Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ndili Mukuwa, and It’s Ok

I’ve always been acutely aware of my “whiteness.”  In kindergarten, it was benign, meaning only that I couldn’t do as much fun stuff with my hair as some of the other girls.  By first grade, it was that other people’s not having as much or being downtrodden was my fault as on Martin Luther King Jr. Day we were taught “white guilt.”  By fourth grade, I was evil, inhumane, cruel, for beating all those slaves before the Civil War. 

In high school, added to all this was that I simply wasn’t cool enough to talk to the groups of black students.  By college, all the guilt and meanness and cruelty and uncoolness, added to the fact that I’d never be able to dance or jump, had me paralyzed with fear.  “I can’t talk to you.”  “I don’t know how to talk to you.”  “I’m not good enough.”  “I’m not cool enough.”  “Everything bad that’s ever happened to you is my fault.”

So I did what anyone does when they’re totally afraid.  I ran away.
To Africa.

Here, it was different.  I was different.  New stereotypes were flung at me, but I didn’t buy into them.  Maybe it was because they were delivered to me by individuals instead of society as a whole.  Maybe it was because I knew them to not be true with respect to myself.  How come I always accepted that the stereotypes back home were true?  Indoctrination at a young age?  Societal reinforcement?  Not grown up enough to know myself?  I started to realize that things I’d believed about myself weren’t true.  I was me. Me. Alone. Me. Not the billions of other people in the world who had come before me and happened to have something in common with me.  Me.

I had been taught that “racist” was the worst thing you could ever be called.  My fear came from fear of that word.  In Africa, the worst thing I was ever called was Mukuwa/Muzungu/Onyibo and that isn’t that bad.

Now I understood.  Just because someone calls you something, doesn’t mean you are such.  I was, am and always will be Mukuwa.  But in some ways, I was also correct when I’d yell back to those “Mukuwa!” screaming kids, “Tandili mukuwa, ndili Ba Tonga.”  I am not a foreigner; I am one of you.

There may be times when I am racist, but it’s because of me, my thoughts, my experiences, not because of all those people I never knew in all those places I’ve never been.  I’m me. 

Sometimes I’m good; sometimes I’m bad.  Sometimes I’m right; sometimes I’m wrong.  Sometimes I’m cruel and unfair; sometimes I’m compassionate and generous.  But I am not afraid of what I am anymore.  Africa gave me that.  That, and some of those hairstyles I’d been wishing for since I was a little girl.


Jeannie said...

How different we are - to me I was never one of 'them', 'they' were other people that did bad things to others, felt that way, etc. and I didn't understand how they could do them, or feel that way. I guess I failed in trying to bring you up that way. But you did learn it on your own, eventually.

goldenrail said...

Mommy, you didn't go to school in the 80s. I think the way we were taught about the civil rights movement was very different than what you learned as it was happening. By the time we were learning about it, everyone had been lumped into 2 neat, race-defined, categories.