20th century ideology…

I’ve been thinking about this one comment I encountered during the job interview last week – and it still makes me feel uncomfortable.

“Why should I employ you and not a Kenyan with similar or even better qualifications to do the job?”, she had asked.

“Well, maybe because I can get things done where others might just relax and feel too superior for the grass root work…maybe because some guys who are earning enough money won’t feel the need to care about simple work…”

There is no logical argument. Of course there are Kenyans who are much more qualified for the job – but where are they? The other day, this head of programme in Nairobi told me his latest applicant had asked for a monthly salary of US-$ 3300. And are they also capaple of creating a website for the programme within 1 hour?
See? That’s my advantage. I created it last night – it works, it’s free and it suits its purpose. I am the backoffice-admin guy. I am your problem solver. But also someone who hits the marketing drums, and feels an urge to promote your technology to a wider audience.

“Don’t you think that when I pay someone EUR 4000 a month, he or she will do a better job and be just as serious as you? Don’t you think your remark is a bit too racist?”

This is the point when my lower jaw fell down.

Me? A racist? What????

“No”, I replied, “it isn’t a racist remark to say these things. I don’t make a difference in race but instead in the way people approach their work”.

Honestly, what are you supposed to answer if someone comes up with such accusations? It made me feel bad, and it hits me where it hurts the most.

SANY0417

Racism….I’ve mentioned it earlier. Oh, on February 1st 2006? There you go….and the comments (still) speak for themselves.

This means that if you interviewed for a job, you might not get it, not because you are white but because the organization does not want to be perceived as favoring whites. In the US/Canada, they call this “reverse affirmative action” and there is a good example of it here.

Steve replied in a comment back then. And I agree. I also understand the motivation behind this approach and would probably have the same strategy if I was the head of programme. But I am not. I am a 31year old cosmopolitan who has lived in different worlds at the same time, has some key qualifications, and I know how to promote myself. If these organsiations are so much foccused on sustainability, well, let them do it their way. Even if they are spending Germany’s tax payer’s money – let them go ahead and employ locals for more sustainability. If this solves the problem, I am 100% ok with that.

But it doesn’t solve anything. Development aid still is a win-win business. And as such, everyone apparently tries to see where the benefit is. So why shouldn’t I try it as well?

I agree the unemployment rate is high and that may cause resentment on the Kenyan citizen if they perceive that he is getting the job just as when we are abroad and the economy of our host is not doing well, then there is high unemployment rate, the immigrant is the one who bears the scorn.

…Irene replied back then. And yes, even that is true. Btw, the unemployment rate in Germany as of January 2007 is about 10,2%, which equals in about 4,247 million people.

Back to racism. I had been thinking about broaching this issue some time ago and also chatted with sister Kui about it. While she grew up in the UK and is SUCH a mzungu :-), I also grew up in other parts of the world, far away from “home”. She advised me to handle this matter with the uttermost sensitivity, and I had meanwhile tried to ignore it. But then it just came back. I NEED to write it down and publish it here on my blog with my simple words…

Last year, Ngugi wa Thiong’o complained about this apparent racism in the USA, and while I 100% feel him on this issue, I also wonder about two things:

a) Bwana Ngugi, what did you expect of a country where some hiphop artists call themselves “Nigga”? What did you expect to find up there?

b) I wondered about racism in Kenya, and how white people are first of all regarded as white people before anything else. I wondered about this discrimination, and how one finds it among all (!) groups in Kenya. If you are white, you are different. You may have grown up there, you may speak the language, you may know more about Kenyan history than the average Kamau Njoroge from South B, you may know what it feels like to wake up with an empty stomach, you may know about the burdens your extended family has put on you, all these expectations, you may…just be as Kenyan as everyone else. But it doesn’t help. If you’re white, you are different. Sure, this prevailing picture quickly clears up once ppl get to know you better, but it is still there.

And then you, respected Ngugi wa Thiong’o, come to the US and complain about racism? What about the racism back home?

See? I am popularizing it in such a way, putting it in this cheap tit-for-tat response because when I – as a German – go to Kenya and complain about racism, I am afraid of stiring up dust which only generates more hatred. I am afraid of provoking yet another discussion whereas most readers of my blog are smart enough to know that there’s no difference among human beings except maybe for their level of intellect and what kind of chances & knowledge they were given while growing up.

