My Story – Being A Part Of The Minority

I just want to share my story, that is my experience as a white American living as a minority in Tanzania. Not for one second am I equating my short and volitional stint as a minority to a lifetime of oppression. I do wish that everyone could experience some of what we have been able to walk through in the last three years. Every time there has been a shooting of an African American by the police, I have started a blog trying to express my feelings about the situation. Most of these discarded blogs have been anger filled rants that have ended up in the trash bin. Some of them have been sorrowful laments over the effects of racism in America on the whole wide world (the effects of racism in America on the international worker could definitely be a blog on its own). Unfortunately, with so many shootings I have had too many opportunities to practice my craft. I know that this is a volatile subject. I really am not giving or wanting to discuss opinions on the topic. What I want to do is share with you how my life has been changed by the chance to NOT be a member of the majority. I want to share my story in hopes that it might help others to see the conflict more clearly.

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Last Sunday Matt and I took the girls to a restaurant that has a playground. Sundays are a busy day here and the playground was packed with kids. My girls were so excited because they love to play with other kids their age. They raced for the playground as soon as the car was in park. Matt and I were happy too because this meant we could have a long period of uninterrupted conversation as the girls played. As we were enjoying our time, I looked out at the playground to locate the girls. The area was filled with 10-15 kids, all running and laughing, playing a loud game of tag. My girls were very easy to spot, because they were the only blonde heads in a sea of black. I joked with Matt that I would have a difficult time watching our girls on a playground in the States because they would be so much harder to spot. However, this comment got me thinking about the fact that to Camille and Tabitha, this arrangement is completely normal. They are used to being the minority. In fact, if you asked them, neither of them would truly remember a time when they were not surrounded by brown faces. Skin color is not the only divider here. There are also many language and religious barriers that I cannot even begin to imagine navigating as a 6 and 8 year old. However, we could all be the same religion, all speak the same language, and even with those similarities, skin color makes us different. For my girls, it makes them the minority.

I would love for you to think that this is an easy and peaceful setting for them all the time. But the truth is that we experience quite a bit of struggle for our obvious differences, and that struggle is what I want to convey. On the playground that day, the girls had great fun, but they also got called “mzungu” (the word for white person). Camille does not mind being called mzungu, but Tabitha hates the word. She will often come back to be with Matt and I if the kids are calling her that name. They also had their hair touched and pulled because it was different. They were stared at by children and adults alike. They were not treated badly, they were just treated different. Their day was not ruined, it was just made harder because of something they have no power over and cannot change. I think the actual experience of being “the other” is what people are missing when they argue about white privilege and institutional racism. For most people in the majority you never get to really experience what it is like to be the minority for an extended period of time with no avenue of escape. You cannot know your privilege until you lose it. What makes that experience even more potent is when it is your children being mistreated. Because a mama can take all sorts of difficulty, but leave my children alone. However, no child is left out of this. Even at such a young age, my girls know they are treated differently and subconsciously they are putting up walls to guard their emotions against this uncomfortable treatment.

So on Sunday I watched my girls laugh and play and make new friends and navigate small differences. I thought about our upcoming visit to the states (summer 2017, in case you are interested) and I wondered what it will be like for them to experience being a part of the majority. What will they think when there are only one or two brown faces? Let’s be real, we are going to central Texas and South Dakota, to a sea of people that will look like them. What I hope is that it escapes their notice. I hope they see kids to play with and play with abandon. What I expect is that they will notice, even in a small way, because it is almost impossible to not realize the difference when you are outsider and when you are the majority. Do you have to protect yourself, or will the group do it for you? This sort of decision is not usually intentional, but it is insidious and it is ingrained at a very young age by your emotional response to being either the majority in power or the minority with significantly less power.

I want to shift away from my girls and talk about my own experience. There are thousands of stories I could tell you about being the minority, about being ‘the other’. I promise I am not complaining as I share my story. I love our life here and would not exchange these struggles and the lessons we have learned for anything. I have decided to focus on two of the experiences that happen on almost a daily basis. The first is price discrimination, and the second is profiling by the police. Imagine, if you will, that every time you want to buy something the price is not set and you have to argue to save money. Now imagine that it is common knowledge among all people that if you are white you are going to be charged double (or even triple!) for every single item that you buy. It is called “wazungu price”, and it is the practice of most vendors in Tanzania. People laugh and ask you how much you paid for this or that, and then whisper to themselves about what they would have paid for that item. This process has never gotten easier, and if you are having a tough day, it is quite overwhelming. When you want to buy fruits or vegetables or socks or shoes and you know you are being charged too much, your only options are to pay the higher price or stand there and argue with a person who has nothing to lose and an infinite amount of time on their hands. It is enough to make you want to rip your shiny blonde hair right out of your lily white scalp!

The other example that I want to share with you is dealing with the police. Hear me carefully, knowing that you are going to be pulled over and harassed because of the color of your skin SUCKS!!!! What word can I use to convey how awful this is? Knowing that I am going to be pulled over every time I see a police, because they can SEE that I am WHITE is the WORST. I HATE IT. You would hate it too. If you were the minority and you got pulled over because the police can see that you are the minority, you would hate it. Here is the thing, I am normally doing everything right. I am respectful to the police, I follow the rules, my car is in good shape, I drive better here than I EVER did in the States, and I still get fined all the time. I get fined because the cop wants to fine me, and he is going to make up something to fine me for. He knows that he has complete power over me. Do you hear that? When you are the minority and the population at large treats you “less than” and like “the other”, you are POWERLESS! If you protest there is no group that is going to get behind you in outrage. You just have to swallow your pride and take it again and again. It never gets easier and there is no justice because the very system is against you. It is not on the individual. Some police are very nice, some are jerks, but the system is weighted against me. They know it and take advantage and I know it and submit.

