Mzungu Town: A glimpse into the post-colonial recovery timeline

My friend grasps my arm as we cross the street. I’m st20160110_171843ill struggling to understand cars driving on the opposite lanes from what I’m used to. A man shouts, laughing as he calls out to her.

“Don’t touch Mzungu’s arm, the white will rub off on you!”

Mzungu means ‘white’. It’s a new name I was given in this country, one that marks me as rich, and possibly as proud. It has people surprised when I give up my seat to the elderly, and has them staring at me as I pass.

I’m not even white. Perhaps half of me is, but only one fourth of my bloodline is somewhat European. The other fourth is Iranian. The rest of me is Hispanic. But here, the contrast is striking. My name is Mzungu, and I have never been so famous.

When I step off the bus, the merchants murmur “Mzungu” between themselves. When I board a bus, a man looks through the window: “Marry me, Mzungu.” Children wave at me “Hello, Mzungu!”.  A man passes me on the street,  a tune playing on his phone. He presses it to my cheek. “Listen to this, Mzungu!”

Is this what people feel like, in other countries, when we stare at them for being different? I suppose one could easily twist these experiences into some sort of discourse on the supposed existence of ‘white oppression’. But that isn’t what this is. The context here is different than in North America or Europe. It is a framework built by hosts of the colonizers themselves, sometime in the past. The perception of wealth, even where it may not necessarily exist. Someone, at some point, has taught the masses that Mzungu means rich. That Mzungu means proud. That Mzungu is different.

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Why We Feel Threatened By Victims

Margaret Biser recently wrote an essay describing her experiences working as a tour guide for what used to be a plantation in the South of the United States and had had more than 100 slaves working in it. It’s a very interesting article, particularly because of the tone she employs when writing about people who are clearly racist—it’s not an aggressive tone, or even an angry one; it’s analytical, and almost pitying.

“Other guests seemed to have come around to slavery apologetics through a different route: They seemed find part of their identity in a sense of class victimhood, and they were unwilling to share the sympathy and attention of victimhood with black Americans… These guests felt that the deck had been stacked against them for generations, and their sense of ancestral victimhood was so personal that the suggestion that any group of people had it worse than their ancestors did was a threat to their sense of self.”

It’s a different perspective on racism, and one we often don’t talk about. As people who have been on the receiving end of culturally ingrained and institutionalized prejudice, it can often be difficult for us to see those who are invalidating our struggle as being anything more than cruel or ignorant, every time someone retorts that courts are biased against men in custody hearings, or uses #AllLivesMatter, or holds that immigrants are inherently more likely to be responsible for violent crime.

Indeed, when it comes to governments and bodies that should be responsible for the safety of humankind, regardless of race or gender or social status, their tendency to gloss over the needs of minorities—or majorities, as women are estimated to conform 51.9% of the world population, white people less than 5%, and 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day—this incoherence becomes harder to forgive. But disregarding the institutions that are based on the supremacy of one section of population at the expense of the rest, the tendency to pit negative experiences against those of others is probably one of the main proponents of dialogue that diminishes the very real sufferings a great part of the world is subject to.

Because at the end of the day, it’s only a very small fraction of the world that is not a woman, has never had ancestors belonging to an oppressed race, and whose family has never struggled with poverty. Most of us will fall into at least one of the ‘suffering’ categories, and will have had experiences that acutely shaped and continue to shape our identities. We cannot discount how prejudice, so ingrained into our social structure and culture, has harmed us. And it is natural to be defensive of these experiences—especially when we feel that our pain has been overlooked.

The idea of the social ladder is still too prevalent in our collective minds, and we all like to imagine ourselves as being at the very bottom of the part that matters. Our sense of empathy and selflessness are not consistent with the ‘Ancestral Victimhood’ that has shaped our family history. The idea that there are people that are suffering as well, or even more than we are, seems to be a disservice to years of struggle—like an admission that our pain wasn’t valid.

Homelessness, then, goes ignored. The rape of women is viewed as a small statistic which is probably fed only by liars seeking attention or financial compensation. The wage gap is dismissed as false data. Movements to stop institutionalized racism, the rampant violence directed towards people of color, and the dehumanization of Muslims are interpreted as an attempt on the part of minorities to assert themselves above everyone else. Immigrants come to be seen as numbers instead of people. And empathy is pushed to a side, welcomed only for those who share the pain we ourselves have experienced.

We cannot be constantly aware of all the different brands of suffering that exist in the world. But there is a large gap placed between ‘us’ and ‘them’, a tendency to dehumanize those whose struggle we deem to have never shared. Unable to look past our own experiences and look into those of others, we shut our minds to open communication and dismiss reality as overreactions and victims as attention-seekers.