Racism is soooo 20th century. Let’s leave it there.

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Hi, I am an engineer who freelances in water & sanitation-related IT projects at Saniblog.org. You'll also find me on Twitter @jke and Google+.

13 comments » Write a comment

  1. Quite a minefield you are treading :) The lack of objectivity (overall)in matters such as you described above are particularly troubling. Jke, this post is definitely food for thought.

  2. I think that the question “Why should I employ you and not a Kenyan with similar or even better qualifications to do the job?” … is extremely unfair to ask at an interview. Interviews are meant to determine one’s qualifications and fit for a particular job. If they found that a Kenyan and yourself both have the qualifications and fit to do the job, then they should be required to offer it to the Kenyan. If you are better qualified and better positioned to do the job than any other Kenyan or German or Khazakistani, or … who applies, then they should offer you the job. Plain and simple. The racism issue is another one altogether. Much more complex than you have brought up.

  3. There are historical and economical reasons why “whites” are regarded as such and it will take another generation for an average Kenyan to see a white as human being just like your comment on racism in United States ( A country that is even questions the “blackness of an aspiring presidential candidate and perhaps his answer was the most profound ” Cab drivers do not seem to mistake his race”. Back to history, scientists, psychologists etc tried for ages to prove how a certain race was superior than other. This created a movement that some races were actually inferior and even when they occupied a country like Kenya during colonial era( Read The untold story of British Gulag in Kenya),they regarded and treated black Kenyans as such.Even today some white folks still treat the black folks as inferior when they live or visit Kenya. So assume you as a Kenyan experience such, would you still look at another White as a Kenyan first whether you he has lived there for ages or not or will treat you him with contempt until you get to know that he may not behave like the others?

    Economically and part of it is historical as well most whites had mbeca than average Kenyan. When tourist throng restaurants in Kenya or the coast region, some flash their Euro or dollars to the locals and are all generous to tip above average than the normal Kenyan folks. This has created an assumption that all white folks are “rich” for a Kenyan who may not be aware some have saved a lifetime to even get that month vacation. So whenever he sees another white person, that image will always be in his mind that white folks have money until he is more aware that this may not necessarily be the case

    Another reason why folks look at white as white first. Apart from a few of you, how many mingle with the local folsk, how many care to know beyond the tourist vans, beyond the westland/ gigiri road? How many can even speaks the local language fluently? Most have done a good job of segregating themselves in Village market vicinity or some private ranch in Nanyuki and the only contact they have with the locals is through their watchie, househelp called “wanjiru” and the driver. It is such factors that make Kenyans see a jungu in you first and foremost . We unfortunately in this world we are still being judged by the behavior ,the clolor and the stereotypes. For instance, as a black woman, some white folks see me as whore/biatch as scantily dressed “MTV Snoop Dog video girls on a leash”:-) they see on the show, in corporate America before anything else “I’m a black woman with attitude ,please approach with care”. I’m stereotyped as that no nonesense black woman who will hurl insults at you ifyou dare disagree with. All those assumptions are laid on me not because of anything but the stereotypes that I have to bear everytime I set foot to the world that do not know me until I prove otherwise.

    Pole JKE but it wil take centuries not just 21st, to end racism .We can only account for ourselves not to be but we may not account for our neighbors not to be…..

    Peace!

  4. heh!funny enough this is something ive been thinking about lately. racism. i used to get quite heated about the whole issue, now, i dont know?!I agree with some of the arguments irena makes…whites in kenya dont mix!and the things is its true.and its not just them ,the same can be said for other communities that came to kenya and stuck to themselves.the thing is the ‘whites’ enforce their differences. just the way the word nigga will reinforce certain perceptions in the states.
    if theyre whites who break out of the mould, who dont act ‘different’i.e the way the majority do, they are accepted as such,accepted as someone who doesnt shun us or our culture, someone we can call a brother but also as someone who may have certain oppurtunities available to them because of the colour of their skin.be it getting better service or..i dont know.im not even sure if im making sense.
    but stereotypes exist and in many ways we’re still pretty hung up on our past. as you said, once they get to know you or you get to know them, the stereotype is then challenged.and this is something that ive really struggled with, be it with people judging me or me judging them.but ill keep trying and hopefully keep learning

