Monday, 30 March 2015

Casual Racism In Kenya And How We Have Enabled It

I don't normally write social commentaries simply because a) I'm not very good at them b) they are very hard to articulate without polarising or offending and c) I like to believe in the good of the world and bad things make me sad so I tend to lurk on the sidelines of any social, economic or political issues.

But racism in Kenya is something I am becoming increasingly aware of and increasingly outspoken about, in conversations with friends, strangers and on social media. I've lived in a few countries in Africa, Europe and Asia and when you live abroad, you are hyper-aware of racial nuances. I have perhaps been super fortunate because I can't say I ever had any racist encounters in any of the countries I lived in. I had a lot of ignorant ones of the 'Do you have tigers in your garden?' and 'Oh you're African, you must be healthy and strong' variety but those are usually more funny than anything else.

So it makes me sad and perhaps it makes me angrier than it otherwise would that I have moved home, to my country of birth and a place that I love, warts and all, to be made to feel like a second-class citizen. It actually always catches me unaware because unlike in my time spent away, here in Kenya, my guard is down. I'm relaxed and open and friendly and welcoming because, after all, I'm home. And because, in general, Kenyans are very welcoming and accommodating of other races, maybe even more than we are of other tribes.  

For me, the most troubling thing about any racial encounter I've had in Kenya is not that it's bog-standard racism 101; I could deal with someone calling me a nigger or a monkey or a coon or a wog because the person is actually telling you 'I don't like you'. You know where you stand with that person. It's the casual racism, where things are said to, at, or around you, with no real thought as to any offence it may cause. Said by people who would not consider themselves racist and would be mortified and even offended to be accused of the same; in fact they often have black Kenyan friends, colleagues and partners. It's the 'these people' or 'Kenyans are so' comments that flow so easily from their lips, irrespective of what company it's said in. It's the woman in the cafe saying within earshot of me that she's not an African girl, she's not impressed by material things. It's my husband's associate, sitting across from me at the dinner table', joking that the only problem with Africa is that it's full of Africans. It's the Chinese restaurant that openly admits to not permitting black Africans after 5pm, unless they're drivers or domestic staff. It's the woman at the dog club assuming that I must be my (white) friend's domestic helper because Kenyans don't know anything about animals. It's the man at the supermarket till complaining to his friend that the reason things in Kenya don't work is because Kenyans are inherently lazy. It's the manager at one of my favourite restaurants telling me that he can't be front desk, he has to remain in the back to watch over staff because they steal. It's the owner of the trendy bar grudgingly admiring Kenyans innovation for graft, and in the same breath giving that as a reason for having a white manager. It's the drunk woman on holiday saying that we have done nothing with our country since they handed it to us 50 years ago. It's the multinationals that only place white or foreign people in senior positions. I could go on, but you get the gist. 

And I blame us for this status quo though. When all is said and done, people act how you allow them to. And because we are so permissive, we have turned into our own worst enemies. At restaurants, you are more likely to receive worse service as a black person than another race, from the black staff. Black hotel security and front desk personnel have gained notoriety over the years for refusing access to black people, including, infamously, Naomi Campbell (not sure if this is an urban myth). We laugh and embrace 'TIA - This Is Africa' and 'African Time' like being corrupt and unreliable and tardy and lazy and thieves and beggars is written into our DNA. We shuck and jive to the tune of the highest bidder because, increasingly, all that matters to us is the colour of money. We create an easy and comfortable environment for people to treat us as less than equal. I have West African friends, particularly Nigerians, who laugh at us. Who say that half the stuff that goes down here would never even be considered in their countries. We can't even blame it on colonialism because, many of their countries were colonised too. But certainly it is widely known that Kenyans believe that foreign is better. We are willing to pay top dollar for cheap, second-hand crap on Facebook marketplaces because the items sold are either foreign or sold by foreigners. It's like an automatic quality-control stamp of approval. And when we get a bum deal, we are shocked and dismayed that a 'insert other race' person was less than upfront with us. 

Slowly though, there is a growing sense of national pride, and it is coming on a wave of pent-up anger and resentment. Discussions about race frequently deteriorate into counter-racist diatribes by Kenyans who feel that for so long they have been slighted and want to vocalise their feelings. And these feelings are also spilling over into daily encounters. Are they always fair, valid or even relevant responses to a situation? No. Sometimes they are disproportionally overblown and even, downright ludicrous. Someone the other day told my husband to go back to his country. He was hurt by this, and I was hurt for him, but I have heard this sentiment echoed by many of my friends and I have said it myself. Counter-racism is not the answer, and it makes us no better than the purported racist, but like it or not, understand it or not, agree with it or not, this is a necessary evil, and the situation will likely only get worse before it gets better.

With education and exposure, many of the positive stereotypes many Kenyans embrace about other races are slowly falling away to expose people for who they are. Just ordinary people some good, some bad. Change in this county is coming, slowly. Very slowly but, it's inevitable. And it will make many people, of all races, uncomfortable. But the basic premise for this change is nothing revolutionary. It is simply this; respect me, not because I am black or I am Kenyan but because I am a human being deserving of respect, like any other. Don't generalise about me or mine; treat me on a case-by-case basis. And if you must spew some biased crap, at least have the courtesy not to do it to my face.


  1. Bravo - thanks for writing this!

  2. Well said! We are our own worst enemies.