Tag Archives: White Privilege

Surreality

“How are you?” my white coworkers ask me at a meeting. I’m at a meeting.

This morning, I woke up and saw that Trump was elected president. And then I re-saw it, and re-saw it, because I couldn’t believe it was real. I don’t believe my reaction was uncommon. Apparently, though, it was uncommon enough to allow for the reality of the election results.

I really am a minority in this country.
That’s something you always know, but it rarely feels concrete to this extreme.

And now I’m at my real meeting, waiting for it to start, with real tears welling up in my eyes.

I am so. Scared.
And. Disillusioned.

“At least Trump is pro charter schools,” one teacher says. “So we’re safe! We still have our jobs.”

I don’t want to work here anymore. I don’t want to work here anymore.


“These charter schools weren’t even started by a black person, but they’re supposed to help black people?” he said angrily, at my old campus. He was a product of one of the first. “So much of it is bullshit. I used to get in trouble all the time, because if you cut corners in line you’d have to go to the end. They had colored lines on the floor to tell you where to walk! I was not about that shit, like are you serious? It was way too controlling, so I always cut corners just to show how stupid it was, and then I’d get sent to the end.”

“I think the benefit people see in these schools is that they recognize some of the world we live in,” I said. “We live in a white-dominated society. So if a white person wants to create schools that teach black kids how to successfully conduct themselves in white society, some people are for that. Some people think it can help. And we hope that along the way, the kids will gain confidence and connections. Maybe they’ll turn out like you, and see it all as a system of bullshit and wrongness, but at least you ended up at an elite university, with better tools to attack your problems.”

“Who would want to function well in white society though?” was all he had to say.


I always bought into the idea of teaching the whole person. I thought that learning chess would help with decision making, and round out the soul. I believed that it would help to learn how to conduct oneself in the master’s house.

What do they say? You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his own tools?


I need to go away. I’m still at my meeting, being antisocial as anything. I’m the only woman in the room, and I’m already pretty quiet to start with. I’m the only black adult in the room. White men, white men, white men!


“We’re not being sad today,” they say. “It’s bad, but we still have hope.”

“My friend got called a nigger in Times Square last night after the results came out,” I didn’t tell them.

“I’m just going to put positivity into the world today,” one guy says. “I’m going to smile at everyone I see.”

“Dude, you can’t do that!” The leader of the meeting says. “You’re a white man with a bald head! Someone called me a racist today when I ordered my coffee, and I voted for Clinton!”

“Clinton is racist too,” I actually do say.

I need to get out of here. I need to go to sleep.

No. I can’t sleep anymore. I need to be active. I need to do something. I need to quit my job. I need to take my money out of the bank. I need to join a gym, and get in shape. No longer for a rape revenge fantasy, but for actual survival. I need to cut down my eating, and cut out bad things. Carbs, sugar, anything that’s processed. I need to change my lifestyle.

I need to watch the news and read the papers. I need to stop hiding from everything. I need to be fully present in the world, because not enough people are, and then something like this happens. And in order to be fully present, I need to fully process every bad thing that has happened to me. I need to cry for a week, understand how things have happened and why. I need to get the flashbacks out of my head, or at least get to the point where my lions are only kittens. I need to, I need to, because my president has advised grabbing women by their pussies, and I have never taken the time to fully think about those implications.

I need to make art, and join festivals. I need to learn how to sew my own clothes, so I can stop being dependent upon companies, because if I lose my job, I lose my ability to go out and be frivolous.


“Political consultants have been predicting this for months,” one guy says. “It’s not about reality to them. It’s about opinions. And if people think that there are more pink Skittles in a bag of Skittles, then that’s what it’s going to be.”

Am I a Skittle? Are people like me Skittles?

I need the white men in the room to stop asking how I am without really caring about the answer, or I will scream.