  5. An interesting piece. I do agree that in many ways that question at the interview was uncalled for. But I do think as white male you have a leg up in myriad situations where people of color will see no progress, sorry but the world is still that way. As a result some people think that yo should pay for that white priviledge by giving someone of color a chance via affirmative action.
    And yes alot of the behaviour of whites in Africa has colored stereotypes. People think you have more money so you will most probably get better service and be expected to pay more for it. But do white people experience racism to even a 10th of what black people experience? I don’t think so. But the fact that it happens to black or white people is sad enough.

  6. Grown up people who have been abroad before and who managed to secure their slice of the big cake asked me “What, you don’t have money? But you are white, you are supposed to be having some!”.

    But do white people experience racism to even a 10th of what black people experience?
    Of course they do! Have you even been reduced to the colour of your skin on a daily basis? Yes, have you? Daily, really, on a daily basis. Every single day you’re asked for money, every single day you are given higher prices…and so on. So please, don’t come and say black people have it harder. Well, maybe because the racism against them is wordwide – i agree to that. But this is about racism in Kenya, and as such, I found it a bit strange to hear Ngugi complaining about the US while in Kenya there’s so much bullshit going on.

    Even just 10% of this subliminal racism are enough to make you feel angry inside.

  7. Your anger is well understood by anyone who has had to face racism at any point. Here is my two cents. In every disagreement, a good/wise person knows when they are the ones who need to humble themselves and bring about peace and cohesion.

    Here is where you might disagree with me. Being white makes you that person in this case. True, it should be that you never face racism. But that is Utopia. So dealing with reality is understanding that black people everywhere have been abused by white people in their pasts. They are extending to you the hurts of their fore fathers and you’re paying for the misdeeds of your ancestors. In your case, no relation, Kenya was colonized by the British. However, you’re assumed guilty by color.

    I’m not claiming this is fair to you. I’m just saying at the point where your intention is to find peace and cohesion, you need to adjust yourself to expect these undereducated moments, and then in those moments choose to humble yourself and use that opportunity to educate those around you on the fact that their actions/words can be offensive to people like you who are well intentioned. Choosing any other path is setting yourself up for anger and hurt and amongst a group of people who can give you 400 reasons as to why they should mistrust you.

    To some extent, I almost think you would really come out ahead if you could respond to some of those annoying racism questions in a less angry manner and use a more enlightening approach. Simply making the point you’re not there because you’re white, but because there is a job that needs to be done, one which you’d be the best they could ever have at, and just express your understanding for their reservations with your color given the history of the world.

    No easy answers. Just difficult choices. My point is that we can’t act like people won’t be racist, just because we know they shouldn’t be. Reality demands that we adjust ourselves and act wisely.

  8. @Mimiz I could not have said it better. Ngugi to me has a reason to express himself on what he faces daily in good ‘ol USA whether some hip hop dudes call themselves “Nigga” and they are entitled to it .I do not agree with it but when you learn why they call each other that,perhaps you might understand they depth of racism in America and though I do not condon it ,I have come to understand a wee bit about it. Black people for ages and still do face racism not just from white folks but from Indians , yes Indians in Kenya, from Arabs, from Chinese , from Japanese, from Hispanic from anyone else who is a shade lighter. The list is endless and yet we still extend love and acceptance to all those even when we shouldn’t.

    JKE what you are experiencing is just an 1/8th of the whole equation as Acolyte said. Perhaps you should visit more countries where there is a large population of blacks and perhaps you might just get what Aco really meant. I also would not blame Kenyans for treating you the way they do. I’m sad that this still goes on but even us who are abroad in different corners of western countries, we struggle for accpetance and to be looked as another human being but it is not always that way. Basically we have learnt to live with it. Does it annoy us..yes.Does it sometimes make us mad and develop hatred subconciously towards the other race…yes.Do we sit in a coffee shop with our friends and converse about the injustices we face daily and how we feel belittle and reduced to the color of our skin ..HELL YES! But at the same time , I still have all sort of skin shades who I call my friends, I still try to knock those door down to prove I’m capable and my suggestion after all is said and done is , learn to perservere and never tire to fight for what you deserve no matter how annoying and pissing it might be.

