umlungu blues

Hanging out with some learners at a big district track competition

Hanging out with some learners at a big district track competition

I’ve been sitting on my porch for a while today, swatting away aggressive flies and scribbling some thoughts about skin colour that I thought I’d try to organize and share with you all. I’m sure some of you have been wondering what it’s like for me to be the only white person in a rural South African village. And then I wonder if or when the time will come that we won’t find ourselves pondering that because skin colour won’t even cross our minds. Obviously this topic can be quite layered, cyclical, and sans concrete answers so I will try to be the most unbiased and least confusing that I can. What follows are my personal views and experiences as a white Volunteer in a rural village. Each PCV has an entirely unique situation, so my thoughts and perceptions are in no way universally factual. They just happen to be what’s bouncing around my noggin at this specific juncture of timeline and growth….

During my Peace Corps interview in November 2011, I remember my recruiter asking me how I would respond to the possible “superstar effect” – visually standing out 24/7 should I be sent to an area where I am considered a distinct minority based on skin colour. I replied that I would do my best to take all attention (positive or negative) in stride and try to show by example that judgments and actions should not be made or altered based on something as simple as the colour of someone’s skin. Now that this “effect” is a reality, I’m pleased to say that I do try to do that every day here but, as expected, some things have proven very difficult. When I walk around, people literally stop in their tracks to gape, they yell at me, they follow me, they try to touch me, etc. I am an attraction. I knew I would be and for the most part I ignore it and/or endure it with what I hope is a large amount of patience…but there are times that the effects my skin hue has on some people scares me or is just that “one time too many” in a day. I remember that I am representative of my village, other volunteers, my government, my country, and why I am here, so for the most part I think I respond in good ways. The only times I rip myself away, ask for help, run away, or yell at someone are when I really do need to. When this does happen, I feel bad that the situation has escalated to that level because the last thing I want is to make a scene or create a stark divide between myself and someone else, but I can’t bring myself to feel guilty for making a necessary response.

It’s funny how, literally, the amount of melanin in a person’s skin can immediately cause so much love, hate, trust, distrust, care, dismissal, and/or judgment about their ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or motives (or religion or parenting style or values or…). Some people are blatant in how they respond and some hide their views for image’s sake. I’m going to get potentially controversial here and say that, in the world today, skin colour still matters. This opinion is difficult to put into words that make sense. I don’t mean “matters” as in it should dictate who deserves what, but “matters” as in it still advertently or inadvertently changes some people’s behaviour. Here, even though I (and many others) believe that my skin colour doesn’t matter, it matters enough to stop people in their tracks. It matters enough for colleges to boast about minorities (and advertise visually-diverse posters) and it matters enough for some businesses to have to meet a certain quota of hired diversity. If it didn’t actually matter, would we have to talk about how it doesn’t matter, or would I even be writing this post? I’m talking in circles. Interesting but confusing circles. And I’m not immune to associating skin colour, either…

I’m not proud of it but I’ll be honest; a couple times in America, if I saw a certain type of car my brain would instantly suggest the skin colour of the driver. So, even though I wholeheartedly believe that any person can drive any car, in that moment skin colour mattered enough for my mind to hint at something horrible. I didn’t give my brain permission to do that, nor did I even agree with it in the slightest. It’s like…if you tell yourself not to think about skin colour that’s probably something you’ll think about, even if you so badly don’t want to. (If I told you not to think about bananas, your brain would probably register yellow sickle-shaped fruits.) I remember scolding myself quite harshly and, even though I overcame the conclusion I didn’t want to have, I still experienced a split second of racism, of putting skin colour into boxes. As the world is slowly shifting to equality, I think correcting yourself and, perhaps more difficultly, suggesting that others correct themselves is a monumental thing to do. Alright, off my soapbox; back to the village…

Being white, or at least from the United States, brings an array of responses from people. Some people think that I am “the cleverest of them all”, have all the answers, should make all the decisions, and should be catered to every minute of every day. It’s unclear if this is because I have light skin, because I am educated at the tertiary level, or because I have come from a more developed country. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. When comments are made that suggest me being elite, it is usually an appropriate opportunity for me to segue into how we are working together, learning from each other, how I don’t have all the answers and cannot solve every problem, etc. Sometimes, though, the response to my skin colour isn’t ideal, as some things in the second paragraph suggest.