My girls know the drill when we are stopped by police. We coach them on what to say when spoken to and how to act when we are pulled over. We do not want to scare them, but they need to know how to act because the situation can get tense. There have been times when I have sat in my car and prayed with my girls as my husband stood outside arguing with a group of police about an unjust charge. Our prayers have been, “please let daddy be safe, please let the police be kind, please let daddy have wisdom, please keep us safe.” Only a few times have I been worried about physical harm for Matt or myself. Often I have been worried that they would increase our fine or throw us into jail if we argue too much or too strongly with them. And they could do both of those things because they have the power and we have no recourse. Do you know what it feels like to have no recourse? Do you know what it feels like to realize that the system is against you, and all you can hope is to fly under the radar? Do you know how hard it is to fly under the radar when your skin is a beacon?

Now you may wonder if I think badly about the fruit vender or the police man, but I do not (okay, I try not to). What I realize is that for the majority of the people I interact with on a daily basis it really does not have anything to do with my whiteness. The struggle has everything to do with the power dynamic that my skin color represents. The vendor and the police both know that I am at their mercy and they can treat me however they want because there is nothing I can do to shift the power my way. I do not think they are evil people for taking advantage of their position. I just think they are human and we all like to be the one on top. Those in power want to stay in power and they will use whatever means to assert their dominance. It could be subtle, like demeaning comments, or it could be blatant, like police brutality. No one wants to feel powerless because it is scary and frustrating.

I am sure, if you are the person who thinks this is a non-issue that you would say that these sort of things do not happen in the United States of America. Because obviously all the prices are set, and every store is accessible (in theory) to every person. Or maybe, deep down, you really believe that if people of color would just do what the police say, nothing would bad would happen to them. You believe in civil rights, but you also know that you never owned a slave. Maybe, in your heart you wonder why the black community cannot just get over it. But you cannot get over it when it is still effecting your every day life in a way that is difficult for the majority to truly understand. From my limited experience I can say that it is the feeling of probable mistreatment that wears you down. How I wish I could put the feeling into words. It feels bad to be treated differently every day. Period. It feels bad and it makes you not want to interact in an environment that makes you feel like a substandard person. It feels bad to go out and be “the other” every day. Even if nothing happens, you still are ready and tense for something to happen. That tension wears on your soul. When I go out to do simple things, like buy groceries, I know that the experience will be different for me than for my Tanzanian neighbor, and sometimes that makes me want to stay inside. I do not want to fight over prices, I do not want to be called “mzungu”, and I definitely do not want to deal with the police.

Do you want to know what makes my story different? I CHOSE this life, and I could leave. I have a place to go where I would instantly be the majority, the group in power, and all of these struggles of being “the other” would fade into memory. People of color living in America did NOT choose the country of their birth. They cannot go back to their so-called home country, because America is their home country. Institutional racism does exist and it is a problem that has to be dealt with on the very cellular level. How do you reconcile that? How do WE reconcile this? There are so many people that are smarter and more well-versed in this problem that could answer this question. Here is where I struggle. The only reason I am writing this blog is because I think that my experience of being the minority might help someone to understand the situation more clearly. I wanted to tell you my story, because not everyone will have the opportunity to live a few years as the minority. My experience of going from the being one of the majority in power to one of the minority, without recourse, for an extended period of time has changed the way I see the world. I am changed and if I lived again in the States I would live my life differently because of what I now know.

So what would I do, if I did move back, after walking through these last three years of being a minority? I would begin by praying that God would fill my life with true friendships with those that are the minority. I know that God desires for all of us to cry out for these friendships. Not because we want to marginalize, but because relationship and peacemaking builds understanding. I would also take my white privileged self and I would spend some time where I was the minority. Not just a field trip, I would integrate myself into a place where I would have the opportunity to work through my discomfort of being the outsider. Let me tell you, three years has not been enough, so be prepared for a long road. I would pray every day that God would reveal in me the hidden places where I do not fully love those made in His image. I would ask Him to burn those places out of me until I could love with a pure heart. Finally, I would beg for God to raise me up as a peacemaker in my community. That is a risky prayer, because right now God is on the hunt for His children who are willing to rise up and be a blessing to HIM as His peacemakers. This is not a role for the weak-hearted. Peacemaking is an active, vital, aggressive determination to sow rightness. If we are His sons and daughters, then we are called to peacemaking. Let us rise up.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons and daughters of God. – Matthew 5:1

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering and without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. – James 3:17-18

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4 Comments

  1. Mom/sherry 10/12/2016 at 12:34 pm #

    Thank you for wise words. Thank you for being a fighter. Thank you for being an example. May you continue to go out as sheep among wolves and may you be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. I love you

  2. Diana Smetana 10/12/2016 at 10:38 pm #

    Thanks so much, Kelly! This is so helpful to understand what is it like to be the minority. I am so thankful for you and Matt and the work that you are accepting from our Lord to do. I am truly trying to love and understand the minority in our area. Much love to you. Diana

  3. Joy Erdman 10/13/2016 at 10:42 pm #

    Thank you for that challenge. I know I don’t do enough. You have really challenged me! Well written. Great insight. Wisdom. And great love!

  4. Audrey Ihnen 10/14/2016 at 5:10 pm #

    Thoughts of wisdom and grace , Kelly! We really do not know the feeling, God knows hearts and motives.
    Thanks for your willingness to share and challenge us!