  9. ditto mimmz and irena. i think sometimes as blacks or other minorities we feel the pinch even more because the form of racism against is not as demeaning as that against you.I could be wrong but the things is they assume you have…money, intelligence, capability etc…and they assume we dont. yes, even on a daily basis.

  10. ditto Mimmz and Irena and Mamashady. Not more to add really, just to say that you cannot avoid the fact that as a White you do have a legacy of privilege that no Black has had, and will not have for some time. Not fair? Naw. But I don’t care if you’re a white crackhead – take a shower, put on a business suit, and you WILL get that taxi before a similarly dressed black person. Racism’s not going away, anytime time soon.

    In truth, I’m really surprised by a kind of – sorry, my friend – naivete to your answer to the first interview question. I reread it, and the interviewer’s followup. In truth, you comment DID sound racist. My answer would have been:

    You shouldn’t. If there is a Kenyan who is equally or better qualified, hire her or him. I would. Because that kind of person, with that kind of talent, you do NOT want to lose. However, if you cannot find that kind of person, please consider me.

    Despite your idelaism – sorry, OUR idealism – we must be realistic: The world is racist, and we must be sensitive to this. Even if the racism is “in reverse”.

    You see, you have just experienced that aspect of racism that the rest of us have to go through ALL THE TIME: having to justify yourself to a White World. Of course, in your case a Black World. Get use to it if you want to live/work in Africa, just as we have to get used to it EVERYWHERE ELSE.

    I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to go thru this kind of dialogue:

    Me: When I lived in Switzerland, we…
    Other: You lived in Switzerland?!
    Me: Yeah. So, when I lived in Switzerland, we…
    Other: What were you doing there?
    Me: Ummm, work. So, when I lived in Switzerland, we…
    Other: What kind of work?
    Me: IT, computer stuff. SO…when I lived in Switzerland, we…
    Other: You work in IT?!?!?
    Me: YES! Telecomm, messaging systems. Now…
    Other: You must come from a rich family.
    Me: SIGH!

    Poor Whites, they just don’t know where to contextually put a Black person unless it has to do with crime, despair. Or hip-hip. We are our own worst enemy, of course, but that is fertile ground for another blog thread.

  11. Well well well, that lady/the job interviewer came up with this “racist?” thing in the first place – thereby implying that there are no white Kenyans! Are there noch black Germans? See?

    She mixed up nationalism with racism.

    And she put this racism thing before the actual subject of employing a German instead of a Kenyan. After all, it’s a german company – so why shouldn’t they employ a German, as all others do?
    I think in the end it isn’t about racism, nationalism or work permits, but the money they have to spent on you each month.

  12. JKE, thanks for the thought-provoking post. This is really a complex issue that I think about all the time as a foreigner living in Kenya, and as a non-white American who comes from a white-dominated country I call home. I feel you on being reduced to the color of your skin and all the stereotypes associated with it on a daily basis here in Kenya. It’s not even being reduced to a color, it’s being dehumanized. When I walk around, people don’t see a human being with feelings and thoughts. They run at me with their hands held out for money, many times not even bothering to say a word or make eye contact. When they do “speak” to me, it’s to mock a language I don’t speak, but that they think I should speak because of assumptions formed from their limited knowledge of people who “look like” me.

    Anyway, this is not supposed to be a rant about my own experiences. I’ve lived and traveled all over the world, and I’ve found that there is a different brand of racism in every culture. It’s unrealistic to try to rank one type as better or worse than another, as if you could place a numerical value on ignorance and hate. We are all survivors of racism, and at the same time responsible for perpetrating it in its various forms, because we are all human beings who judge, fear and make assumptions about others in order to make sense of a world that doesn’t work according to the predictable rules that we want it to.

    About your reply to the interviewer: I see how it could be interpreted as racism. But then this begs the question: What exactly constitutes racism? Is it racism when you generalize about a group of people based on your own personal experiences, a generalization which many of those same people would agree to be true? I know many of my Kenyan colleagues would say your characterization is dead on.

    None of this justifies anything. It only proves that we are all humans, the dumbest race of all. :P