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Alien Encounters

I’m at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for my connecting flight and struggling to connect to the “WiFi gratuit”. Finally, deciding that today needs to be bullshit-free, I give up and glance around, and for the briefest half a second make eye contact with a white lady with Senegalese twists. She obviously just had them done, because her edges are pullllling the skin on her face. If they were any thicker, she’d look like Alien. Her eyes light up when she sees me, and there’s a sharp intake of breath like she’s about to say something. Not today, not today, I’m thinking. Today is my bullshit-free day. Quickly, slickly, I keep my eyes dulled and continue my head turn, not showing that I’ve registered her, and ending with my eyes a good 90 degrees away.
But this lady. This lady takes her cart of stacked high with suitcases, and wheels it directly into my line of vision. She’s headed toward me. I’ve already Committed to looking in this direction, so I have no choice but to return eye contact as she gets closer…

“Your hair is even cooler than MINE!” she says, beaming proudly.

I’m just over here like Damn. Not even 4am and there’s already some bullshit. Why does she think that her hair is some standard of cool for mine to compare against? My hair is the color of Space Dust. Her hair is the color of Brown. And yet her regular twists, that so many black women wear, are super duper extra cool. On Her. The black girl sitting next to me, I kid you not, has Senegalese twists. Why doesn’t Alien say my hair is cooler than the girl’s, as opposed to her own?
Because then it wouldn’t be about her? Because black culture only becomes cool when appropriated by whiteness? Because we both (probably) know that I wasn’t going to acknowledge her “cool” hair otherwise?

Alien is still smiling at me, her eyes getting wider. Oh, I think. She’s waiting for a response from me. I make the corners of my mouth sort of pull away from each other in a low energy smile-grimace, quietly say, “Thank you,” and look down.
After a pause, she leaves. I wonder if I was too unfriendly, then I realize I don’t care. I don’t want her as a friend. My friends know better than to bring that kind of bullshit into my life so early in the day.

What happens when you lose eighteen pounds in a month

It will happen without your noticing. You’ll be going about your life when someone will come up to you and tell you that you look great. You know that emphasis? Grreat! What have you been doing? What happened? And you won’t know what they’re talking about. And then someone else will comment, and ask if you’ve been exercising more, and you won’t think that you have been, not really. And after the third person comments, you’ll go home and get on the scale. The scale that your dad has complained is broken, because “I weighed myself and it told me that I weighed more than I know I weigh.” You’ll get on the scale and look down and see that you’re about twenty pounds lighter than you were a month ago, and you won’t believe it. You’ll go to your sister’s house, and confirm on the scale in her room. Life feels crazy. You’re a little scared. You don’t know how this happened.

And then you go home for dinner, and you’re in the kitchen with your mom and she starts to freak out about something. She is stressed, and scared, and having a bit of a panic attack over a phone call she has to make, or an odd detail she needs to set in order, and you mentally roll your eyes at the overreaction. But you also start to feel a little overwhelmed yourself. No, you feel extremely overwhelmed. You actually feel her anxiety seeping into you, and when you finally calm down, you realize that you are in your room, staring at the circles on your pants. Somehow, you have managed to skip dinner.

Then, you’ll go for a walk, that’s more of a hike, with two friends. As you walk, they keep stopping to admire the surroundings. Pretty trees, patterns, fungi on bark. So many stops, and so much admiration. From them.

The only thing that you see is the leaves. There are leaves everywhere. Everywhere. And they look…sick. They are covered, at first you think with holes, and then you realize it’s more like boils. The leaves have boils. Light yellow-orange leaves covered in brown-black spots, that are bumps, that rise. You are walking on a forest floor that is covered with bumps, and you feel as though you may accidentally step onto one of the bumps and pop it, and have the bumps run onto your skin. You think that soon, your entire body could be covered with these bumps, that will grow until they, too, burst, and then you will be dissolved into nothing. And you become so consumed with the spots on the leaves that you almost don’t realize your friends have stopped again. What are they looking at now?

The ripples in water. If you force yourself to really look, at how the stream makes waves that bounce off of surfaces, taking the shape of the bank they run by, it is beautiful. You tear yourself away from the spots to recognize the beauty, but doing so requires forcing open your mind, and you need to snap it back shut again. Taking in the beauty for too long results in tears, not for what is happening, but for things that have already happened. And if you remain open for too long, you probably won’t be able to close. So you shut yourself up, and wait until you can move on, thinking about car rides and revelations from the week before.

