“N*gger!” I turned to see a White man with a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it look on his face. I was walking to a party in Pennsylvania around 1992. I looked at my watch—I was running late. I stopped and weighed my choices. Do I miss hanging out with my friends and confront the man, or go on to have my fun? I laughed and walked on to the party.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2012. This time I’m in Connecticut, walking in my own neighborhood with my 2-year-old. She loves to climb on anything above two inches, so she’s walking on stonewall while I try, not wholeheartedly, to teach her about boundaries and private property. An old White woman opens a second floor and yells, “Get off my property!”
I yell back, “Are you stupid? A 2-year-old… These are rocks—are you stupid?” As I lift my daughter, I think, “do I want her yelling insults at old people?” It’s only later that I reflect back to the incident in Pennsylvania, long forgotten yet so easily recalled.
Having recently (at that point) come to the US from Kenya, where the majority is Black African, understanding racism was at first an intellectual exercise. Yes, I knew being called “n*gger” was a fighting insult, in the same way I knew then that racists don’t stop to distinguish being the various shades of black, and that the fight against racism was my fight too. But racism had no power over me. It could not yet dent my identity enough to make me do something outside my character that I wouldn’t have ordinarily done.
To be sure, there is racism in Kenya, mostly against Kenyan Indians, and a lot of ethnic tension and discrimination. They both take the same road of stereotyping and vilifying the other. So the idea of judging and hating someone based on their skin color or ethnic background was not new to me. But still, American racism was like a new language that would take time to acquire. I had to learn the meaning of phrases like “bell curve,” “welfare queen,” “not trustworthy,” “lack of ambition,” “take back our country” and others that in sum would allow me to hear what I previously couldn’t.
At the same time, this language was accompanied by violent acts against Black people, Black men in particular, to fast-track my learning to understand and speak racism. In the 1990s, there was the Rodney King police beating, the O. J. Simpson trial that ran and played out along the fault lines of race, and the police murder of Amadou Diallo.
In this so-called “postracial” age, we’ve seen Sean Bell shot dead by New York City police while out for his bachelor party two years before Obama became the first Black president. Even more recently, we’ve seen Trayvon Martin killed armed with a bag of candy, the Tulsa shootings of five Black men, and the shooting of Kenneth Chamberlain. At the same time, poor Black people have been disproportionately hit by the economic crisis, recession or depression (depending on your perspective).
In a way, being followed around in the stores, or being asked by five different sales clerks if I need help—these micro-expressions of racism are the least of my worries.
I can now look back and see just how naïve my understanding of racism was in 1990s. I thought then that racism had nothing to do with me personally. I even believed that racism was about people not really knowing each other; that if me and a racist were locked in a room and forced to dialogue, that maybe my humanity would come across. Over twentysomething years of learning the language of American racism have disabused me of this notion.
What I’ve learned instead is that racism is often personal. The old woman wasn’t yelling at a random Black father and daughter, but at my daughter and me. Because surely, living four houses down from her, she’d have seen us walking about, known where we lived, and formed an opinion about us.
To me, that sort of interpersonal, even intimate, racism is scariest. If you think about Emmett Till, for example, the White men who brutally killed him knew who he was, or at least his grandmother and other family folk. He was most certainly not a stranger, in the same way that Whites who attended lynches with picnic baskets probably knew their victims. It’s not very different from the ethnic violence that followed the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya. The violence was often between people who’d known each other for a long time. But because racism and ethnocentrism are about dealing with perceived threats to a way of life, to neighborhoods, to job security, the neighbor of a different race becomes an easy symbol of that threat.
I can’t pretend to know the solution. The language of racism is changing. That we have a Black president means a lot, but it also means less than we think. I say this because in Kenya, I have known only Black presidents. The end of colonialism promised a new dawn that, for the majority poor, has yet to arrive. In this respect, rather than see each other as threats, I do think there’s room for solidarity across the races to fight misguided politics that affect us all.
Let me put it this way: that old White woman who wanted us off her property? If her house was burning, wouldn’t she need my hand putting out the fire? Or I hers?
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit MukomaWaNgugi.com.