Race relations are a hot topic right now, especially in the United States. Defining the minority experience in the United States is an elusive task, since there are so many different people groups and locations to address! Expand your focus to the entire world, and there’s no general way to describe what it’s like to be a minority. As a white, middle-class American in Suburbia, I grew up without any concept of what it is like to be a minority, and I still can’t speak to the experience of American minorities. I have, however, been a minority outside the United States. One of the places I’ve experienced being a minority is in Burundi. This is what it is like to be white in Africa.
White Africans in Black Africa
My husband grew up in East Africa, and his family still lives there. Most people in the U.S. assume that because he is white, he must be from South Africa. Never mind that he doesn’t have the accent. It’s actually not an inconceivable assumption, since only about .03%—yes, that’s point zero three percent—of the Burundian population is white. Most of these people are expats working for embassies, non-profits, or missions agencies, and most of them live in the metro areas. So a white person driving through the rural areas of the country really stands out!
It’s Okay to Point at People Who Look Different
At least, this is apparently the case in Burundi. I grew up in a place where pointing at people was never, ever permissible, and loudly announcing an out-of-place feature was certainly off limits. Burundi is a world away from the West. My constant theme song, when I walked or drove through crowded areas, was a chorus of the Kirundi word for Caucasian: “Umuzungu! Umuzungu!” One little boy greeted me, “Amahoro, Umuzungu!” I responded back with a smile, “Amahoro!” He shrieked with laughter and hid his face in his hands. A white person speaking Kirundi? Unheard of!
Actually, it wasn’t just the little kids who laughed. Laughing and pointing, in addition to the shouting, was pretty standard when I went to new places. Sounds pretty horrifying right? Well, not if you look at it in context. In the United States, shouting someone’s race at them while laughing and pointing would be considered bullying in children and racism in adults. However, there’s a huge cultural difference between the West and Burundi. Burundians typically laugh when they find something unexpected or confusing. A white face in the black crowd is certainly unexpected (especially when accompanied by clumsy attempts at Burundian fashion). And to them, racism looks like the all-to-recent bloody civil war between the two tribes in Burundi, not a few ethnic comments. To them, their reaction to a white person is an innocuous way to express their surprise at something unexpected. And being blonde and blue-eyed, I am certainly something unexpected!
A Little Bit of Culture Shock
When I first arrived in Burundi, I was surprised and quite taken aback by all the eyes on me all the time. However, it is perfectly obvious that Burundians generally don’t mean any unkindness by commenting on my race. There isn’t any malice there; usually just smiles, curiosity, and the occasional eager English student hoping to practice a phrase or two. My husband was used to this sort of thing, and he had warned me about his experiences being white in black Africa. If you’re short enough, kids will run their fingers through your hair (something surprising to me, since where I lived, touching someone’s hair is offensive if they are of another race). If you’re not careful, little children will try to rip out your arm hairs, just to see they’re really attached to you.
I had never thought of light eyes or long hair as something exotic, but in East Africa, these things are rather startling. Drawing so many eyes was extremely uncomfortable to me. I did my best to wear the right clothes and use the right phrases, but I couldn’t escape my glowing white skin. I thought about how nice it would be to be able to unzip my skin and pull on a darker one for a while, just to be able to walk around without being stared at. I had a sinking feeling when it occurred to be that no matter how long I lived there, how well I learned Kirundi, or how much my lifestyle matched that of a typical Burundian, I would never fit in and people would still think of me as exotic and strange. This concept of “otherness” was so new, so strange. I wondered if it would always be so overwhelming.
Coming to Terms with Being White
There comes a point, I think, when everyone has to deal with their own race and get comfortable in their own skin. Mine came when I realized that being so different is OK. Honestly, I found that most people in Burundi are pretty accepting. It seemed that most people wanted to be my friend just because it was interesting to know an umuzungu, but in the end, most people get to know you and accept you for who you are. I can live in a constant state of discomfort in being white, and I can harbor bitterness and frustration about not fitting in, being stared at all the time and sometimes discriminated against. Or, I can just smile back when people stare, be myself, and let people learn who I am beneath this white skin. In my experience, most culture shock is like that. You have to figure out how you fit into a new context and find healthy ways to deal with discomfort.
In the end, I’m a better person for new experiences and challenging situations. So my advice to you is that you should never let the fear of new contexts deter you from living globally! Refuse to let people make you feel bad for who you are. Refuse to stay inside your comfort zone. If you step out and learn to thrive in a challenging situation, you’ll grow to be a stronger, braver, and happier person!