The isiZulu word “umlungu” means “white person” and I hear it so often that it is as if it’s my first name. I completely understand why I hear it so much – I’m a visual surprise to most people here (especially in my shopping town and initially in my village, although now people are used to me). Some Volunteers don’t mind being called that, but I personally dislike it. I think it makes a stark stratification, it places a labelling strictly based on skin colour, and it convinces others that hear it what to notice about me even if they don’t want to. In (most) instances I feel devalued or valued in only crude or hungry ways, and perhaps the saddest effect: it is something being passed down…tiny toddlers call me “umlungu” so they are being taught to distinguish and place importance on skin colour. It’s no one’s fault, either, because they don’t know I don’t like it until I tell them. Something that we cleared up during PST is that the word “umlungu” is not derogatory or malicious but more of an observation. I’ve asked several people what they would think if I called them “mnyama” (black) and they said that it would be very rude and offensive. I explained my feelings and all of them made the parallel connection and understood. So, when I hear “umlungu”, I’m not offended by the actual person who said it (since I know it’s not a slur and it’s simply what they yell or mutter in observational shock) but I’m just deeply saddened by it. I wish and hope that one day it won’t be a surprise, or something to fawn over, or chase after, or treat differently. I understand that I grew up in a more developed country and that I am serving in South Africa during changing, post-apartheid times. What I see and endure is part of the oscillating growth process and I think my presence is a tiny contribution to making varying skin colours “okay.”

It’s interesting how much power diction has on the mind. And how much power one nugget of negativity or racism can have on an individual…which can turn into a dangerous pyramid scheme to encourage stereotypes. Something my brother Zweli and I do sometimes is point to each other’s arms and say, “Different,” and then point to each other’s hearts and say, “Same.” I don’t feel qualified to give any advice or epiphany at the conclusion of this wandering post, other than to just…spread love whenever you can, wherever you can, to whoever you can. It speaks volumes. Boom; Hallmark ending to a difficult issue.

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– – – – – – – – – –   and…   a few more photos from the past few weeks  – – – – – – – – – –

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3 Responses to umlungu blues

  1. Hyacinth Foster says:

    First, I can see that you are adapting well, your spelling of colour is a good indication! Just flip the coin, and I have had similar thoughts. However, mine is compounded by the fact that I am “of color (colour), a woman, and a scientists with a Jamaican accent”. Not easy to accept in my country where individual like to put others into neat packages. I know I defy all classification, but I always encourage my students that while we have become conditioned to see color first, we should have the strength to see people as just people! Remember, we all have the same color (colour) of blood…. That might be where we should all start! Stay blessed. Much love.

  2. Mary Archer says:

    LB, I just now read this post, and am impressed with your wisdom and maturity. “Judge not that ye be not judged”, the Good Book says. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a great example of servant love to ‘foreigners’. You are a wonderful example of the same ‘servant love’, living among blacks and showing by your acts that color doesn’t matter. “God so loved the *world* . . . . ” You are changing perceptions, day by day.

    Bravo to you and for you, Sweetheart! I love you!!!!

    On Sun, Mar 10, 2013 at 2:23 PM, laur(a)frica wrote:

    > ** > laurabramblett posted: ” Hanging out with some learners at a big > district track competition Ive been sitting on my porch for a > while today, swatting away aggressive flies and scribbling some thoughts > abou”

  3. Patrick says:

    Laura, thanks for sharing these thoughts and insights with all of us. I greatly appreciate the experience you are having and the way that you are processing skin color in a whole new way. Godspeed. Patrick

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