White Boy in a Black Land

Tom Matlack travelled to Kenya and learned some things about himself and our conceptions of race.

I travelled to Kenya with my wife Elena and six year-old son Cole. A minority for the first time in my life, it made me think differently about race and my own racism.

As Kenya is a former English colony, which became independent in 1964, I am sure there are white Kenyans, but I literally never saw one during my entire visit. At the Nairobi airport on the way home,  I did notice a number of inter-racial couples with beautiful babies with light brown skin everywhere.  I stopped counting when I got into the double digits.

Everywhere I went, very-dark-skinned men and women kept welcoming me home, like I was a Jew returning to Israel. I am neither black nor Jewish, so at first, the kindness confused me. I kept trying to imagine walking north on the East Side of Manhattan, past 110th Street, and the residents of Harlem taking a look at my blond hair and blue eyes, welcoming me home.

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“Jambo!”

Everyone we met cheerfully greeted us with the Swahili “hello.” Our drivers, waiters, and our guide Protus took a particular shining to Cole. They’d bear-hug him whenever they saw him.

This made me think of a recent column by Shawn Taylor, a black man with a light-skinned daughter, about how, at the playground, he’s treated like a leper instead of the proud father he is. In one recent incident, Taylor was playing with his daughter and another little blonde girl. The blonde girl fell to the ground by accident, and her mother assumed the worst about Taylor. She calling him a nigger in front of his daughter. Taylor’s kept his cool, but he had to comfort his daughter, who was in tears.

Recently, a man drove a white van into our community back home. He tried to convince a young boy to get in the van, but the boy ran away, screaming. It left the community in a state of paranoia. All of the parents gave their kids the don’t-talk-to-strangers talks.

So after Protus, a large black man, took our son in his arms the moment he met him, Cole asked,  “I thought I wasn’t suppose to talk to strangers. Is he okay?”

“Yes,” I said, “he is a very sweet man who is just being nice.” But inside I wondered what I would say if a black man on the playground back home did the same thing.

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In Nairobi, on the way to the Masai Mara, where we went on safari, our driver David pointed out the U.S. Embassy where 258 people died in a tragic terrorist bombing in 1998, just a few hundred yards from our hotel. He made it clear that Kenya had since taken no chances with our lives. In the neighborhood where most diplomats live, security is so tight that visitors are not allowed to drive their cars inside. Security guards drive them in. “This is our country,” David said. “We believe in African hospitality, which means you can go into any local pub and easily make friends.”

I thought about visiting my friend Julio Medina in Harlem and arriving too early to go directly to his office. I went to a diner, ordered coffee, and pulled out my apple laptop to do some work. Was every black face in that place looking at me? Or was it me, just projecting my fear of being in a non-white diner?

I also asked David about President Obama’s Kenyan roots. “We had a national holiday the day after he was elected because we thought he was Kenyan,” he said. “But since then we realized he isn’t a Kenyan President.  He’s just another American President.”

I thought of how moved I was the evening of Obama’s election. How it made me think of how my parents had risked their lives in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I had been brought up believing in Civil Rights and made a special effort to befriend black kids in school growing up, in college, and even graduate school. My first girlfriend in college and my first girlfriend after college were both black, less out of love I think, and more out of some twisted sense of obligation.

In the end, Obama was just another president—a smart man doing his best under trying circumstances, but not categorically better or different for the color of his skin. I had been disappointed by his promise to get us out of Iraq and then his redoubling our troop commitment to Afghanistan. Not to mention his lack of progress on issues related to men, prison, education, and fatherhood.

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On safari, Protus proved to be an amazing animal tracker, often finding rare species of animals before any of the other guides.  But along the road he would always stop to tell the other guides, even those working for competing camps, about where he had seen the best animals.  I asked him why he did that. “You are all visitors to my country,” he said. A black-skinned man expressing profound pride in his nationality.

I tried to think if I’d ever heard an African-American expressing a similar sentiment about the United States. The only thing that came to mind was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Of course that speech wasn’t exactly pride in the status quo, which was Protus’s motivation, but an aspiration for an as-yet-unattained goal for what our nation might become. Perhaps Obama’s victory speech, though he was very careful not to pigeonhole himself as black, but rather as American.

But again, I wondered whether my lack of ability to recall African-American enthusiasm for our country had more to do with my own racial blinders than any lack of patriotism by black Americans.

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On a game drive one day, I asked Protus where he got his name. He said his dad was a student of Greek mythology.

