Even if it’s just for a few minutes
I followed Joseph, the cook, across the busy street into Arusha’s bustling food market. Hundreds of stalls spread in all directions. Where we walked in, the papayas (paw paw) were piled high, and avocados nearly spilled out of their baskets. Depending on where you stood, your nostrils could be filled with spices, the stink (to me) of fish, the fragrance of ripening fruit. I love places like this.
I was in the market for fresh pineapples, mangoes and whatever else caught my fancy. Joseph was there to translate, for my Swahili is lacking.
Okay. My Swahili, more truthfully, consists of hello, how are you, thank you very much, you’re welcome. Better than nothing, although I am prone to sending my friends here into fits of giggles when I mispronounce the word for “welcome” and end up saying “grave.” I startled the hell out of a local policeman, whose confused expression sent our entire car of Swahili-speakers into peals of laughter at my expense. And the policeman, when I corrected myself.
At this market I need help, for it’s very easy to grossly overpay for a piece of fruit. If you’re White, that is.
So we haggled.
As a White woman, in this Tanzanian market, I was the only light-skinned person as far as the eye could see. Many of those eyes were on me. Some radiated dislike, even outright hostility. Other people rushed over, touching, grabbing, demanding. A white person (or mzungu, which means “white person running around,” which is very apt in most cases) means money. Or at least it might, and you might as well try.
That can be hugely intimidating in a very large crowd, where you’re slim, like I am, and you really are largely by yourself. People in Africa, like people everywhere, make all kinds of assumptions about skin color, mostly wrong, based on someone else’s experiences, rumors, or a bad actor they’d dealt with. Suddenly all White people are (rich, stupid, selfish, prejudiced, inept in the bush, etc).
Most often here, White means money. So I am reduced to a walking wallet. People push, shove, demand, pull at my clothing and grab. This is one reason why my wallet hangs around my neck, tucked into my sports bra, making me look like a DD. Nobody’s tried for it yet.
Here, I am the minority. For those of us for whom being the majority conveys implicit authority and power, it can be one hell of a wake-up call when you realize how insignificant you really are in a huge crowd of people who do not look like you, and who are converging on you.
I felt like a thing, a piece of meat. People wanted a piece of me and they frankly didn’t give a flying shit how I felt about it. The ones who were overtly hostile hated me simply because I was White. The same way an Ethiopian boy spat through my window at me because of what my Whiteness represented to him.
Now, kindly, if I may.
While this most certainly was a fleeting experience, imagine, if you will, how someone of color might have similarly felt at a slave market, as the item being sold, being pushed, grabbed, shoved, and pinched like the fat, naked chickens that sat in the shade nearby. They aren’t a person with a history, personality, family. They’re an item for sale. A commodity.
I guarantee you that once you’ve put yourself in a situation even remotely like this you will never be so flippant about slavery again.
Nor will you fail to understand what it’s like for many minorities in White society. Even just a tiny, tiny bit.
You might grow a little empathy. Because to be surrounded by faces that don’t look like you (such as going to an all-white school) or sitting in a boardroom with all white C-suite executives, being the only person of color on a high-performing team, you get the message, is not just disconcerting. It can be downright terrifying.
There’s a lot to this, but you get my point. Medium peep Marley K. penned a piece the other day about buying- or trying to buy- a used pontoon in my birth state of Florida:
Stupid Things White People Say When We’re In Their Spaces
Your racial biases can reveal themselves by the kinds of questions you ask non-White people.
The sad part of it is that what she describes is a lot of why I don’t much like my home state, and couldn’t be convinced to do much more than visit my cousin in Naples or traipse through my old employer’s haunts, Walt Disney World.
I don’t much like my high school reunions any more, either, albeit for different reasons. But one of them is that during my time attending school, segregation was enforced. Badly. The way those Black kids were treated in my high school ensured that not a single Black face has ever, or will ever, present itself at a Winter Haven High School reunion. Nor will our high school president bother to report those of our classmates who have died, who had the bad luck of being Black, which means their lives weren’t, and still aren’t, worth remembering, in their views. Not everyone, but far too many.