 

The biggest tragedy of this mulatto, métisse mess comes after my mother asks me to drive her to the Lord and Taylor and proceeds to shatter my confidence the whole way over. Bracing her arm against the dashboard as I crawl below the speed limit, whimpering when I roll beneath yellow lights, telling me desperately to go – that way! …NO! THAT way! without motioning in any direction, and then choking on a shriek as I turn left with no cars around at a four-way intersection. This ride, for which she had no business being passenger, is fifteen minutes, and I am exhausted when we get to the building. I do not have the mental energy to make myself look pleasant or appealing. I cannot lightly step in a nonthreatening way as I trudge behind her throughout the store, and I do not want to smile reassuringly at the salesclerks who glance over at me when I reach out to touch the coats. I do not want to be here, and I do not want to be with her.

“You have to drive home,” I tell her, when we get back to the car.

Immediately, her eyes well up with tears. “What do you mean,” she asks. She’s not afraid of driving herself; she’s afraid of what I’ll tell her when I clarify.

“You know why I can’t drive you,” I tell her. “I forgot how bad it is for me when you’re in the passenger seat. You take away all my confidence, and I worry about your stress, and then I take in all of your energy and it makes me too anxious to do anything.”

The thing is, even as my confidence takes blows, I understand that it isn’t completely about me, and is more about her perceived lack of control. I have flashbacks to being in the passenger seat when I was much younger, listening to her screaming and moaning and worrying as she made wrong turns. I remember the day our EZ Pass fell off the windshield, right when we got into the lane. After scrambling to get it from under my seat, and misunderstanding my mom’s frantic directions to put it “that way …NO! THAT way!” I mistakenly held it up backwards, right as we passed under the detectors. That ride home was miserable, and terrifying, not because of what happened on the road, but because of the monsters of worry and fear that my mother released from her brain. Descriptions of enormous bills, lawful action, suits, shame, anxiety and uncertainty gushed out of her mouth like snakes and danced around the car. And when they found there was nowhere else to go, they poured into me and nested in my throat, choking me. She was too consumed to realize her eleven year-old didn’t speak for the next forty minutes.

The only thing worse than driving, for her, is to be a passenger. And the only thing worse than being her passenger, for me, is to drive her. My nerves cannot take it right now. My energy is too low. We’ve spent weeks dancing around rape, and death, and lawsuits for character defamation. My legs are tired; my mind is tired. Too tired to protect her from herself.

And she knows it. So she’s not listening.

“Look,” she tells me. “I can’t help my reactions to things. That’s part of who I am.”

“And I can’t help my reactions to things,” I tell her. “You made that part of who I am. I get it from you.”

“But you should,” she presses. “I want you to drive.”

“Why should I be expected to control how you make me feel,” I argue, “When you won’t control the sounds and motions you make? Or the things you say? Why is this on me?”

And we go back and forth, and back and forth, me believing that if she can’t control her actions and I can’t control my feelings, then we should remove what’s causing the actions. Her wanting to keep the cause and her reactions, but somehow have my feelings change. And it goes like this, nowhere, until,

“I am afraid of my pants.” I’m telling this to you, my audience, now. I was screaming it at her. I was screaming at my mother that I was afraid of my pants, because the patterns of circles repeated and repeated and overtook my mind. Beneath me at home, I could hear her anxiety attacks, and they would grow in my mind until they consumed me, and I was getting lost in the holes. I’d listen to her downstairs and stare at my pants until the holes overtook me, and I could feel them. I could feel my cheeks hollowing out, could see new circular pockets in my face. I was melting away, crumbling into nothingness, becoming a human hive. Trypophobia is real, and for me, it’s anxiety driven.

“And I can’t take it anymore!” We’re no longer screaming, but just crying. Me for what is happening to me. Her for the part she’s playing. Me again, because I’m making my mother feel as though she’s failed, and I wish I were a better daughter. I wish she’d had a different daughter, who never cried. A daughter she understood, who didn’t have undefined psychological issues and different reactions to the world. Her because I’m still crying. Me because she’s still crying. Her because, me because, her because –

“Stop crying.” Out loud. To myself, to both of us. I stop. The tears shrink back into my eyes, I take two deep breaths, and push everything else down. Easy. Simple. We are practiced at this.