Proteus was the prophetic old man of the sea, the son of Poseidon, who was said to live near the mouth of the Nile River. He was all-knowing but didn’t like to divulge his answers. He would change form to elude would-be seekers of his knowledge.  Because he could change form, he was considered to be a symbol of the original matter from which the world’s matter was formed.

The word “protean” is derived from Proteus and means having a transforming nature, not tied down to one form or embracing many different human concerns or attributes.

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Protus showed us the great migration of wildebeests, elephant babies, giraffes, buffalo and rhinos. But his greatest passion was for the cats of the Masai Mara, and of these, his favorite was the leopard. He showed us lions lounging, fornicating, and feeding. We followed a pair of cheetahs as they hungrily stalked their prey through the tall grass and watched another one sit atop a big rock, with a commanding view to see his beautiful skin and tear-dropped face close up.

Whenever he thought he knew where the next cat was hiding, Protus was all-business, driving quickly across the savanna and pulling on his cap with nervous energy, as he scanned the horizon. When he finally got us within a few feet of the animals he had been stalking, he shut the engine and let us behold what he had found.

His bloodshot eyes watched the cats, not so much directly, but with a sideways glance, as he tried to figure out what they might do next, whether there might be some “good action” coming in the form of movement or hunt. He would whisper to us what the cats were thinking, and more often than not, they then did exactly what he said they would.

But the leopards remained elusive. One morning we got a flat tire while visiting a Masai tribe. That afternoon, Protus sprinted across the mara, working on a hunch that the leopard was at a favorite tree.  The Land Rover tire popped again, leaving us to radio for help, quite a distance from home with no spare. We got out of the truck and saw huge thunderclouds coming directly at us. By the time help arrived, it was pouring. We got home after a long wet ride, having not seen the leopard.

But the next day, Protus was on a mission. He found the leopard just where he thought he would, up a tree with his fresh kill pulled into the branches of a tree, just next to where she was sleeping, all four limbs hanging off a branch. After a couple minutes, Protus said the giant cat would need to drink. She came down the trunk of the tree headfirst. Then he said she would feed. Up she went to the half-eaten antelope.

Cole had been gradually warming up to Protus all week. He stood on a big stone marking the border between Kenya and Tanzania while Protus held his hand. He no longer rebelled when Protus hugged him before and after each ride. But it was the leopard that made Protus a god in Cole’s eyes. After that, every day at lunch we’d sit outside eating, while Cole climbed trees pretending to be a leopard. And before long, he was sitting between Protus’s knees, driving the Land Rover when he’d let him.

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In Kenya, divorce is rare. Men are generally married with a family. From my completely unscientific sample, the men seemed highly interested not only in my own son, but their own boys. (Protus has a three year old at home.) I realize that much of Kenya is poverty-stricken, and there is every chance that the kindness shown to Cole could very well have been motivated by the desire to make a nice tip. But it certainly seemed genuine to me.

In contrast, I am again reminded of what Taylor had to say about black men in America:

Do we really live in a society that is still stuck in the lie that Black men cannot be fathers? Well…I must admit that I was on that same shit for a while. When my partner told me she was pregnant, I had fears that, at the moment of birth, a Greyhound ticket would appear in my hands and I’d leave my partner and new child to fend for themselves. I thought I’d become an absent father sleeper agent—the baby’s first cry would activate me and my mission would be to get as far away from mother and baby as possible. Because, throughout my whole childhood, I never once had a friend or met anyone (of color) whose father lived with them, or in some cases, even knew who their fathers were. There is a generation of brothers and sisters born after Viet Nam and before the release of Ghostbusters that are a tribe of fatherless children. My own father, I saw the bastard five times in my life.

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I am left wondering if my own reaction to Protus and the many other kind Kenyan men and women we met was influenced by their status as the majority, rather than the minority in their own country. Do I hold up African-Americans to a different standard, treating them with mistrust, even while bending over backwards to prove that I am politically correct, because they are a minority with a history of slavery that somehow I unconsciously buy into?

There is no doubt that while Protus and I actually had much more profound differences between us, I was much quicker to trust him and see our deeper similarities than I have been able to with most of my black friends back home.

Am I a racist? I hope not. But if I’m not a racist and you’re not and neither is anyone else this country, how can we collectively end up with a million black men in prison and such stark and persistent racial differences in terms of education, wealth, and life expectancy?

Racism, it seems to me, has become one of those words with such a violent and explicit association that the more subtle and, in many ways, even more damaging forms are excluded from the category, making the resulting macro realities appear to come into being with no one having to take responsibility.

