The Porcelain Problem – White Privilege in a Black Society

Racist assumptions come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they show up in subtle ways, and sometimes they show up wearing a white hood. Most often, they are couched in attitudes and platitudes that let the racists off the hook, while attempting to validate the bigotry bubbling beneath the surface.

Growing up in the Southeast U.S., I’ve seen racism in all its forms – the crude jokes, the animosity, the sideways glances. Having two adopted daughters whose skin is quite a bit darker than mine, I’ve been on the receiving end of uncomfortable stares and suspicious questions. 

I’ve also experienced my fair share of white privilege – what some might call the “upside” of racism, at least for us pale-skinned humans. White privilege is, in short, all the advantages offered to me, I guess to make up for the melanin I lack. White privilege is the skewing of culture and its systems toward people like me. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to work hard to have a good life, it just means I got a head start and that I don’t have as many doors shut in my face along the way.

Yes racism, along with its smiling cousin, white privilege, are alive and well in the U.S.A. What blows my mind, though, is the white privilege I see in Africa, a continent where I am, by far, in the minority.

You see, just over a month ago, my family made the move of a lifetime. We left suburban Houston and settled in Nakuru, Kenya – the fastest-growing city in East Africa. And coming here, we knew that expat life was very different from typical Kenyan life. There is an enormous economic divide between even the poorest international families and the average Kenyan.

What I never knew, however, is just how pervasive white privilege is in this country. Sure, I’ve been traveling to Kenya for several years, and I’ve experienced the peculiar “mzungu treatment,” where every white person, or “mzungu,” is assumed to be wealthy and powerful. But until we moved here, I hadn’t experienced white privilege in its rawest form. Then one day, my little girl needed to pee.

You know how kids are. They can drink five gallons of water without stopping to go potty, then in the one moment where it’s least convenient, they suddenly have an emergency. This time, it was at a wedding.

The wedding was being held outdoors on the property of a guest house in town. The venue was beautiful and the weather divine. Everything had been well-planned. The one question no one seemed to know the answer to, however, was, “Where is the restroom? The loo? The WC?”

Finally, my wife, Melody, got directions from some kind soul and took my little girl potty without incident. Not a big deal. Nothing “white privilege-y” about it…until the next little kid needed to go potty.

This little one happened to be a Kenyan boy, and his caregiver happened to be a Kenyan woman – a woman and little boy who were clean and well-dressed, attending the same wedding as my mzungu family. When the woman asked where the restroom was, Melody happily pointed her in the right direction. A while later, she returned with the little boy.

“They wouldn’t let me use those restrooms,” she said. “I have to go to the ‘squatters’ down the hill.” My wife offered a puzzled look as the woman explained, “I guess it’s because you’re white.”

That’s right. My white wife and hispanic daughter got to use the nice porcelain toilet, while the black woman and young boy were sent down the hill to the hole in the ground. And the decision on who could use the toilet and who couldn’t was made, not by a white person, but by a Kenyan – a person discriminating against her own people and offering preferential treatment to the mzungu.

This kind of thing, I’ve discovered, is not uncommon. Kenyans arriving at the airport are often forced to wait until white visitors are served by immigration officials. At the local shopping center, security officers search Kenyan-owned cars much more thoroughly than they do mine. And when speaking of the President of the United States, one Kenyan asked me, “Don’t you think the whites do a better job as President than the black one, Obama?”

Here in Kenya, white privilege isn’t an undercurrent, it’s a tidal wave. Racism (or, if you prefer, reverse racism) is found in the heartbeat of this culture. In some ways, it’s like America of 60 years ago, but really, it’s more like America now, minus the blinders.

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about white privilege in the media. I’ve watched as talking heads – primarily wealthy white males – have insisted that there’s no such thing as white privilege. This, of course, is an easy position to hold when you’ve never had to battle against the constant current of racism. 

My black friends tell a different story. Regardless of political affiliation, religious beliefs, or socio-economic status, every black person I know can personally tell of a time they were unfairly discriminated against. They get followed in stores, stared at in nice neighborhoods, and if they happen to be a world-class surgeon driving a nice car, people assume they’re either an athlete, a rapper, or a drug dealer.

As a recipient of white privilege, I’ve never had to deal with those kinds of assumptions. I’ve never had to worry that if I wear certain clothes, or pose a certain way in a photo, that it might be used as evidence of what a “thug” I am. I’ve never been accused of shoplifting when I had my receipt, and I’ve never watched people cross to the other side of the street to avoid me.

Living in Kenya, though, has opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of white privilege in the world. Being the beneficiary of it, though rewarding, is also very troubling. How troubling must it be for those whose every day is hindered by the racist assumptions of a “civilized” society. As a white American male, I can never hope to fully understand the frustration of my black friends, but I can listen, I can learn, and I can offer an enormous helping of grace when I see frustration boil over into outrage in the face of injustice.

EDIT: (Prompted by discussion with a friend, I should point out that I don’t see the Kenyan preferential treatment of white people as an institutional policy, but rather a series of personal choices, informed by a historically oppressive culture. After hundreds of years being treated as inferior people, some here have come to believe that lie. I’ve spoken with Kenyans who are convinced they have nothing to offer the west. My hope and prayer is that God will show the people of this great nation and the entire continent that the world needs them, that they have incredible gifts to offer, and that God has an important place for them in his kingdom here on earth. Likewise, may we westerners be enlightened to the same.) 

For more on the other side of Africa, I suggest reading Dayo Olopade’s excellent book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa

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