February 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
In conversations about poor young Africans in Diani engaging in sex tourism with older, rich white men and women, the typical explanation I get from fellow middle-class Kenyan peers places the blame entirely on the poor. I’d like to address some of the stereotypes about the poor that I keep hearing:
“They are just lazy. If they really wanted, they could work.”
Work where? There are no jobs in Diani. Tourism is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and most of the coastal region is almost entirely dependent on tourism, particularly Diani which has no other industries. And now in its 5th year, Kenya’s war in Somalia has led to the devastation of the tourism industry. Retaliatory attacks at the coast by Somali militants has made the tourists afraid to come. Several hotels have closed, many hotel workers have lost their jobs and crime is on the rise.
“If the poor would just take responsibility for themselves, all their problems would go away.”
What about the government’s responsibility? We need to stop scapegoating the poor for the failures of the Kenyan government in providing all Kenyans with the basics we need. Poverty is not caused by a lack of effort or priorities. The major factors that contribute to and keep people in poverty are systemic and actually not in their control.
“Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
On the contrary, I think that the rich and poor end up where they are mainly because of the opportunities they have in life, rather than due to personal successes and failures. The poor are poor because they lack opportunities and good jobs, not because of individual failings or poor work ethic.
“In life you just have to work hard.”
Most rich people I know got to where they are mainly because they had more opportunities, not because they worked harder than others. Yet we congratulate the wealthy for their hard work while blaming the poor for not working hard enough. We ignore statistics that clearly indicate that you are more likely to be rich if you were born rich and insist that the poor could do better for themselves if only they tried.
We forget that poor children have all the odds stacked against them. A child born into poverty has to contend with inadequate food, healthcare, education and crime-ridden neighborhoods. And even if she does try her best, very few opportunities will be open to her. Therefore chances are she will forever remain trapped in a low-wage job that prevents her from improving her life. And this cycle will repeat itself in the next generation.
While I’ve met lots of people who’d love to stop being poor, I have never once met anyone whose childhood dream was to be poor when they grow up. A little more empathy and compassion is therefore in order for those denied what they deserve by a system of inequality. As humans we should want to help the poor, not vilify them. A good place to start doing this is by changing the language we use to describe poverty and inequality.
July 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lately, in debates on white supremacy and racism, I keep getting responses from white people to the effect that I am wrong because they “know Africans who would disagree” with me. That my difference in opinion is not valid as the Africans they know would agree with their particular opinion. Often the white person will then go on to point out that they encountered said Africans during “extensive” travels in Africa; travels that even included my country Kenya. It is at this point that they will often stress their relief at not having encountered Africans/ Kenyans like me during said travels.
But here’s the thing. There are over one billion Africans in this world. Therefore, in order to seriously claim a firm and unanimous African opinion on any issue, you would have to obtain the perspectives of ALL Africans, and not just those of a token few.
Contrary to western stereotype, Africans are diverse people with diverse perspectives emanating from diverse experiences. After all, Africa is a continent (not a country) with over 54 diverse countries. And while there seems to be a preference among white people in Africa to surround themselves with token Africans who will tell them only what they want to hear, this does not mean that all Africans are in agreement with the token’s particular perspective.
Some Africans supported slavery and colonialism, while others continue to support neo-colonial imperialism by the West. Does that make those forms of oppression okay? Of course not. And the same applies to white supremacy and racism today. There are some Africans who – purely for financial reasons – uphold white supremacy. This is especially true when you take into account the economic hardships and rampant poverty plaguing many African people worldwide.
While token Africans make my job as an activist harder, I find that I can’t really blame them. Studies show that racism harms black people on a psychological level, leading to low self-esteem and sense of community worth among black children. It also damages the aspirations of black people and heightens anxiety and depression. When generations of black people are exposed to white supremacy and racism, it’s a no-brainer that some of that psychological damage will take on the “Stockholm Syndrome” effect of internalized racism.
Within the African-American community, there’s a name for black people who exhibit signs of Stockholm Syndrome: “Uncle Tom”. Such blacks are typically subservient or excessively deferential to white people. Uncle Toms tend to behave in a servile manner towards whites, marked with uncritical acceptance of the opinions and values of white people. Eager to win the approval of whites, they will cooperate with them – even to the detriment of the black community. In other words, they are willing to do anything to remain in good standing with whites, including betraying their own people. An Uncle Tom is a black man or a woman who bends over backwards for white people, while selling out the interests of black people.
I’m not that kind of African.
Fortunately, we live in a world in which “popular” (privileged) opinion is never the sole deciding factor. If it were, abolition and many other progressive achievements in history would never have been approved. Moreover, the fact that you “know” Africans who would validate your point of view, yet still encounter Africans like myself who would disagree with you should be proof enough of the diversity in African opinion. Picking and choosing only the perspectives that validate your opinion is a rather lame and disingenuous attempt at derailing conversations on race.
May 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
White people can play a role in African causes; but only in facilitating and boosting African voices – not trying to derail the conversation, or distract from and dismiss as irrelevant issues pertaining to white supremacy and racism. Dominating discourse, insisting on speaking for us, silencing criticism and abusing critics is an abuse of white privilege that only does more harm than good.
A white woman doing research in Kenya not too long ago went on a social media rant accusing Kenyans who expressed their support for the “Black Lives Matter” campaign of caring more about the victims of police brutality in the United States than those in Kenya. To her, Kenyans voicing opposition to white supremacy and racism in a spirit of pan-Africanist solidarity (see here and here) was trivial and below consideration. In short, our feelings and emotions towards the plight of our own in the Diaspora – Africans and people of African descent – did not matter.
Rather, it was her job to decide what matters for Kenyans, as we couldn’t possibly know what issues to prioritize for ourselves. After all, only the objective, rational perspective of a privileged white woman can determine exactly what is most important for us – and it apparently was not expressing solidarity with victims of the racism that she as a white person benefits from.
Taking her bigotry a step further, she went on to denigrate the efforts of Kenyans in raising awareness using social media. This in turn revealed just how much her white privilege had distanced her from the reality of the many Kenyan activists who turn to online platforms due to a lack of access to the real world platforms that she, on the other hand, is guaranteed by whiteness.
However, contrary to her belief that Kenyans are uncaring to their own, we are human beings capable of compassion and empathy for each other, as has been demonstrated time and again. More importantly, we’ve realized over time that white supremacy and racism in the West exacerbates the issues we as Kenyan people face in our country. It is this very same white supremacist and racist mentality that makes white academics in Africa, such as herself, feel entitled to engage in acts of erasure by invalidating and devaluing the views of Kenyan activists with the same or greater credentials, not to mention, lived experience, while posturing as “African expert” (white person who believes they know more about Africa and Africans, than Africans themselves).
Frankly, the cliché of the white academic turned “African expert” erasing African agency by stealing the spotlight from grassroots activists so as to be worshiped by Africa’s poor, while simultaneously boosting her academic qualifications to farther her career and profit from her “activism” is getting old. As a Kenyan woman, expressing solidarity with African-Americans against white supremacy and racism doesn’t mean I undervalue the experiences of Kenya’s poor. I just do not need a white woman to “educate” me on what they are.