Learning to Live Comfortably in My White Male Skin

via João Lavinha on flickr

Samuel Mahaffy is a man coming clean about his prejudice against white males in this culture—particularly surprising because he is one. 

The white guys in pickups with big wheels just make me nervous. What is it about being with East African men that leaves me feeling warm and comfortable?

It has been nearly 45 years since I left my country-of-birth in East Africa and I am still struggling with trusting white males in this culture. What’s particularly weird about that is I am one. I own that it is deeply engrained in my world-view to trust African men from my part of the world more than I trust white males. That is a prejudice that I wrestle with every day.

What does it say about me? About this culture? About the African culture I came from?

This fear astounded me when I first confronted it.

This comes up over and over for me. I work with many educated, white, professional colleagues who acknowledge their fear of going into ‘black’ neighborhoods. This fear astounded me when I first confronted it.

It was with great excitement that I invited my university colleagues to join me at an East African restaurant in Seattle, Washington and share the food I grew up with. Over a delightful dinner—from a shared common dish—we enjoyed spicy vegetarian and meat dishes popular in Eritrea and Ethiopia. A Ph.D. social scientist friend of mine leaned quietly toward me and confided that, while she was thoroughly enjoying the food, she would “never feel safe coming to this neighborhood on her own.”

This is an ethnically-diverse neighborhood adjacent to a university. When I come here, I sink into hearing East African languages, smelling spices from around the world, and noticing that the African men make direct eye contact and are present in a different way. I feel at home here.

The East African migrant community feels safer to me than middle class white culture. This became clear to me when I visited an Eritrean restaurant in Dallas, Texas, with my then four-year old twin daughters. Blond haired, blue eyed and weary from being cooped up on a plane, they were a sight scurrying around the restaurant where diners were nearly all Eritrean males from the town of Asmara where I was born. I tried to stop my daughters from playing hide-and-go-seek around other tables. I felt it appropriate that they respect others ‘private space’.

An elderly Eritrean man rebuked me kindly. “Let them go where they like. We are all Eritreans. They are safe here.”  They were soon sharing scoops of food at different tables. The Eritrean and Ethiopian men I know carry over to this country the custom of inviting anyone to share their dish of food, whether or not they know them. They are ready to welcome any child as their own to their dinner table or invite a stranger—with a simple welcoming gesture—to join their meal.

Where does my tendency to mistrust white males come from?

After some decades of therapy, it is still not entirely clear to me. It is triggered mostly when I am around macho men who carry power and authority like a veil around them. It is a wrap so different from the warm embracing chiffon cloth that African men sometimes drape over their shoulders. The white guys in pickups with big wheels just make me nervous. I have found them to be men who are quick to anger and otherwise show few emotions. They are also men of few words.

I own this as my stereotype.

Gratefully, I am in a recovery process as I meet good men who are able to stand in intimate friendship relationships, carry their part of deep conversations, and steward with care the earth, their families and those around them.

Over the decades, I found lots of ways to be in my white skin without really stepping into the white-male world that I entered when I came to the U.S. Mostly, I avoided it by forging deep friendships with women and with men from other cultures. Gratefully, I am in a recovery process as I meet good men who are able to stand in intimate friendship relationships, carry their part of deep conversations, and steward with care the earth, their families and those around them. These men are important for my healing process and my claiming of my identity as a white male.

What is it that makes me trusting of the community of men I know from East Africa? It was a startling realization for me that I would trust these African men with my young daughters more than I would trust most men I meet on the street in the mostly-white Caucasian city I call home. It is hard to define. There is a sense of relational responsibility and an air of gentleness that I trust.

There is a gentle presence that welcomes connection.

These are men who acknowledge relationships. They value relationships above personal agenda. Eritrean men are from a culture where the village celebrates together and the village weeps together.

Maybe it is the sense of the importance of the village and communal life that makes these men seem safer to me. It is just not the individualistic world of private property, private thoughts and pursuit of personal agendas that I find permeating much of the white male community of which I am a part.

