We walked into the police station in Uganda. My white British friend who wanted to file a complaint had asked me to accompany her. The three officers behind the desk stood up immediately, one giving her his chair, the other rushing to take notes and the third, with a great deal of concern on his face asked her what had happened.
Sat in the waiting area were a pregnant woman and an elderly gentleman, both were black Ugandans. The lady had been waiting over two hours for the police to attend to her while the gentleman had spoken to them regarding his issue and been told to wait. He’d been waiting for almost three hours. My friend on the other hand was dealt with immediately and within thirty minutes all procedures had been carried out and her complaint both logged and addressed.
Two years prior to this I was stood in a queue at a bank in Uganda, ahead of me was a white gentleman and in front of him was an elderly Ugandan lady. The Bank Manager came out and bypassed the lady at the front and made a beeline to the white man. I stood, absolutely baffled by both her actions and the collective silence of everyone in the bank as if this was a normal occurrence. As I called out to the manager and pointed out that the Ugandan lady was first, she ignored me and continued on with her tasks.
This was to be the first of many situations I witnessed of what I believe can be defined as ‘white privilege’ in East Africa, a right earned through the continued domination of white supremacy.
Two weeks ago the media reported that the Kenyan Government have offered a free holiday to the family of a 15 year old American tourist who was ‘harassed by a police officer’ because he mistook her for terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite. If it was a Somali family holidaying in Kenya and their son had been mistaken for Abu Ubaidah the new leader of Al-Shabaab would the same courtesy have been offered? I highly doubt it.
Why is this? Because the American tourist was white and thus she along with numerous others enjoy a certain privilege earned by the colour of her skin.
The concept of white privilege is associated with predominantly white societies such as the United States of America and Great Britain. In these parts of the world it manifests in a variety of ways, from being as simple as wanting to buy a pair of ‘nude shoes’ and finding that ‘nude‘ in the fashion industry equates to that which matches white skin, to forming the foundation of a society where young black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown can be killed based upon appearance and justice to their loved ones denied.
These examples may not always apply to countries like Kenya and Uganda where the population is predominantly black. However borne in this part of the world are types of phenomena which fall into this category, particularly as they often create some form of disadvantage for the local population.
Like the example of the bank mentioned above, it is in shops, restaurants, bars and other social spaces where white privilege often instigated by people of colour can be seen. Almost every person in Kenya that I interviewed cited the example of how security guards at shopping centres will often not frisk or search through the belongings of white mall goers yet non white visitors are always subject to a thorough check. Is this in itself not reinforcing the view that white people cannot be involved in criminal activity or terror and are therefore exempt from the process? This difference in attitude and perception adds to the dehumanising narrative which has for centuries formed the basis of how black people have been viewed. This stance which assumes the black individual is inherently prone to partake in crime is then juxtaposed with the inherent civility and innocence associated with the white population.
In Uganda 29 year old lawyer Lisa Mbabazi complains about staff at food courts, restaurants and bars choosing to serve white customers first, leaving people like her feeling like a second class citizen. In her opinion this practice upholds a system inherited from colonialism which “characterises black people as being inferior and thus not worthy of the same level of services and rights enjoyed by their white counterparts.”
A waitress in Kampala argued against this accusation telling me “It is just us being hospitable to our foreign guests”. I challenged her on this asking if the same treatment was given to black tourists from other parts of Africa or visitors from Asia and her response was a baffled silence. Nationality may bring some form of privileges however it comes second to race. A friend who is a Black British passport holder and her two children were stood in the immigration queue at Julius Nyerere International Airport, Tanzania. As she stepped forward to the counter she was stopped as the immigration officer pointed to the white couple behind her to come forward first, this illustrated that ultimately ‘passport privilege’ is beaten by that which is earned through skin colour.
A bar owner in Nairobi states that his reasoning for prioritising white guests is because they tip better and spend more than their black counterparts. He argued that white people in East Africa enjoy a certain level of privilege because they as foreigners or descendants of foreigners are considered to have money which provides them with multiple benefits as a result of race and wealth. Thus leading me to conclude that the benefits gained by the white population be they expats, tourists or residents is a result of the way they are perceived, a concept inherited from our colonial past.
