly related to how personally I wanted to let her know about my life. The situation was racially fucked. I decided to let it go, for the moment.
“I think we’ll be able to get along better, now,” said Martha.
“Yeah,” I agreed, “So do I.”

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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.