Somehow, I am learning to integrate the soul of an African into this white male world. As I take my place as an elder in this mostly white world I find ways to deepen my relationships with the white males in my life. It is a deep healing to begin to step into deep trust relationships with men from this culture. I am discovering a wealth of wisdom and the blessing of new and intimate male friendships.

Maybe this male culture is changing or maybe I am changing. Slowly, my crafted stereotypes break down. I find myself able to bring into these relationships some of the richness of the world of African men that I have mostly left behind but still retreat into.

It is an integrating step that I must take for the sake of my son, for the sake of my daughters and for the sake of myself. I want us all to live life beyond the differences that divide us and the stereotypes that keep us apart.

Finally, I am learning to live comfortably in my white male skin!

[photo: via João Lavinha on flickr]

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About Samuel Mahaffy

Samuel Mahaffy was born in Asmara, Eritrea and grew up in Senafe, a village in Eritrea close to the border with Ethiopia. He has assisted more than five hundred nonprofits and NGO’s around the world. His work supports nonprofits in the Seattle, Washington area that care for refugee families and immigrants from East Africa.

Comments

  1. Thie is a very unique look at race relations or perhaps it is better described as cultural relationships.You make cultural distinctions more so than racial distinctions.Although the lines get blurred.For instance,it isn’t with all white guys that you have issues.You only have issue with white guys who embrace certain mores and values.However,it isn’t just white men who embrace the values to which you allude. I would like to think that you might take issue with any men who behaved as the white men you described.I live in Oakland,Ca,where there is a significant North African population,mostly Ethiopians and Eritreans.The egalitarian spirit you described as culturally ubiquitous is not.Initially,there was much fear and suspicion among them towards African Americans until they discovered we are not all the same.That is the point,isn’t it?One cannot attribute behavior,values and mores to a person’s skin color.

  2. starfinder says:

    Thank you SO much for this article. Since I was very young (say 3 years old), I’ve felt *very* uncomfortable in my white skin and culture. I am female and I have found every aspect of my American white culture suffocating–the Joneses, materialism, intellectual snobbery, consumerism, hoarding (money & possessions), emotional constipation across the board, and yes, especially private agendas and the emphasis on the individual. Please keep writing more articles; this one warmed my heart. I am so grateful. God Bless.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      Starfinder ….. suffocating? What does being “white” have to do with the choices you made in your life? All that you listed are life choices you’ve made. There was a time in my life that I could mirror that which you showed as being suffocating but I later changed my life in that I saw it as selfish with little meaning (except for my wife and kids). I made those choices back then because that’s what I personally “thought” was a measure of happiness and success. It had nothing to do with my being white in that I know minorities who live(d) the same life. Why we have to label our (wrong or right) choices as having a connection to our choices in life, I don’t understand. People of all colors make choices and IMO opinion to say that any choice being made is connected to the color of their skin, it’s absurd.

      • She’s looking for victim status to blame her personal faults and problems onto the society she lives in instead of her own decisions.

        Just another radical, Ignore.

  3. ogwriter says:

    I find it fascinating that you have chosen therapy as a means to help you circumnavigate this cultural/racial barrier.Since you look the same,on the surface anyway,as the white guys you percieve as less evolved white males,you are less likely to be confronted.At first glance,you are not a threat.You don’t have a scarlett letter painted all over your body that instantly distinguishes you from them.You can “hide” right out in the open.Why do you have so much fear of people who mean you no harm?

  4. Ms Vicki Johns says:

    Wow,this is fascinating…Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Yohannes says:

    This article is great. It´s culture and not race that divides us. I understand, being an eritrean myself, where Samuel is coming from. My take on this is, generally speaking, the richer people get-the more obnoxious behaviour they display. White, black, green or yellow. Doesn´t matter.

  6. Haile Mogos says:

    As an Eritrean from Senafe, it gives me great pleasure to read Samuel’s recollection of fond memories of his childhood in Eritrea and how his experience has positively impacted his life since. Samuel, thank you
    for your honest testimony and I am proud that our culture served as positive influence.

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