No. I am practiced at this. She is still crying. She is still crying. Why is she still crying?

“No.” Out loud. To her. Confused. “We need to stop crying now. The time is over.”

She isn’t listening. Her tears are continuing. If anything, she’s crying harder now.

“Don’t you understand?” Still out loud. More confused. “You can’t do this right now.”

In my head: it’s making everything worse. I stopped crying for you, and you continue to cry because of me. But if I think about that too much right now, if I start to cry again, it will just prolong her suffering.

“I can’t just stop, Khalilah.” Out loud. Her. To me. Still crying. “When I have to cry, I have to cry. You don’t just suppress your emotions.”

“Yes, you do.” Out loud. Me. To her. “You do!” More emotional, almost angry. “Why don’t you know how to do that? How is it that in sixty years of life, you have never had to teach yourself what I have internalized before twenty-one? How have you been able to get by without hiding your emotions or dulling your sensations? Why isn’t this a skill for you?”

And then, in my head, realization: that’s not a skill she needs.

I look over at my anxious, hysterical, crying mother. At the moment, she doesn’t feel privileged. She feels miserable. She wears her misery, on her face. She wears her anxiety on her shoulders, her stress bouncing off of her stomach. She looks at me. She sees nothing. Everything I have is hidden. My misery is behind my eyes, my anxiety is curled in my chest; my stress tightening the veins in my wrists. Even my anger, should it truly emerge, would be absorbed into smiles. She looks at the thing that should be her daughter but is too detached and so cold. And a couple minutes later, when her tears have slowed, she drives home. I watch her on the way back, see her flightiness and overreactions. I look into the mirror of the disorders I will inherit but never be allowed to openly own.

The tragedy of being a mulatto right now is recognizing the horrible ways in which I am becoming my mother. It is knowing that one day I will be all of her but what protects her. Too white for the black kids; too black for the white, this is the identity nonsense that any other day might be bothering me but now seems inconsequential in the face of my future mental health.
And this is what I’m left with. No jubilation, no sense of amazement or great appreciation of any of the incredible things to be discovered in nature. I have nothing but terror for the leaves that sport their great bumps, the leaves that swirl and surround us, that crunch underfoot. And even this terror I cannot have, as I would like to have it. Rather, it holds me, in silence. I will not ruin the magical walk for my companions. I will break down silently, hold it together outwardly, and not eat when I go home. And maybe if this time I say, “walking,” when people ask me how I’ve lost weight, it will be a more acceptable answer.

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.”

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.

One Week Down

To all the people out there complaining about Black History Month, saying that “if we had something called White History Month, you’d say it was racist!” you’re probably right.

If there was a month that was nationally recognized as White History Month, people probably would say that it was racist. That’s why for the other 11 months out of the year, when all we’re really doing is learning White History, it isn’t called anything other than History. If people labeled the general history that we’re taught in school for what it really is, there would be so many complaints of racism that we’d be forced to change our textbooks to more accurately reflect the diverse range of cultures, histories, and viewpoints of which the world is comprised (and I just want to know: what would you put on the White History Month curriculum that you aren’t already learning? Have you thought about this, or is this just another case of feeling left out, because minorities are forced to blatantly state when they’re doing something in their own interest, and you’re stuck with having to force yourselves to realize when things are being done to privilege you?).

Last week, SNL had a skit/song about Black History Month. You’ve probably seen it. If not, here it is:

“They really don’t teach this stuff in school; it’s a mystery.”
The skit was funny, but also a bit worrisome. It seemed directed solely toward white people, and not even in an informative way. The only two reasons that you should respect black people are that they deserve a chance, and slavery? Ummm no. **

I understand that it was a skit, on SNL, and it was meant to be funny, but I wish it didn’t have to reinforce the idea so many people seem to hold: that February is only about reminding white people that slavery happened and that they should feel guilty. Feeling begrudgingly guilty for 28 days a year does nothing to help the still-oppressed descendants of slaves, especially when the begrudgement gives way to orders to “get over slavery” and “stop playing the race card”. The idea that race is a card that black people keep up their sleeves to “play” white people is ridiculous. It’s not a trick! It’s an actual thing!

