Time for Reflection: Race and Ethnicity

After ten months, 300 days, and thousands of moments and experiences, I am no longer a Fulbright Student. Although I extended my stay in Uganda for two more months, my grant period officially ended on May 30th. So a few weeks ago, I finally got around to filling out the Fulbright Final Report.

Explain in 1,000 characters or less what you’ll take away from the Fulbright experience.

This was one of the questions I had to answer.

But how do you distill a year’s worth of experiences abroad? How do you sift through the memories—the good and the bad, the moments of victory and annoyance? How do you remember the hundreds of people who made an impact on your life—many of whom you can never repay?

In 1,000 characters, it is impossible. It will take me years to reflect on my time in Uganda and to realize the full effect it’s had on me. Memories, emotions, and changed perspectives will slowly seep through me for the rest of my life.

In the short term, however, I will do my best to distill some of these experiences and changed perspectives in a short blog series. So here we go—tugende.

A natural starting point seems to be something that I never considered much at home: my skin color. From the moment I stepped off the plane at Entebbe, I looked different from most people around me. Well, not that different at first, but once the missionaries left the airport, there I was. A lone mzungu, as we’re called in East Africa.

I’ve asked two Swahili experts about the origins of mzungu and I’ve heard two different things. It either means white person or aimless wanderer who likes to look at things and take pictures. Both definitions seem appropriate for the European explorers and missionaries who first came here at the end of the nineteenth century.

At home, in Texas and Kentucky, I am extremely privileged to be in the racial majority. During high school and college, I attended countless diversity workshops and even took a class called Race and Ethnicity, so I thought that I knew a lot about “privilege” before I moved to Africa.

Looking back, however, I only knew the intellectual concept of privilege—not the feeling it invokes. Privilege is largely invisible to those who have it. Growing up in American suburbs, I never had to think about race. I had friends who were different, but I looked like most of my classmates.

In East Africa, I’m in the minority. As the lone mzungu reporter at the Daily Monitor, I do feel a bit conspicuous. This feeling is amplified by the fact that I’m the least qualified journalist in the building. I don’t speak the local language, I know hardly anything about local politics, and I don’t have any connections to feed me “scoops.” When the editors ask me what stories I know about, my usual reply is silence.

Like the odd-man-out in middle school, I typically dread lunch time. One of the perks of being a Monitor intern is that I get to eat for free and the local food at the newspaper’s cafeteria is the best I’ve had. After I grab my plate of matoke, rice, and potatoes covered with beans or gnut sauce, I look around the eatery for tables of people I know. Sometimes I guess that a group of journalists work in editorial, so I’ll sit with them. Sometimes I’ll guess correctly and they’ll talk to me about Ugandan politics. But sometimes I’m wrong and the people I’m sitting with work in the printing presses, in human resources, or in some other department.

Oftentimes my tablemates will chat with one another in Luganda. I can pick up a few words but have no idea what they’re talking about. When the conversation touches on football or politics, I can typically offer a phrase or two, but I’m largely incapable of engaging in genuine conversation.

Even when my tablemates talk in English, I still feel woefully uninformed. So that’s why I generally eat quickly and retreat upstairs to the business desk, where I return to the comfort of my laptop.

Even though I now know what it feels like to be the odd-man-out, I still retain a huge amount of privilege as a mzungu abroad. To land an internship at the Daily Monitor, I leveraged my connections as a Fulbrighter and future Harvard Law student. Both of those titles invoke a tremendous amount of wealth and privilege.

And as annoying as it is to have children shouting “mzungu, mzungu!” at you in the streets, that too is a form of privilege. People in East Africa equate whiteness to wealth, no matter how untrue that may be. When they see a Land Cruiser driving through their village, people have come to expect money and assistance.

Even this morning, when I was walking from my house to Jakob’s Lounge, two kids called out to me. “Mzungu, mzungu!” they said.

“Ogamba chi?” I replied. What’s up? (not sure of the spelling).

Instead of answering me, they held out their hands. “Give us money!” they said in English.

