Black Or White

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This will be a long post. Seeing as it has been stewing in my head, heart and body for over 6 months. But who knows? Maybe it won’t be. Ha! As if.

I didn’t understand my best friend for years. I am black? That means something? In comparison to someone else being white? Huh? Born and bred in Kenya, I have had no reason to think in terms of colour. I see someone and the first thing I notice is maybe their height or their clothes or their smile. Not their colour. But I got to learn that for others, the first thing they see is someone’s colour. I am still struggling to get used to that.

During my work trip to the States, I got the opportunity to live and work in an environment that was predominantly white. I actually first saw a black person after about 2 weeks of being there. And he was dragged to my desk by my colleague who had told the poor dude that there was someone he would love to meet. He was from South Africa and from his facial expression, I realized that he was in the same predicament that I was in. Wondering why we needed to know each other just because we were black. While my colleague was standing there so excited to have connected two people who came from the same “culture”.

I really didn’t feel like there was anything amiss until I started taking notice of stuff.

One day, I went to watch a play and the couple that were supposed to sit next to me decided to sit elsewhere after realizing that I was actually there to watch the play. The ushers were so sure that I was at the wrong place I had to show my ticket to about 4 different people before I was allowed to get in to watch the play. I was so upset on that day but God calmed me down by introducing me to some great people.

I stayed at this hotel for about 2 weeks before my colleague (who is NOT black) also came to stay in the room opposite mine. Incidentally, that was the same week that the cleaning lady saw me leaving my room. She found out that I lived in that room and NEVER cleaned my room till the day I left. I complained at the reception, sent messages, etc. Nothing. The only response I received was that the cleaning staff clean every room after every other day. So I should be patient and it would be cleaned. Before she saw me, she used to clean my room every single day. I kept on asking my colleague whether her room was being cleaned and hers was being cleaned EVERY SINGLE DAY. Mine wasn’t. When I needed detergent to wash my clothes, I had to purchase it at the reception. My colleague went to purchase and she was given detergent free of charge, “courtesy of the hotel”. I actually had to carry my own bags to my room while…..well, you get the drift. So the night before I left, I prepared an egg in every single dish I could find. Made sure all the dishes were dirty. And left the room in such a mess, I am embarrassed just thinking about it. Because, it is what is expected of my colour, right?

There was this fancy restaurant near my hotel that I had always wanted to try out. The day I got the opportunity to have dinner, I just walked from my hotel to the restaurant. And you should have seen the scramble at the front desk – the waiters running towards me ……

Excuse me, can we help you?

Yes, I’d like to have dinner.

Here?!

(looking around….) Yes…..

In the restaurant?!

(more looking around….) Yes…..

(whispers…..) This way please. (Leading me to a table that’s behind a door and in darkness)

I’d like a seat by the window, please

No, sorry. We can’t have you sitting by the window…

Why?

I can get you another table?

No, I’d like to sit by the window.

I will have to consult with the manager.

I will wait for you to consult with the manager.

Manager comes through and goes through the same motion of taking me to a different table. I refused, got my way and sat at a window. Then they sent this hulk of a man to be my waiter and it was so obvious that he really is a bouncer working at the club next door because he had no idea about many of the questions I asked about the menu. I went ahead to purchase the most expensive items as starter, main and dessert, with him always asking, “are you sure?” and tipped him more than the amount I had paid for the meal. Just for them not to treat people of my colour like they treated me. And I got to know why they didn’t want me to sit by the window. Potential patrons would see me there and give the restaurant a miss since my face was not the colour they could eat around……

What I didn’t expect was for me to start noticing stuff in the workplace.

So someone is making a presentation and they go on and on then at random intervals keep on asking, “Njenva, did you understand what I just said”. Hmmmm? Does my colour make me daft? Then why I am I the only one who gets these questions?

Someone has a work related challenge. I have gone through a similar challenge. I offer them advise. They ignore me. Ask someone else in the same office for their advise. Are told the something different. They do their research. Find out the best method is what I had told them in the first place. Do it. Then come tell me, if you have such and such a problem, this is what you should do…..

Someone walks into a room, gets into discussions with everyone else. I try to engage them in conversation but I can see their face frowning in irritation, like why am I trying to get to speak with them? I move on. That person finds out my position and now they want to be my bossom buddy.

Funny thing is that I have a colleague who is also going through the same challenge and it was so weird when it dawned on us that it was because we were the only blacks in our teams, working with other non-blacks, but with very similar experiences.

And I laughed about it and moved on.

But no. It just had to get worse.

This person, who has worked for about 2 years since graduation from campus is being considered for a position in Africa supervising 20 staff, including 2 African expatriates. Because they are white and went to school in the West, it is expected that the lack of experience will automatically not be a hindrance to their performing of the job. And someone writes a bad review of my performance because I refused to hire this person who has no experience.