Black History Month should be recognized as more than reminding people of slavery and asking for an equal chance. It should be about reminding people where they’ve come from, and showing people examples of stronger ancestors, besides Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks and the watered-down version of MLK Jr. we’re given. Can we read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass(to show a black man who stood up to a white man and lived to become stronger)? Letter from a Birmingham Jail (for another side of Martin)? The Willie Lynch Letter (to shed light on some of the origins of lightskin v. darkskin and black hatred)? Amiri Baraka, for the rebel in each of us, “Dutchman” to show societal traps? Heck, let’s even throw in “Americanah”, because my girl Chimamanda was onto some racial shit. Really any black person who’s doing things, like the youngest person to pass the UK Bar exam, or the girl who won a scholarship without twerking. (Speaking of which, we should also try to stop associating twerking with ignorance, because it actually comes from a rather vibrous, religious culture that the West completely misinterpreted.)

And then, after being inspired, let’s point out the ways in which slavery has manifested itself today. Let’s talk about private prisons, and disenfranchisement, the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, white privilege, Stop and Frisk (which thankfully has been stopped, but never should have been considered justified in the first place)…

February is such a watered down month in school, and it never sends the right message. Either we come away from those 28 days thinking that things used to be bad but now are nothing to complain about, or thinking that even if we should be complaining, we don’t have any true models of resistance. There are no uprisings. No radicalism. And there can’t really be radicalism, if you can get shot for walking home at night in a hood, and your shooter can go on to star in a “celebrity” boxing match. (PLEASE, no one watch that).

At least, that’s the way we’ve learned things to be. That should change.

**By the way, I also do NOT like the fact that the one black woman in that video really had no significance other than being supportive. The white female teacher got to speak, as did the white male student. The two black men got to rap and be funny. All she got to do was look cute, dance, sing “twenty-eight reasons” over and over again, and hold a saxophone. Racism and patriarchy are most definitely entwined, with women of color on the extremely losing end of the spectrum.

To My “Color-Blind” White Friends who Want to Use the N-Word

Hey guys,

I’d like to start off by making perfectly clear that I am NOT (repeat, not) calling you racist. If you were to use the word against someone, then yeah, that’d be racist. What you’re doing, trying to use it in order to seem cool and “with it” is not racist in my book. Stupid? Sure. Ignorant? Oh, absolutely. But not racist. So now that I’ve cleared that up, could you all maybe stop yelling that I’m racist/being a reverse racist/being a hypocritic racist for asking you not to use a word whose implications you obviously don’t understand, and for pointing out that you have white privilege? Cool.

I’d also like to take a second to point out that all of you yelling at me, asking me questions and then shouting over my answers, insinuating that I’m making everything up, accusing me of trying to make you feel guilty, and then claiming that I’m being oversensitive is a little too ironic for my liking. Even more so when you consider that I have not once raised my voice and have only spoken calmly. I’m well aware of the fact that the second I actually go off on the lot of you I’ll be the angry black person, or the irrational woman of color, and any hope I have of getting you to actually listen to me will be lost. You, on the other hand can default into the rational category regardless of what you’re doing, so long as you have each other for support. Of course what you’re doing isn’t overreacting! After all, I got upset at one word: “nigga”, and asked you not to use it again. You got upset at two words: “white privilege”, and started to shout.

Why is it that a word blatantly used to perpetuate racism is seen as more socially acceptable than the words referring to a racist system? Is it because the word “nigga” can never be used against you, but the privilege you have works for you, and calling you out for having it requires you to deal with some type of responsibility?

“Stop trying to make us feel guilty! I’m not privileged! I have never benefited from my race.” Here’s the beautiful thing about privilege: most people don’t see it unless they don’t have it. This means that if you grow up with consistent treatment, doing consistent activities, everything about your life will be normal to you and it won’t occur to you to think about why the consistencies keep happening. “That’s just the way things are” = Coward’s way out. Why are things that way?
I’m not going to make a list of things your privilege grants you, because no one has time for that, and enough white people have already started that job for you. If you want, read this article, written by a white woman, as well as this one.

