Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Racism in Our Lives

I never expected the racism that we would face. It showed up very early on, but the surprising thing was who showed the most racism. The kids. Our kids were racist, very racist, when we first met them.

I remember one particular day, being in Uganda and washing dishes (by hand people, you know, sink, soap, water, and sweat running down your back in the Ugandan humidity). JoAni straight out asked me, “Do you have black people to wash your dishes for you in America?” I wasn’t ready to try to explain a dishwasher given the level of English we were using at that time. So I just said “no” given that if our dishwasher died, we certainly would not be hiring a black person to come wash our dishes for us. Can you imagine that Craigslist ad? “Seeking an African American female to perform dish sanitation.” Yeah, no!

JoAni asked about our President and how he was chosen. I told her that our President is black. She told me that someone had made a mistake because a black man couldn’t possibly be the President of a country full of white people.

EVERY single time we left our guesthouse, our kids would ask us over and over if we would be coming back. They were so scared that we were going to ambush them and just dump them off somewhere. One day we were in the car, almost back to the guesthouse and JoAni said “oh we are here!” So I was teasing her and said, “Oh we are? I will ask the driver to stop so you can get out since we are back already.” We were still a ¼-½ mile away. She replied by saying “no, no, no, I am the child of a Muzungu (white foreigner) now, I can’t walk.”

In Uganda, you see dark brown faces walking, and walking, and walking. Ugandans walk. Then you look at the motorcycles. More like dirt bikes. Fondly known as boda bodas. No helmets. Swerving and careening in between cars., up on sidewalks, on road, off road. Young brown men drive them with their paying passenger perched behind them. Women ride boda bodas side saddle style. I have absolutely no concept what it is that keeps them from flying through the air each time they hit one of the thousands of massive bumps in the road. In their full length skirts, one hand holding  some kind of wares to be sold in the city, one hand holding the bike, and their faces looking completely calm. The day that I took Ryan to the hospital for malaria, my car passed a boda boda with 3 adults on it.  As we came parallel beside them, 3 little toddler faces popped out from between the larger bodies sandwiching them on. Can you imagine? It wasn’t uncommon to see. No car seat. No helmets. No crush zones or air bags.

Occasionally you would see a Muzungu on the back of one of these death traps on wheels. A stupid Muzungu. You know who you are if you are reading this. I work in auto insurance claims…. Yeah, stupid Muzungu. So why is the Muzungu stupid for riding on the boda boda and the Ugandan is not? Well it’s simple. The Muzungu has a choice. The Ugandan does not. Cars are so very expensive in Uganda. Fuel and maintenance are expensive by American standards. Very few Ugandans have the financial resources with which to hire a car. We didn’t just need a car for the 6 of us plus a driver. We had to have a station wagon or minivan. Resident cockroaches or not, a minivan was a luxury among luxuries.

So there you have it. Muzungus ride. Brown people walk. There was no arguing what they saw day in and day out. We didn’t even try to explain racial equality. We knew that they had seen injustice and they would have to see equality before they would ever understand, much less agree.

Since we have been home, we have only run into one flat out negative experience. I picked up the kids. They had been playing at a park with a splash pad with their cousins. Half way home Sylvia’s voice came from the back row of the SUV. She was seated on the left side. “Mommy… child say my skin is black and is ugly.” I asked her to repeat herself a couple of times. Surely I was hearing this wrong. Her English was still not solid. Maybe she was saying something different. Maybe she misunderstood what the other kids said. I came to understand that their cousin B had been with them and had tried to warn the kids to stay away from that mean kid. Their cousin was old enough and smart enough to have understood the whole deal. So I knew it was true. I drove a little more with my mind racing. What would I say?

I turned off the radio. I even turned off the fan. I barked back into the rear view mirror, “Listen up! Can you hear me?! I need you to hear me. That child is stupid. It’s not nice to call people stupid… uh… But some people just are. Your. Skin. Is. Beautiful. Do you hear me?! That boy does not get to decide. Your skin is beautiful. If you let him decide, he wins. If you decide, you win. He is stupid! Got it?” A solemn, tentative, and relieved chorus, “Yes Mommy.” Oh how I doubted myself after that. I felt that I handled it horribly. Of all the mommy-doubt-moments, that was one of my worst. I posted on Facebook about it. And a high school classmate of mine who happens to be African American, complimented me saying that I had done well. I can’t begin to explain to you how much her words meant to me.

Recently the kids learned about Martin Luther King Jr. Last year their English wasn’t good enough to understand what was being taught about him. This year they were FULL of questions. I pulled up some of his speeches on YouTube. They struggled to understand between the vocabulary and poor audio quality. And I struggled not to cry. We have explained segregation and the fact that we would not have been allowed to be a family 100 years ago. They get it. They definitely get it.

Tonight Sylvia called up to me from the bottom of the stairs, asking me to teach her how Rosa Parks sang. I told her I had no idea what songs Rosa Parks sang. Sylvia said “I only know♪ Free at last ♪ Free at last ." I told her that was not Rosa Parks singing but was Dr King speaking. Standing at the railing I said “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” And with that I went into my room and cried.


  1. Those last few lines made me cry.

  2. crying too. I had that same thought on MLK day. Not wanting to tell my kids "it's still not over guys..."


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