I was born and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and attended public schools from primary level all the way to university. In Kenya, people of other races often attended private schools and went to university abroad. There were Indians who attended public schools but these were the schools that were in neighbourhoods with high Indian populations. Since I was not in a predominantly Indian neighbourhood, I never interacted with them.
I rarely came into contact with persons of other races save for the times I would visit my mother at her office. She worked for an international organisation and there were people of all races, creeds and colours working with her. I remember that I found each of them unique and fascinating: the Indians with their extremely long shiny hair; the Chinese with their flawless ivory-coloured skin; the Caucasians with their coloured eyes. To me, they were just people like me, albeit different from me because of their many fascinating features. Further, our television content back then mostly consisted of: American, British and German shows and movies; Indian epics; and Chinese (or was it Japanese:) Kung-fu movies. I therefore had some exposure to these different races and nationalities and their cultures thanks to television.
With this background, it comes as no surprise that my first encounter with racial prejudice came in my adult life. I was working for a state corporation then and had been nominated to attend a conference in a Western European country (which I won’t name). Of course I was excited. I was in my mid-twenties and had very few international trips under my belt.
During the conference, I made several friends but there were two ladies with whom I spent most of the time; Asha from Tanzania and Sarah from Israel. The last day of the conference ended at noon and we had the afternoon free. We decided to do some shopping as the per-diems that the conference organisers had given us were burning our pockets. We walked through the streets and quickly realised that there was nothing like bargain shopping in that country. Everything seemed quite pricey.
We all but gave up until we came to the end of a very busy street and saw a clothing store that was full of customers. This was a sign that things there were affordable. We ventured inside and discovered that they were having a major annual sale. We decided to spend some time there, browsing and buying.
Asha and I kept close together as we looked at dresses and blouses on offer. Sarah was a few steps ahead of us, looking at scarves and handbag.
As we were looking at the items, a shop attendant came to us and clearing his throat uncomfortably, said, “I am sorry but there is nothing for you here.”
“What do you mean that there is nothing for us?” I asked. “How do you know what we want?”
“Nothing for your size,” the attendant said.
“Do you mean my size or her size?” Asha asked pointing at me.
I am tall and curvy and Asha is short and petite. The attendant needed to clarify if the store did not stock large sizes or small sizes. Who knows? Maybe we were not shopping for ourselves but for friends and loved ones who fitted in their prize ranges. I had never seen an adult being thrown out of a children’s clothing store because they did not stock adult sizes there!
The attendant interrupted my thoughts when he said, “I mean that we don’t have the clothes for your body types generally.”
“My friend and I have totally different body types!” I said in consternation. “Could you please be more explicit in what are saying?”
“I am sorry but we cannot serve you here,” the attendant persisted. “It is the policy of this store. You are also making other customers uncomfortable and some have even complained.”
“This is crazy!” Asha said.
Sarah, on hearing the altercation came and joined us.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“The shop attendant was just informing us that it is store policy not to serve us,” I said. “He says that some customers have even complained about our presence in the store.”
“What?” Sarah asked surprised. “I want to see the manager!”
“No need,” I said. “They have already made up their minds not to serve us and will come up with any excuse not to do so. Let us go and spend our money elsewhere. At a place where people of our race are accepted.”
And so, I left the store feeling angry and ashamed. This was actually the first time I had become aware of my race. That I had been made to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable because of my race. And racists had and still have a way of making one not only feel inferior but feel ashamed of their race. From that first incident, I became keenly aware of my race. Whenever I stepped out of the African continent, I became automatically guarded against potential racism.
Two years after that incident, I made my first trip to a large Asian country (which again I will not name. I figure that in order to keep you hooked to this story, I should include some suspense. Keep guessing, you may get it right).
This country had invited environmental professionals from developing countries around the globe for a learning exchange (more of a propaganda tour if you ask me, because this country is known for some of the worst environmental atrocities). As part of the learning, we were to visit various factories, go to different cities and then visit some cultural and historical sites to understand the culture.
On the third day of the visit, we were to leave at dawn to visit a factory that was an hour’s drive away. Because of our numbers, we were split into two groups to travel in two buses; Bus A and Bus B. Our names were pasted on the doors of the respective buses we were to travel in. We entered our buses ready to leave and then noticed something interesting. Everyone on Bus B was of the African race. And it was not that there were one or two black people in Bus A. All the black people in the learning exchange were in Bus B and all the white (or people with less melanin than Africans) were in Bus A.
We took this in our stride, joked about it and moved on. But deep down, we remained keenly aware of this racial segregation. It was too telling to ignore. That evening, when we brought up the topic with our Bus A colleagues at dinner, they were all oblivious of the fact that their bus had no black people. Was it just lack of keenness on their part or did they deliberately turn a blind eye to this tactlessness on the part of the organisers?