“Yeah, well black people have power, too. The president is black!” Listen. Listenlistenlisten.
A black president is in no way indicative of a post-race society. In fact, that we see him as a black president indicates how racially charged our society still is. He has a qualifier in front of his title! None of the other presidents were known as white presidents, because they didn’t have to be. They were normal. But our president is black, which is abnormal, so of course we must bring attention to that, and not be surprised when major news networks accidentally refer to him as Mr. Obama instead of his actual title. By the way, Obama is not even completely black. We see him as black because America apparently still operates under the one-drop mindset (definitely not post-race), and it’s good to have a black role model in what is arguably a position of power. Still, how exactly are POC benefiting more than white people from Obama’s presidency?
Oh, and if you really think that having a black man in office justifies your use of the n-word, you need to overhaul your thinking processes. You wanna say “nigga”? Why don’t you call Obama and ask him if that’s okay?

“But they say it in hip hop, so it is okay.” That is not how things work. You were upset enough when I tried to explain private prisons and couldn’t “condense” enough for you, so I’ll leave it at this. As my sociology class showed me (heyy Robyn Autry!), things that are produced with the purpose of being authentic just, aren’t. And while I (almost) appreciate your playing me the song “Sucka Nigga” by A Tribe Called Quest, you need to understand: it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. Have you actually listened to the lyrics? Or do you just like the song because when you sing along, you get to say “nigga” over fifty times? It’s about a black man who understands why many black people don’t like the use of the word while many others have adopted it, partially as a term of endearment within the black community. Rap Genius actually refers to this as “flipping the word on its racist roots”. However, this is what black people are doing. White people are mentioned in the song using the word in one context. Please re-listen.

“Well, it’s just slang. It’s not fair if everybody else gets to say it and we can’t. Why shouldn’t I get to say it, just because some people are sensitive about it?” First of all, what?
Now moving on: are you really so important and special (and sensitive) that you can’t let people of color — and in this case, specifically black people — have just one thing to themselves? This is white girls getting offended by #blackgirlsrock all over again, except maybe worse.

Black people reclaimed the n-word, as your song points out, to change its meaning. At some point and in some places, the motivating idea of empowerment behind the reclamation got lost in translation. It’s here, I believe, that white people began to see the word as something cool to say again. Non-black privilege (because other POC do this, too) allows you to disconnect the hateful and somewhat recently hopeful pasts connected with “nigga/er”, and see it as something that has no meaning.
Or maybe it’s just more cultural appropriation (oh, I’m sorry, I meant your stylistic choices). You wanna twerk? You wanna wear dashikis, and Native American headdresses, and force slang words that should be said simply, naturally, smoothly, out of your mouth in chipped bursts like they’re on display? There’s doing something to do it, and there’s doing something simply because. There’s doing something because you don’t want to be left out, and doing something because you understand. Simple cultural appropriation is annoying at best. You’re in “unacceptable” territory.

(As a side note, I want to emphasize that I don’t only have a problem with white people using this word. I actually wish that no one used it at all, including black people, because I think there’s been a disconnect within the black community as to why the word was re-appropriated in the first place. Still, I can accept that I’ll have to deal with that. When it comes to non-black POC, however, what are you doing? I know that there are other derogatory names for your races, so why don’t you go re-appropriate those and use them amongst yourselves? If that idea offends you or seems ridiculous, is it a stretch to suggest that some reflection is in order?)

I think now would be a good time to reiterate that I don’t think you’re bad people. Having privilege doesn’t make you bad. I have privilege as a light-skinned person. I know you don’t believe that colorism is a thing, or that people bleach their skin/use skin lighteners in many parts of the world, but it is, and they do. Abusing your privilege, or being deliberately ignorant of it, is what makes you guilty.

Sorry if I’m annoying you. I know it makes our friendship awkward. Honestly though, using what is arguably one of America’s worst racial slurs, especially coming from your lips, and then not expecting to talk about race? That’s white privilege. It bothers you to hear about an oppression that you could indirectly (or directly) be contributing to? Try actually being oppressed by it.

If you really believe the word is so meaningless, I’d suggest not fighting so hard for the right (which you DON’T have) to say it.