The continued dominance of white superiority in this part of the world or indeed other former colonies such as India and Pakistan is not only evident in the treatment of the white population but also in the covert and overt ways in which we aspire to replicate and meet standards of the white western world. We want our buildings and cities to look like New York and London, a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken opens in Kampala and it becomes cause for celebration despite the fact that local chicken and chips shops have been around for decades.
Similarly eurocentric ideals of beauty, foreign products and all that is approved by those Western Countries where a white population is dominant, continue to be held in high esteem. As said by a Ugandan branding expert “We love Japanese electronics, however this is also due to the fact that these brands have obtained Western approval.”
In her novel ‘Looking for Transwonderland’ Noo Saro Wiwa speaks to a young Nigerian student who tells her “People don’t want to read books by Nigerians living in Nigeria. If Kaine Agary had published ‘yellow-yellow’ in the US, Nigerians would have taken an interest in it.” This is largely because of the power of Western validation which has also resulted in not enough value being given by society to local products, services and talent. In an interview Nigerian musician Femi Kuti said; “An African will prefer to be called John-Philip. If you said your name was Chukwu Emeka Afongkudong they will say you are from the village. You are backward. How can you have such a name? We really look down on our culture and heritage instead of being proud of it.”
The elite in East Africa often choose to travel to Europe or America for healthcare services. For example in 2003 President Museveni of Uganda spent thousands of pounds to fly his daughter to Germany where she gave birth. 2013 World Bank figures show the infant mortality rate (no. of infants dying before the age of 1) per 1000 live births stood at 3 in Germany while in the same year the figure was 44 in Uganda. Though President Museveni cited ‘security reasons’ for his decision we see once again that for the rich and the famous only healthcare facilities in the white western world will do.
The greatest irony in this matter is the fact that in recent times leaders in both Kenya and Uganda have partaken in Anti-Western rhetoric and gained much support from the populace for this. In Kenya, where both the President and Deputy President are facing trial at the International Criminal Court many have called for the case to be terminated and accused the ICC of being racist and a puppet of the West. While in Uganda strong support for the Anti-Homosexuality law was seen as making a statement to Europe and America.
So why over 50 years after decolonisation does white supremacy and white privilege continue to manifest in East Africa? Why are phrases such as ‘African timing’ or ‘African standards’ used in a derogatory fashion?
Some would choose to take a historical perspective on this, and quote the likes of theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi for who ‘a salient effect of colonization is the internalization of the inferior perception that is imposed on him/her by the colonizer.’ In Black Skin, White Mask Fanon writes “If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process; -primarily, economic; -subsequently, the internalization – or, better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority.”
These incidents, that way of thinking, that perception many possess fall under the heading of ‘colonial mentality’ which Kwame Gyekye describes; ‘Colonial rule infects the subjected people with a certain mental outlook, a certain pattern of thinking. This pattern of thinking has come to be dubbed “colonial mentality” and to be regarded as a negative intellectual attribute…. resulting in the tendency to regard foreign cultural products as of much greater worth than those of the indigenous culture.’ (Gyekye 1997:234)
If we are to go with this school of thought then the argument is that part of the hangover from colonialism is the belief both enforced and internalised that white people and culture continue to hold some form of superiority. In her paper ‘Skin Bleaching, Self Hatred and Colonial Mentality’ Dr Yaba Blay attributes part of the responsibility for this to the media and society as a whole “to have light skin means that you may have White (or other) ancestry. And if in this context, Whiteness has been historically projected as inherently better than Blackness, to have White blood automatically renders one better than average. While at the surface level, this type of thinking can absolutely be plugged into the “colonial mentality” definition, we cannot treat skin bleachers as if they exist within an ahistoric, apolitical vacuum. They are members of a larger society that has, and continues to privilege Whiteness.”
And so we frequently witness and experience in parts of East Africa, as in many other parts of the world this internalised colonial mentality which crossed from an appreciation of all that is white and western to becoming an aspiration, a standard on and by which judgements are made.
The colonialists were known to oppress their subjects and in exercising this mentality we ourselves give birth to an internalised oppression, one which many do not even realise they are partaking in.
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Samira Sawlani is a writer and journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani
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