I was with my assistant, moving from point A to point B, we were both in a foreign land. The driver who comes to pick us up rushes to my assistant, picks up their bags, ushers them into the car and tells me to place my bags in the back. In a meeting, I ask a question but the answer is directed to my assistant. Someone new joins the meeting and the person leading the meeting introduces the new person to my assistant and moves on with the meeting, I have to stop them to also introduce myself. There is limited accommodation. My assistant is assigned to a hotel room while I am escorted to a camp. And I realize all blacks – irrespective of rank, gender or tenure – have been placed in the camp. While all whites – irrespective of rank, gender or tenure – have been placed in the hotel room.

Are we for real?

What century is this?

And now I am tempted to say that I understand my best friend a bit better now. Being South African, she was raised when there were issues with apartheid and this has opened up her eyes to the differences in treatment of white and black people. And this was something I really didn’t want to notice or even live through.

Too late.

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8 responses »

  1. Njeva, I’m a kenyan and just moved to the United States and let me tell you, the struggle is Real!! I can definitley resonate with this post. I should tell you that its so important that you are sharing it.
    Like you said, living in Africa can somehow cover us from the reality of racism. Many say that only those who look for it will find it.. eh eh eh those are lies; it will find you wherever it is you are hiding.

    Recently I was invited to speak about my experience as an african counselling psychologist with a classroom of white Masters students. It was one of the most interesting confusing and eye opening experiences I have had. I had the opportunity to speak the truth which is so often covered. but even with that, I found myself incapable of saying it all as it should be said;calling ia spade a spade. Its not as easy as i thought it would be. I found myself wondering if what I said would affect me in anyway. For example, the chances of me getting accepted into the program when I apply later this year(selfish and crazy ey? but its the truth)…I was looking out for myself at the expense of truth (Isnt Truth meant to look out for us?)… I’m still thinking and chewing on that experience but I think what I am saying is there is a lot of work to be done amongst our people and most of it is about seeing the reality, calling it by name and unllearning the lies and euphimisms taught over time which ultimately are for the benefit of the oppressor. The best thing we as a people can do for ourselves is embrace truth and this will free us to call a spade a spade and to speak out when we need to. People like Ida b Wells-Barnett (read about her if you have not) mastered the Art of Truth without compromise. I’m learning this.. Lets journey on my friend for the struggle is real!

  2. Well put Njenva, that is the sad reality of life in America. At first it stings, and then somehow you just learn to brush it off. It’s the only way to not live a life of hurt and bitterness. Am in a class currently where am the only person of color, am smarter than most of the people in that class, I engage the lecturer a lot and am active in class but nobody talks to me in that class. So I go in, get my business done and go home, day in, day out. I loved this piece, such a great read. And next time you come holla and come see Jayden😀

  3. It’s the sad reality of life. I work in Dubai and I live ‘racism’ everyday. I was recruited on the promise of living in a cosmopolitan city…with equal opportunity for all. Shock on me; ‘food chain’ ni ukoloni mambo leo. The white man comes first, then the Arabs and the Indians. Nyeusis at the bottom. First thing you notice on adverts for well-paying jobs is “preferably white British, Australian..”

    A few months ago my colleague, also Kenyan, and I got into a metro and sat next to a Pakistani family. They all stood and moved to stand next to the train’s exit. We just laughed and my colleague told me jokingly: “It’s unfortunate to be black!”

  4. What a piece, and well, how sad!

    I moved to Vancouver in Canada last year, and believe it or not, one whole year down the line, I have NEVER experienced racism in whatever manner or form. Not even the slightest hint. And neither has my husband who’s studying in a dominantly white graduate school, or the other few black people we know around. And trust me, there are very very few black people in Vancouver so we like really stick out but everyone has been super friendly. From bus drivers, to shop staff, store workers, airport, medics, anyone…. Even when I was job hunting, I probably didn’t nail some interviews because of inexperience in some of the industries here, but never because of my colour.

    In fact, some actually get jealous that we speak proper English, and highly commend us for that (some here being immigrants who have English as their 2nd language and so cannot get some jobs). And now, I am blessed to have a phenomenal job in a Fortune 500 company, with the Canadian operations averaging about 500 employees, and I am the only black face…but I am treated like everyone else, and appraised using the same metrics as everyone else. We really prayed before we came, but were still apprehensive as we came having heard so many stories, but it turned out so well, much to our surprise. We’ve made great friends and have great people around us, and we give thanks every single day. Been to other parts of Canada too for work, and the story is the same…I am an equal person, and treated well.

    Is it because Canadians are known for their extreme courtesy/politeness? Or is it because Vancouver is multicultural with people from everywhere? I don’t know. But it is indeed worth mentioning that, there is white folk out here who don’t give a hoot about it, and who see beyond colour, if not see no colour difference!

    Oh boy, I am really sad that people have such monster tales. It is sad. God help us!

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