There is no quick solution to prejudice. The process of replacing the systems that normalized oppression, altering our collective vocabulary, and rethinking attitudes we once thought acceptable, is one that will continue for generations. But more than anything, we must stop the tendency to distance ourselves from each other. In a society that has been based for so long on selfishness, it is difficult to give way for other struggles to also come to the surface. But openness is the only way that problems can be resolved in a thorough manner—we cannot solve poverty without understanding the history of discrimination that has shaped our economy; we cannot solve gender inequality without understanding the implications it holds for racial minorities, and we cannot solve racism without understanding how it entwines with classism.

And more than anything, we must learn to fight the creature that lives within each of us, that feeds on the insecurities the world creates inside us regardless of race, gender or social class—the fear of being thought irrelevant.

As Miss Biser said,

“Addressing racism isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.”

(the transitory twin)

20150330_182731He’s a modern man, and he takes a seat outside while his family goes in without him. I’ve already been inside lots of times, he tells me. I nod and smile.

And when he asks me what my plans are — what’s a girl my age doing so far away from home? — I tell him about my college plans, and he leans back in his seat with this slow smile on his face (I should have seen this coming).

Engineering is too hard for a woman, he tells me, and the gleaming teeth of his smile are meant to be helpful, I know, fatherly (I want to spit in his face and shake him, tell him You Are Part Of The Problem, tell him about the countless girls I’ve met in life who aspire to nothing because of men like him. I don’t). So I raise an eyebrow and say excuse me and his explanation isn’t an excuse because his ignorance is tangible and I grit my teeth — this is my job and I can’t be insulting (and I feel violently sick, suddenly, because I’m unable to defend myself — I know too little; he’s an electrical engineer, I’m a student out of high school).

(How dare he turn his education into a weapon.)

He leaves.

I’m a nineteen year old girl, and I stand in the sun for hours after (his words are searing in my brain — the first out of many, I predict. I’ve heard what they say to women like me; women who dare aspire to more) trying to stay hydrated, checking my watch. Summer is asphyxiating.

They are a small Muslim family, Arabs from the village nearby. The mother nods amiably when I tell her the rules and proceeds to break them immediately — her daughters laugh (I want to smile. I don’t). I take a swig of water and watch the people file out, tourists with casual eyes, no longer easily impressed, people who reply to a hello with a hard stare that lasts just one second too long.

The women approach me soon after, just before they leave. The mother is laughing, and the eldest daughter asks me my name. I tell her — she laughs. She has large shining eyes and a smile that transforms her entire face; her hijab is tight around her head, her body shrouded — in my short-sleeved shirt, I burn and blister in the heat. She laughs. Her name rhymes with mine.

The mother asks me what my plans are — what’s a girl my age doing so far away from home? — and I tell them about my college plans. The mother smiles and turns expectant to her eldest daughter; her smile widens even more. I’m going to study civil engineering, she tells me.

(Over her shoulder, I glimpse a couple posing for their wedding photographs. The bride is my age, if not younger — the groom must be approaching fifty. Her smile is exquisitely painted violent red, like a painting more real than the canvas. Their eyes never meet.)

I look at the girl and smile. She takes a picture of us together, our arms around each other. We’re the same height, and she smiles with her eyes as well as her lips as they leave; her younger sister shouting my name as if we’ve been childhood friends.

(I forget her name soon after. I don’t forget her smile.)

(She was nineteen years old, too.)

The Malfoy Case has been updated, and new works have been added to the list!

Give Me Tools, But Teach Me How To Use Them: Thoughts On Education.

I’m angry at my education.

Okay, maybe anger is a strong word; the years I spent in school from the age of four to the age of seventeen were great and memorable, and – despite the complete absence of any sort of nostalgia towards school in my heart – I did enjoy my years there and I’m very happy with how it all turned out, but the truth is that I am angry.

I realize that this subject diverges significantly from the sort of thing I’ve been writing about in this blog, but I can’t keep quiet about my feelings on this any longer. I suppose this sort of passion comes from moving out of home and becoming more acquainted with the wider world; I’ve probably met people from about fifty different countries over the last seven months and I will probably continue to meet more during the next eleven, and the more people I speak to, the more I realize how ignorant I am.

Let me note that much of what I’m going to say here is based off of my experience with education in Paraguay. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold true for other countries as well; while I know that many people have had a much better experience than I did, I also know that most can agree that the issues I find in our current system exist in great part of the educational structures around the world, both public and private.

Now, I realize that a significant problem in your average public institution- and I’d venture to say private, as well – is severely stunted because there’s a gaping lack of qualified teachers. But this isn’t just a problem that has to do with lack of human resources, or even with the way our national education is still subconsciously affected by partisan bias accumulated over the past… oh, I don’t know, two hundred years? Education is a worldwide problem that is one of the biggest reasons (at least, the more tangible ones; there are, of course, vast moral/spiritual deficiencies that are the main source of mankind’s decline, but let’s not get into that here) behind the current chaos in the world. And within it, there are three obvious problems.

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