Not my kind of environment.
Marley has a pretty spicy opinion. One of the reasons I like her work is that she calls it as she sees it. Her points hit the hard truths that I grew up with in my small redneck town. My family’s respect for and friendships with people of color in that barely-past-plantation part of Florida were not well-received, and we were at times ostracized. However those friendships, including a lifetime deep one with a Black woman I considered my second mother, gave me insights and understandings that have shaped me to this day. They also have caused me to look for ways to see the world through other’s eyes, rather than demand that others change who they are to make me feel more at ease.
I’ve immersed myself in cultures all over the world. Homestays, long hours in cars and on various adventure rides. I find people interesting. Part of that is because I’m a writer. Part of that is because I’m not willing to have others dictate to me what my beliefs or opinions about any other group should be, for that robs me of my unique experience. It also is far too often based on manipulated half-truths. Whether it’s women, or minorities, or the disabled, or any other group (including white males, thank you), when we wholesale cobble ALL those folks into a set of expectations and behaviors, we rob ourselves and the world of vast richness. We curate our experience of a magnificent earth into a few, safe, predictable and easily-threatened ways of being.
The people at the Arusha market backed off a bit when Joseph and I made it clear that we were going to buy very specific things, and on our terms. That didn’t stop people from snatching at my body.
And here’s the other piece. I have a horror of being touched by strangers, which is informed by long and awful experience with sexual abuse, assault and rapes. A number of them were perpetrated by a senior officer in the military in the same vicious and abuse way that someone in power takes what he wants from an employee, or simply someone who can’t fight back. Imagine, if you’ve never been assaulted, being completely unable to stop anyone from exploring your private places at will, handling your breasts, doing what he likes, and expecting you not only to put up with it but fucking LIKE it.
Slaves were forced to submit to far, far worse. Many women- especially women of color all over the world- still do. There’s a big market in creating powerlessness and helplessness.
That goes for a Mexican immigrant woman in the field picking berries, a female slave having to submit to a plantation owner, a Harvey Weinstein forcing his ugly, abusive self on women. Because he could. (Just saying, I hope plenty of Billy Bobs force their ugly abusive selves on him in prison. Karma’s a bitch, man.)
Makes no difference.
That feeling of being treated like a thing by a crowd of people who do not see you as human has a way of teaching a very harsh lesson in powerlessness. Having been there, I get it. But it doesn’t stop there. By putting myself into these situations all over the world, I am constantly reminded of what it’s like to not be in a position of power. To have -at least some- people utterly disregard your sovereign right to exist, and to be unreasonably threatened by the fact of your existence in ways you didn’t have a damned thing to do with.
It would be hugely inappropriate for me to intimate that I understand what it means to be Black, or any minority, on the basis of my brief experiences in the world. However, it is fair to offer that what perspectives I gain from those experiences add some small measure of understanding what Marley talks about in her piece. When I get back to America, I return to a set of privileges that minorities still don’t have. Those include, as Marley discusses, not having people question your background, your military service (although in all fairness, I get that a great deal) or your ability to pay. Or, even more so, your very right to be looking at pontoons on my goddamned lot in the first place.
If what writers like Marley K have to say is uncomfortable, for me that’s a pretty good indication that there’s probably a grain of truth in it. You and I may not intend offense, but our habits of thought and word clearly convey our biases. Often they’re ingrained early and supported by societal norms. They’re not easy to exorcise. But if we hope to be part of a polite, fully-integrated society, then opening ourselves up to internal scrutiny, and being willing to take a hard look at what informs our biases, and please, we ALL have them whether we want to own that or not, is part of what personal growth looks like.
My thanks to Marley and many of the writers of ZORA and other pubs for their honesty and frankness. They are gifts.