When we call someone a racist, we think of a clan member. Or we think of some newscaster or sports announcing who says something dumb on the air. (I still think Don Imus joking about a women’s basketball team having nappyy hair is hardly as serious as the actions that lead to unemployment rates among young black men exceeding 25 percent in many United States cities.)

What I am saying is that I am not a KKK member, nor have I made insensitive racial jokes on the air. I come from a family of white people committed to fighting against explicit racism. But I am still a racist in its more subtle manifestations of assuming certain things about black people that are probably are not true, of hiding my fear behind do-good attitudes, of not taking action to make this country a fair place for men and women of all races.

That’s why our trip to Kenya was so important. I got to see my own son’s reactions to race and rethink my own.

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In the end, what moved me the most was that Protus was so kind to us and especially to Cole. I don’t fully understand the psychology that allows a man, part of a majority race colonized by white people, to be able to let all that go. And when a white man shows up with his family, he embraces them with unconditional love.

My lasting memory of our trip isn’t the lions or the elephants, not even the leopard and its huge paws hanging down from a tree as it slept. It was saying good-bye to Protus and having Cole, the little boy who, so shy at the beginning of the week, had hid behind my legs, shooting like a rocket across the parking lot, straight into Protus’s waiting arms for one last hug.

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More articles On Race:

On Race

Black Boy in a White Land

‘Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race’

Eating While Black 

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. This: “But I am still a racist in its more subtle manifestations of assuming certain things about black people that are probably are not true, of hiding my fear behind do-good attitudes, of not taking action to make this country a fair place for men and women of all races.”

    Racism is not dead. It’s hidden. It’s subtle. It’s in the things we think and the assumptions we make – the things not said, and not heard (because that’s no longer “socially acceptable”) … but that manifest in other ways (where it still most definitely is). From judging a black man in a playground, to defunding Planned Parenthood.

    The key is being able to see those assumptions, those thoughts, that hidden bias. To voicing it, no matter how bad it sounds, and then being able to change it. One mind at a time. Great post.

  2. Great post Tom – glad you can say the truth instead of pretending – we have a lot of work to do and it starts by individuals developing trust. And then, as my friend told me, we just gotta keep fuckin each other until we’re all the same color.

  3. I think we’re all too hell bent on eradicating something that can’t be eradicated.

    We all make snap judgments about people. We take a look at how someone is dressed and leap to conclusions about their financial status. We listen to people talk and estimate whether or not they’re stupid. If the people we’re judging are of the same ethnic background then we’re just judgmental jerks. But if they’re different, we run the risk of being racist.

    By that rationale, everyone is racist. And everyone will always be (at least a little) racist.

    • There’s an important difference between prejudices and racism. Prejudices respond to education. Racism, which is systemic and beneficial to one group at the expense of another, is often normalized by the dominant culture. Snap judgements are how most of us get through the day. Racism, on the other hand is what decides that two people who commit the same crime get vastly different prison sentences.

  4. Thank you for your candidness. Very few are ever willing to explore their prejudices and how they contribute to this racist society.

  5. God, this post was beautiful. Hearing about ANY country where people are welcoming and friendly just makes my heart smile. I wish I could meet Protus!

    Do you believe you are actually ‘racist’ to some degree, or that you simply have a fair amount of privilege because of YOUR own race? I think there’s a big difference in the two. Down to its bare bones, racism is — as I see it — the idea that there are differences between people based SOLELY upon their race. Thing is, in America, this is very true — but it’s institutional. It’s not something YOU intended to have happen, but the generations before you set it into motion and, for better or worse, we have to deal with the results of it and try to correct it. In my opinion, when a bunch of white conservatives vote to defund Planned Parenthood because they mistakenly believe that everyone starts out with the same clean slate and should “make their own way”, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, etc., they’re acting from deep within their own privilege. They believe that the same doors that might be more easily opened to them (being white) are just as accessible by minorities when, in fact, they’re not. I don’t know if I would consider that racism, in that people seek to treat minorities differently as a result of their race; I think that subtlety you speak of comes from the premature expectation of total equality. They believe that perfect equality should happen on THEIR watch, with neither a push down or a hand up should be given to anyone, while it’s safe to say that many minorities are still deserving of additional measures to counterbalance the natural advantage one has just for being white.

    Anyhow — that might just be semantics. But I totally agree with you that things are not yet as they should be, and any experience that gives a person a greater understanding of that is to be shared the way you’ve just done. Thank you for that.