I laughed, shook my head, and replied honestly, “I have no money!”

I have tried to explain to countless Ugandans that not all Americans are rich. I cite statistics I learned in my Poverty and Homelessness class in college: that there might be up to 3 million Americans who are homeless, 15% of children go to bed hungry every night, and 2.8 million children live on less than $2 a day—little more than the poverty line in Uganda.

Most people here can’t fathom these statistics or picture people sleeping under a bridge in an American city. To them, “America” is still the promised land, where everyone has a dog, a Lexus, and a nice big house in Beverly Hills.

Granted, our government does a lot more for poor people than Uganda’s, but people struggle everywhere—and a lot of that struggling has to do with race. Just as European countries have never rectified the damage they did to Africa, we as Americans have never undone the suffering we inflicted on blacks, Native Americans, and other racial groups.

A black, latino, or Native American family is more than twice as likely as a white family to live below the poverty line. I have no idea how we can eventually achieve racial equality in the United States, but refusing to ignore the problem might be a good start.

Many Americans are quick to criticize tribal conflict in Africa and we have invested millions of dollars in judicial processes searching for accountability for the Rwandan genocide. While we acknowledge that our ancestors committed atrocities within our own borders, we simultaneously pretend that it was too long ago to matter.

But for the people of East Africa who have lived here for more than 3 million years, two centuries doesn’t seem like such a long time. That means the grandparents of our grandmother’s grandparents lived through the “American genocide” and we’re still feeling the effects today.

In my next few blog posts, I’ll talk about other types of privilege that are inevitably intertwined with my mzungu-ness. In almost every corner of the world, wealth opens doors and because whiteness is associated with wealth, people sometimes interpret it as the same thing.

I must confess that I am guilty of using whiteness to my advantage while traveling abroad. In China, skin color works the same way. When I was exploring Shanghai or other Chinese cities, I would often walk into a four or five-star hotel to use the bathroom instead of using the disgusting public bathroom on the streets.

Would the security guard let a Chinese university student walk into the Hilton and use the toilet in the lobby? Probably not. But did they ever stop me and ask if I was a guest at their hotel? Not even once.

Similarly, I have joked with friends in Kampala how easy it would be to be a mzungu thief. You can walk into any nice hotel or restaurant and security guards hardly search you. Even if you walked out with a plasma T.V., you could probably just smile and confidently assert, “This is mine.”

Perhaps any form of racial profiling is inevitable when it comes to security, but the amount that mzungus in Kampala get away with sometimes makes me feel like Uganda is still being colonized.

So to the kids on the street in Kabalagala, perhaps I should have said: “You don’t need to ask white people for money anymore. Just ask your politicians; they’re richer than all of us!”



Filed under Travel

4 responses to “Time for Reflection: Race and Ethnicity

  1. Michael Fryar

    When I was running in Guatemala City last summer, I would regularly use the bathroom in the lobby of the 4.5 star Westin Camino Real, one of the nicest hotels in the city. I too asked myself if they would have allowed a sweaty “chapín” (Guatemalan) wearing just dirty shorts and a t-shirt to do the same. Your point about the invisibility of privilege is the reason why reflections like this are so important.

  2. Gregory Chery

    This was an awesome article Brian. I mostly appreciated your honesty because many people still believe that everyone has a place at the table. Poverty is indeed a universal thing but it feels 10x worse abroad. Thank you for shining light on these issues. It sounds like you really learned a lot in Uganda. Please continue to share your stories.


  3. Reblogged this on A Thought For Each Hill and commented:
    Brian’s comments about the finish of his grant in Uganda echo my own, but are said much more eloquently than I can pen for the moment.

  4. your honesty is vivid and living. perhaps regardless of the ‘swallowed opportunities’ as Mzungu thanks for yet not sky rocketing it.
    with such life you have more prosperous time in Uganda………………….enlighten more on this global virus, ( …3 million Americans who are homeless, 15% of children go to bed hungry every night, and 2.8 million children live on less than $2 a day………..)

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