Saturday, February 26, 2011

Being white is inconvenient

Being white is inconvenient.  Not always, but often enough.  In Africa, sometimes I'm treated differently than my black associates and friends.  Because I'm white, it turns out; just that and nothing more.  OK, that's really awkward.

Walking along the beach with a friend from the Embassy staff, I heard myself say that sometimes I wished I was black.  My friend laughed uproariously and when he could breathe again, said sometimes he wished he was white.  At issue though isn't any sympathy or compassion on my part; it's just that I get treated differently by some folks, maybe because they aren't familiar with being themselves around a white guy, perhaps?  Or leftover deference from earlier days maybe?

When I arrive in a neighborhood to visit with friends, I'm spotted all too quickly as the outsider.  While I love the folks I meet, I'd rather be a friend than a curiosity.  With their families, I'd rather be a thoughtful neighbor than just a resource.  I have to work really hard to understand their lives and culture and circumstance; being white is often an obstacle in the process.

In our work here in Africa, it doesn't appear very often anymore; not like the earlier days.  You can imagine how difficult it would be to get work done while someone is overly sensitive to race or class, especially in a problem-solving encounter.  I much prefer the head-on confrontational encounters where everyone speaks, hears, and works hard for a good solution.  :)  That's been the norm among the Africans with whom I work (photo; I love these guys), but perhaps only after we're over the novelty of having a white guy around.  Neither I nor my African associates mind volatile confrontation (non-violent, of course) as long as it means progress and clarity.

Standing out or fitting in, places you can go and not be conspicuous, straight answers instead of what someone thinks you want to hear.  EQ questions for all of us all of the time, actually.  It's just more obvious in some circumstances.  Now I understand; I don't want to be a color (although blue would be cool).  Africa teaches.  Are we learning?  Have you wondered what remnants of such upside-down thinking remain in our own culture and habits here at home?  Unwarranted deference to the wealthy, undeserved attention to the attractive, inordinate elevation of those more nicely dressed?  (The poor and plain are the nicest, by the way, and so often too, they're the wisest and most gracious; and it seems that they do more, know more, and give the most with the most nearly perfect heart.  So, dear Lord, what are we missing?)