When I was living in the US, as a European American, I very seldom thought about race. Sure, when I was around my Girl Scout troop, my church, or basically anywhere in North Minneapolis I thought about race, but these thoughts and discussions with friends were often not intensely personal – they were abstract or relative. That was because I was in the racial majority, and therefore I was always “normal.” Except for a very few instances, I had the privilege of choosing when and where I wanted to think or talk about race.
As a white person in Uganda, I am never allowed to stop thinking about my race.
Just walking down the street, kids jump and yell, “Mzungu! Mzungu! (white person) How are you?” Boda boda (motorcycle) drivers circle me saying, “Yes, mzungu, we go?” To an American, from a hyper-politically correct society, all of this seems horribly rude and insensitive at first. Referring to strangers by their skin color is just not done, especially if that stranger is in the minority and you are in the majority. Americans, white Americans especially, have done our best to convince ourselves that we do not see race, and that skin color should usually only be discussed between friends or in sociology classes.
My skin causes never-ending questions and concerns from all of those around me. The most popular questions usually center on my freckles and birthmarks. Something along the lines of, “Faith, what has happened to your skin? Are those mosquito bites?” When I explain that no, they are actually permanent marks, I get a very sympathetic look and have to quickly explain that they don’t hurt. Bruises, sunburns, red pressure marks, scrapes – all of these elicit many questions and stares.
David and I also get a lot of questions about being white and American. At my work, people have asked me twice about the nationality of my American colleague, Ally. When I told them that she is American just like me, they were confused and asked why we had different colored hair. I tried to explain that Ally’s ancestry is Italian while mine is German, but then the next comment was “so is David also Italian?” At this point my logic failed me because David also has some German in his heritage! In another episode probably also stemming from curiosity about David’s dark curly hair, some men asked David, “Your mother, is she a white or black?” After David told them that she was white, the men seemed confused and said “But, I think you are not a pure American. Maybe you are a cousin to Obama?” While David tried in vain to explain that all Americans are not white, the men laughed to themselves and said, “We must be sitting next to a Big Man, a cousin to Obama!”
Life as a racial minority can be exhausting since I’m never allowed to just fade into the background. No matter who I talk to, I know that the first thing that anyone thinks about me is that I am a white. And from that mere fact, I know that they assume that I am, above all else, very rich.
For instance one day I was standing in line for lunch at work with several colleagues when one jokingly said to me, “Faith, you should buy our lunches today.” I smiled and said, “But I make exactly the same amount as the rest of you.” “Sure?!” said my colleague, genuinely shocked. “Now that was bad negotiation on your part. You are a mzungu, so you should be paid more. You are used to a better lifestyle, and when you go into town people will always charge you more since you are white.” I was surprized that my colleague would think it was right, almost fair, for me to be paid more based on my skin color.
It is very difficult to not be suspicious of people when you know that they are first and foremost thinking of you as white. You start to wonder, “Are these people only being friendly to me because they want a white friend or because they think I’m rich?”
Life under a microscope is intense, people comment about my hair, my clothes, my shoes, how I walk, what I say – everything intrigues them. Although I often grow tired of the scrutiny and extra attention that my skin color commands everywhere I go, Ugandans are an incredibly lovable lot, and I know that all of their comments, stares, and questions are spurred by honest curiosity. Now a new “normal” has started to exist for me, but this is a ‘normal’ where I am always the odd one out – and I’m okay with that.