And it did not end there. At the beginning of the second week, we were informed that we would be taking a flight to another city for more learning. One of the participants pointed out that we would need our passports for identity to board the flight to the other city. This is because, upon arrival at the training centre, our passports had been taken away from us for “registration”. It was worrisome to be in a foreign country without your passport at hand.
A more senior organiser was called to address the issue of the passports and he asked, “How many have not yet received their passports back after registration?”
We raised up our hands and, interestingly, it was only black hands up in the air. We later learnt that no white person’s passport had been taken for “registration.” The senior man told all those without passports to meet him at the administration block after the day’s lectures to collect their passports.
That evening, we made a beeline to the administration block to collect our passports, only for each of us to be handed a document in Chinese with photocopies of our respective passports attached.
This was an outrage. Our self-appointed spokesman raised his voice, “This is not right. How comes all the white people get to retain their passports?”
I found that the people in this country are very tactless as the senior man said, “It is the policy that we take the passports belonging to ‘you people’ because some of you have been known to blend in with the crowds and disappear during the organised tours, refusing to go home.”
“What do you mean by ‘you people’?” our mouthpiece pressed. “And how, on God’s green earth is it possible for ‘us people’ to blend in here? There is barely anybody with our skin colour in this country. Plus, our obvious physiological differences including height and average body size make us stand out from the locals. I am also sure that there is an international protocol against illegally confiscating someone’s travel documents.”
The senior man, defeated, said, “Okay wait. I am going to consult a more senior man.”
To cut the long story short, we received our passports plus a tag with huge writing in Chinese that we were to wear around our necks at all times, to prevent us from ‘blending in.’
On arrival in the next city we visited several environmental projects and initiatives and then were told that we would be taken for a shopping trip to the market. We were quite excited for we had only one week of the learning exchange left and were eager to purchase gifts and souvenirs for our loved ones back home.
So, on the morning of market day, we were up early and ready to go. Let me point out that we remained segregated in our Bus A and Bus B for purposes of road travel throughout our learning exchange. Bus B always travelled behind Bus A and on this day we were driving behind them when we noticed that at the intersection, Bus A took a left turn whereas we took a right turn.
“Are we going to a different place?” one of our colleagues at the front of the bus who noticed this oddity asked our tour guide. (As an aside, this tour guide had asked one of our male colleagues what the African women did to drive all the food they ate down to their backsides and whether our humongous backsides were soft or hard to the touch).
“Yes,” the tour guide confirmed. “We were told to take the Bus B to the black market.”
“What do you mean by the ‘black market’?” someone else who had heard this exchange interjected. “Do you want to get us into trouble?”
“There will be no trouble,” the tour guide explained. “The black market is where ‘you people’ can afford. All goods to your countries are made for the ‘black market’ because that is what you can afford there.”
We were now at full attention, listening to this blatant racial prejudice being so ignorantly ranted out to us by our oblivious tour guide as he continued to explain, “In this country, we manufacture products like clothing, toys, electronics, cosmetics and other things that are made from different quality materials for different markets. The black people are poor and can only afford the low quality products and so you find the lowest quality products being exported to the black markets.”
This was a shocking truth. All the participants of this so-called learning exchange were from developing countries in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Why would the organisers deem that participants from developing countries with mostly white people could afford high quality products while those from countries with black people could only afford so-called ‘black market’ products? We instantly rebelled and boycotted the shopping trip.
Our tour guide got onto the phone and fervently made phone call after phone call and then advised us that we had been ‘allowed’ to go the quality markets. Why should we seek permission to spend our money? Whether we decided to spend it on quality or sub-standard items should be our decision to make.
We refused to go to the quality market and demanded to be taken back to the hotel. From the hotel, we made our own arrangements to explore the city’s markets and discover the full range of products it had to offer. The so called ‘quality items’ were well within our budgets and actually much cheaper than some of the sub-standard items exported to our countries. If you have been to Europe or America and shopped in some of their discount stores for, say a pair of jeans, you will find that the pair of jeans is of very good quality and actually cheaper than the low quality jeans found in our countries. Such fraud and deception!
That learning exchange had been one bad racist experience after another. The fact that people in that country were oblivious that what they were doing was racist was worrying. They had normalised seeing a whole human race as inferior and less human.
The whole experience left me with more questions than answers: Why is my skin colour so terrifying? Why is my race so intimidating? Why are my unique African features regarded as ugly, grotesque even? Why is my race judged as culturally backward? Why is my English accent seen as inferior and a sign of semi-literacy? Do they know that in our country we speak and are fluent in a minimum of three languages? Why is the humanity of my race of less value? Why must it be this race versus that race? Why… Why… Why…