Growing up as a white, middle class male in the American Midwest never exposed me to much in the way of prejudice. I can’t remember ever feeling isolated or different from the people around me. The only real way I’d ever stood out was the freakishness with which my body developed, but luckily for me, a sixth grade giant who already has to shave everyday is not exactly a target for ridicule.
My days of blending seamlessly into my surroundings ended abruptly when I moved to Uganda. The communities here are so homogenous that people can tell when you are from a different region of this country. Imagine, then, how much I stick out. I am literally the only white person in my town. A minority of one in a community of 80,000. I try to treat every experience in country, good or bad, as a learning opportunity, and what has this lifestyle taught me? Racism and prejudice is bad. You can quote me on that. It’s a revelation, I know.
The fact is that no matter how hard I try to fit in, I never will in Uganda. I will always be seen as an outsider while I am here. My name is often muzungu, the color of my skin. I am asked dozens of times per day for money. I get talked about by gossiping women in the market as if I am not standing right in front of them. I am overcharged for almost everything. I am so berated by requests that I am often suspicious of anyone who approaches me. Most days I am able to take it all in stride, at least hiding my aggravation usually by ignoring rude behavior, but sometimes stopping to address things in a constructive way. There are rare occasions though, when I’m caught on a bad day and my temper gets the best of me. By American standards, it would seem pretty mild, but I’m still not at all proud of these moments.
In the past, this is the part of my blog where I would try to come full circile and explain things away, usually citing some differences in culture. While the fact that I, along with my other Peace Corps Volunteers, get treated more like tourist attractions than people probably can be explained in terms of differences in culture, I don’t think that excuses anything. Being singled out for standing apart from the majority is a terrible thing to experience. Even on my best days it is extremely hurtful and always takes a bit of the wind of sails.
I didn’t write this blog to create some kind of pity party for myself. My suffering here is miniscule, and there hasn’t been a single day when any of it has outweighed the good parts of my service. I love it here, and for the most part I love the people here (although, like anywhere else, there are good and bad). What encouraged me to sit down and write this was a conversation I had with my friend, Jake. Like me, he’s been frustrated by the prejudice he receives in his community, but he said something that really put the whole situation into perspective. He said something to the extent that even though it was obnoxious and even hurtful at times, we get treated the way we do for two main reasons: the people in our communities perceive us to be very smart and very rich, two incredibly positive things. With that said, I realized that I can’t even imagine how alienating it must feel to be a part of a people judged for being intellectually, physically, morally, or in any other way inferior. I am not advocating that we ignore all of the differences that make us unique and interesting, as is often the case in today’s overly politically correct world. Rather, my experience has just reinforced in me the notion that we should treat everyone with the love and respect that they deserve.