Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why All White Folk Should Visit Africa

Years ago, I traveled alone in Africa. I spent a few days in Nairobi, a city where my white face stuck out like a sore thumb. Everywhere I went, I felt the eyes upon me. For someone accustomed to being part of the majority, this was strange. I didn't feel like a person, I felt like a "thing." Everyone seemed to think I was wealthy (and by their standards, honestly, I was). Everyone wanted to do something for me. Drive me to some lame tourist attraction. Take me to the nightclubs. Show this white boy an exotic African experience. I felt everyone looking at me with a combination of dollar signs and mild disdain. I was a white face, an imperialist, a rich meddler in their country. I was there to take what I could take from Nairobi, and then move on. It didn't really bother me, though. I understood why.

I crossed the border into Tanzania. On the way to the passport office, I was besieged by poor tribal women. They all looked like they were 100 years old. Quickly, they were tugging at my clothes, grabbing on to me, desperately trying to sell me their trinkets for a few coins. I had to fight them off. I was tired. I was weak. I felt terrible.

Poor tribal women: I am sorry I didn't help you that day. I hope you have found peace.

Safely inside the passport office, every face I saw was black. They all wore serious expressions, and official-looking uniforms. If they wanted to make my life difficult, they certainly could have. The passport stamper looked blankly at my face. We were about the same age. I was white. I was American. I was rich. He wasn't, and he never would be. But in this instance, he had the power, not me.

I was no longer David Grizzard. I was Whiteface McWhiteface. Rich. Privileged. Far from my own people.

"This is how a black man in America feels," I realized. No matter what you achieve, they'll still look at you with those eyes. Why even bother to try?

To all the white folk, who pontificate about how "the blacks" should behave themselves: have you ever spent time in a country where you were part of an ethnic minority? Perhaps you should. It's quite revealing.

It was the most wonderful experience of my life. But in the end, I came home and became part of the majority again.

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