  6. Loved this… Thanks for sharing!!

  7. The inter-racial couples with the “beautiful” babies huh?

    Our words betray our thoughts.

  8. Is telling a black kid to pull up his pants and improve his appearance, racism or leadership? If it comes from his black mother is it the same or is it okay? Does she become an Uncle Tom for trying to uphold a standard?

    Is it racism for a white kid to never think in terms of race religion or creed, an approach these topics in his life with ambivalence and a carefree attitude.

    The issue is too slippery to define easily or with a high degree of accuracy in each situation. I think too many people have a racism on the brain and make a perceived slight out of any situation. It’s like a disease, where the more you obsess, the worse it gets.

  9. Intelligent, thoughtful and beautifully written. Thanks Tom! It shows the many conversations that go on in our minds about race, it is not black and [or versus] white: it’s a foggy grey. The more we talk about it in as honest a way as this, the clearer it will become.

  10. I LOVE this quote:

    “Racism, it seems to me, has become one of those words with such a violent and explicit association that the more subtle and, in many ways, even more damaging forms are excluded from the category, making the resulting macro realities appear to come into being with no one having to take responsibility.”

    This is exactly what I have been trying to explain to all my friends for so long!

  11. I am a Kenyan lady born and raised in Nairobi and now living in the USA. Two things i have to tell you:

    1st- Sorry to burst your bubble, Protus was nice to you mostly because he wanted a bigger tip. Tourists visiting Kenya are known to be big tippers so the nicer he is to you and your family the higher the chance that you will give him a huge tip. Kenya is a poor country with a very high cost of living and he is not paid very well so any chance he can get to make money he will take it even if it means bending over backwards for you and your family. Next, his job is highly tied to him pleasing you (and the other tourists), their is a high rate of unemployment, if you expressed any dissatisfaction at something he did, he would have been fired immediately and replaced like the next day. The tour company/ hotel/ safari business is highly competitive, they want you to come back.

    2nd- “I am left wondering if my own reaction to Protus and the many other kind Kenyan men and women we met was influenced by their status as the majority, rather than the minority in their own country”. You are correct, Kenya has a small asian and white population, black people are the majority from the president, cabinet, govt workers, police, company CEO’s, the military etc. I grew up proud to be black, the sky was the limit. I had no fear of being stopped by the police for “driving while black” , i could shop at high end stores without being followed around in case i shoplift. Things you don’t think about when everyone looks like you. There is classism but racism is not as huge.
    I don’t deny that Kenya has a lot of problems from bone crushing poverty to diseases and high crime.

    I love my life here in the states but boy was i in for a “re-education”. As a black foreign woman from Africa life has been pretty interesting. Anyway I hope my long winded rambles make sense.

    • If Proteus was solely profit-motivated, he would not have shared his knowledge with his competitors.

      I live near a U.S. city with a high tourism trade. We’re extra nice to tourists here because they bring us money. But that habit bleeds over into everyone’s lives, and we’re all just nicer to each other. I’ve lived in many cities; this one is different.

  12. Cool pictures.

    • Trev, if the only thing you got out of this article is how cool the pictures are — you are part of the problem.

  13. Thank you for this incredibly eye-opening read. I admire your willingness to re-evaluate yourself and tackle a lot of the tough questions that most people are afraid to ask themselves.

    Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, even though I’m sure that I will be slightly suspicious of any white guy that asks me out from now on (yes I’m black). Finding out that a guy only asked me out because he felt obligated to would rip me apart. :(

Trackbacks

  1. [...] “White Boy in a Black Land” Tom Matlack travels to Kenya and confronts his own views on race both here and abroad. “Am I a [...]

  2. [...] Matlack at the Good Men Project recently reflected on the experience of being white during a journey he took to [...]

  3. [...] August 8, Tom Matlack wrote a post, “White Boy in a Black Land” about how a trip to Africa forced him to confront his own views on Race and Racism. Tom asked [...]

  4. [...] What Tom experienced on safari is not dissimilar to my experiences in corporate America, except without the warm welcomes in hope of a good tip. I’ve been dependent on the kindness of strangers in a potentially hostile environment where no one looked like me. From my Wall St. days to my time in advertising to the many years I spent in magazine publishing–not including the guys who delivered my mail or worked in security–I can count the number of times I’ve worked with another black male on one hand. On the rare occasions I did work with another person of color I felt obliged to challenge them to a duel; as Highlander taught us, there can be only one.A black male in the upper echelons of corporate America is far more rare–and harder to spot–than any leopard in the wilds of Africa. [...]

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