America, Tanzania and The Work I Need to Do

Being in Tanzania, where as a white person I’m in the minority, has been a real eye-opener for me. There’s racism here as well, but there’s also something different, something I noticed minutes after I stepped off the plane at Kilimanjaro Airport.

Native Tanzanians are very proud. They’re proud of themselves, their native tribes and languages, their cultural heritage and their beautiful homeland – despite suffering centuries of slavery, from the 1400s all the way up to German colonialism and WWI.

Everyone has been polite and friendly toward me. But overall, native Tanzanians pay me no mind. I’ve been here almost three weeks, and on my own for 10 days. I’ve had the time to slow down and really observe things – particularly the way locals interact with me and other caucasian tourists.

The Difference is Deference
Racism is rampant in the U.S.. It’s a major force that can make or break a person. If you’re white, you can take advantage of the opportunities afforded you. If you’re a person of color, racism will break you, bit by bit.

Sometimes, people of color adopt an overly polite, deferential manner just so they can get through their day without having a white person do one or more of the following things:

-Tell their manager they didn’t do enough to fix a perceived problem.
-Tell a coworker they were “playing the race card.”
-Post a security alert to Clifton Nextdoor that they were walking down the sidewalk while black, and looking toward houses. (I live and mostly-white, mostly-affluent Clifton and this happens ALL the time.)
-Call the cops on them for walking or driving near them while black.

There’s a Major Difference in Interracial Deference in Tanzania
There far less deference to white people here than in the U.S. Back home, I’ve had many experiences where a black person – sometimes a black person I had accidentally bumped into on the street – was overly polite to me. Seeing this made me sad for the person who felt they couldn’t be themselves around me without repercussion. And angry at the white people before me who had punished them for not showing deference. 

Native Tanzanians are more at ease around me than many black people I’ve met in the U.S. One of the guides we met here has invited me and my husband to his home for a family dinner. At this point in the trip, we’re no longer using him as a guide. He invited us just because he wanted to – not to try to get more business.

I can’t remember the last time a black American I’d known for only two weeks invited me to their home. I can’t remember the last time that I invited a black friend I’d known for only two weeks to my home. Wait…it did happen, in kindergarten with my friend Tia Jones. We met on the playground at school, and that weekend we played hide and seek in and around her house. I think we had mac ‘n cheese at my house later.

That memory is so far removed from the way things are today between me and black people I’ve recently met, that I almost couldn’t reach it. I almost couldn’t remember.

Seeing what appears to be a major difference in race relations within America and Tanzania has shown me just how much work I have yet to do. Yes, it’s racism that makes us put up facades for protection and keeps us from being real with each other. But haven’t we heard all that before? What I need to do is actually be real. Be a friend, be supportive and truly listen to what people of color in my life have to say.

Friends, we have a lot of healing work to do. I have a lot of healing work to do. But you have my word: I will do it.

3 thoughts on “America, Tanzania and The Work I Need to Do

  1. Wow what an experience you are having! I can’t wait to hear more about it in person. The soul work you do is amazing and inspiring! Thank you!

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    1. You are so right. How are you talking about this, and related issues, with your sons?

      I’ve been here only a few weeks, but the difference in how people of color interact with me here, vs. in the U.S., has been striking. Realize it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. But what I’m trying to do is understand what, if anything, we can do about race relations in the U.S. and what we might learn from Tanzania.

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