What being a (privileged) minority abroad has taught me about race


Could I be any more of a mzungu?

“Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” The Kenyan kids holler. Or they just stare.

Other kids yell, “Chinese!” Yes, that’s right, they mistake blond-haired, blue-eyed me as a Chinese person. This has also happened to me in Central America several times, which speaks to China’s expanding reach and influence.

This week a new friend told me that I was the first white person he’d ever had a conversation with.

I’ve spent 60 of the last 90 days traveling in Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia and years of my traveling life as a minority. Not only am I majorly a minority in many of the places I travel, I’m a novelty. Sometimes I feel like a freakshow member just there for the staring. Once, in China, a grown-ass man pet my arm hair like I was an animal at the petting zoo.

I grew up in a rural town where 97% of people are white. I went to college at a school that is constantly trying to be more diverse. Fifteen years of such travel as a minority, have given me a small taste of the minority experience so I thought I’d share a few random thoughts.

(Are you awkwardly squirming yet? The white dude is about to talk about being a minority.)

Caveat: I’ve got it pretty easy

I grew up as a white dude in rural Ohio. It’s pretty damn easy being a white dude in rural Ohio. I now live in Indiana. Same story. I’ve benefited from all the privileges and opportunities that come with that, and I didn’t have to overcome any of the challenges that people of a minority race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality have to face. The same goes for my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and so on.

Although I did grow up Catholic. I had a catechism teacher so old that he could remember when that was looked down upon. That has never been my experience. I never even knew that was a thing until he said something about it. Apparently Mackarel Snapper is a religious slur aimed at Catholics. I just looked it up.

It’s not fun being stared at.

It wears on me. I try to act like I don’t feel the eyes on me, but I feel them. It makes me self conscious about the way I’m dressed or what I’m doing. Of course, I get to go home, shedding my label as a minority, leaving the stares behind.

I don’t like being judged because of my skin color.

People see me and they make assumptions about me not because of the way I act or think, but simply because my skin color is different than theirs. In the places I travel, they assume I’m rich. They might see me as an opportunity or even as a target to exploit. They have immediate expectations because I’m white.

If anything, although awkward and uncomfortable, this is a sort of magnified white privilege.

I’m a privileged minority.

When I travel I’m a minority, but a privileged one.

I walked into the largest nonprofit organization in Myanmar and within 5 minutes I was talking to the CEO. That kid of stuff happens a lot. It makes it easier to do my job as a writer. I’m sure it happens a lot at home, but I don’t realize it because I grew up with those doors open.

Police are less likely to mess with me. No one follows me around a store worried that I might take something. Border Patrol officers often just wave me through. Doors open more quickly.

A decade ago I put this privilege to the test. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. I was in Bangladesh and walked into a movie production studio unannounned thinking I actually had a shot at being the “white guy” extra in a movie. They basically told me to get lost. Thank God! I’m still ashamed that I even thought this could be a possibility.

I’m pretty sure there is no such thing as a well-traveled white nationalist.

I say we “round up” the white nationalists and ship them off to somewhere where they aren’t sure how to ask where the bathroom is and where they are judged on their skin color. I think Mogadishu, Somalia, for instance. Maybe their little pee brains and hearts would find an ounce of empathy for others.

I have no idea what it’s like to live as a minority.

I get a small taste of the judgements and preconceptions directed my way. It has made me empathize more with those who are living their entire lives in communities as minorities, but in no way do I fully know the challenges or the struggles.

And I’ll end with the hardest lesson of all…

My life is worth more.

Over the last month, I’ve made some friends who live in the informal communities around Nairobi. Recently, they’ve seen unspeakable violence because of unrest surrounding the recent contested presidential election. They’ve seen it before and they’ll see it again. One friend estimates that 80% of people in her community have directly been impacted (a loved one or friend was injured or killed). Many of these deaths go unnoticed and unaccounted for. Bodies disappear.

Although my whiteness (and nationality) may make me a target at times (not that I’ve ever experienced though), it also protects me. A white person was killed in Korogocho, and, for the most part, the entire aid and development communities pulled their programs.

Kill a white person and attention is going to come. Something is going to change. Justice is going to be sought.

This isn’t just true when I’m traveling abroad, it’s true when I’m home in Indiana.

Travel has helped teach me that when I’m home, I have the privilege of not thinking about race, of not being reminded that I’m a gringo or a mznungu, but not everyone has that privilege. My experiences as a minority while traveling have slapped me in the face with my own privileges and shown me that they come with a responsibility to listen to and walk beside those who the world–in all of its ignorance, pettiness, and hate–treat less equally.

Angela Parson Myers says:

When I read “pee brains,” I thought it was a typo, that you’d meant “pea brains.” But after a little thought, I decided it was so fitting it had to be correct. 🙂

Becki says:

I had the same reaction, Angela. 😀

Becki says:

Living where you are a minority (even if a privileged one) definitely helps us empathize more. I lived for a year and a half in Saudi Arabia, in a tiny compound that had only 6 houses, so we were very much exposed to life as a Westerner in a very conservative Islamic city. And we were definitely not wanted there; you could feel it when you went into a store or walked down the street. I don’t pretend that experience means I fully understand what POC go through here, but it gave me the beginning of awareness. Then again, we have probably all met people who have traveled to other countries but never got a thing out of it because they stuck with the Americanized sections.

Let your voice be heard!