Tuesday, April 19, 2011





I used to bristle when I heard these things. I used to be angry. Now I sigh and look inward for strength and try to respond with a smile. I say to myself, “they are just ignorant. They don’t realize how much this hurts me. It’s just a word anyway. I am white, look at me. There’s no denying I’m different. But why do they feel the need to shout it at me?”

Sometimes I just let it slide. Other times I try to open up a dialog, use it as an opportunity for cultural learning. I say, “I’m not ‘mulungo.’ I’m ‘Professora Clancy.’ I am a teacher here. Please treat me with respect.” Sometimes it even happens in my own classroom. There are three students who have the bad habit of chattering about me when I turn to the board, using the terms “mulungo” or “white.” (The word “white” is spoken in English as a whining, drawn out syllable that is incredibly irritating.) Of course I confront them about it. I tell them “words are like rocks. They hurt when you throw them around.” I remind them that in my classroom we show respect for each other. But it still happens. I gave a kid a disciplinary mark yesterday. The bell rang and I was writing the last homework question on the board when he shouted “Tchau mulungo!” (“Bye white person!”).

Whenever I walk out my front door I can count on being the center of attention. People stare at me. Sometimes I feel like a celebrity. Other times I feel like there’s a horn growing out of my forehead. Sometimes people wave “hello.” Other times they wave like they’re waving at a circus freak. They get at thrill when I wave back, giggling and hiding behind each other.

Children are the most shameless. I say, “they’re just kids, they don’t know any better,” but it is still humiliating. They shout “mulungo!” and chilunguane!” over and over at the top of their lungs. They say “howareyouuuuu?” and squeal when you respond. When you run into a group of them on their way home from school, they crowd around you, daring each other to go up and touch you.

Teenagers make me angry. They are old enough to know better and they’re not cute anymore. I have teenagers stick their face in front of mine and shout “mulungo!” as they walk by. Last week I was running over the bridge towards a group of girls. One of them pointed at me and said, in Changana,

“African girls are pretty. White girls are ugly!”

I stopped them right there and said, “I understand you and I don’t like what you said about me.”

“I said you were pretty,” she said.

“Wahemba! You are lying!” I responded.

The girls wailed in laughter, discovering that I could understand and respond in Changana. There was no apology, no remorse. No one ever says “sorry” when confronted.

What bothers me about the children and teenagers is that they would never dare to do anything like that to an adult Mozambican. They would be beaten. Children and young people are quiet, obedient and respectful to their elders. They don’t see me as an adult. They don’t even see me as a human being. I’m like another species, an animal oddity that doesn’t need to be treated with respect or even humanity.

All of this is tolerable for a while, but after months and months of constant abuse you get tired of just taking it on the chin. You get tired of being the bigger person, being culturally understanding, accepting the ignorance of other people. You get tired of trying to bridge the gap and show people that you’re more than the color of your skin. It’s exhausting and draining. I understand why discrimination breeds hate. When the battle of educating and tolerating has worn you out, you are left resentful and defeated.

When I start to feel that way I focus on my Mozambican friends, the people who see past my skin color, who treat me like a person. I have the luxury of living in a walled school compound, in a neighborhood of professors. I feel safe and accepted here. Without this escape I wouldn’t be able to recharge. Without this sanctuary, I might become bitter.

Another Moz volunteer said something to the effect of, “to be white in the United States is to not think about it.” I miss not thinking about it. Sometimes I find peace in remembering what it’s like to blend in. I think about walking down a busy street or sitting on a bus and being completely invisible. I just found a journal entry from a trip to New York City right before I left for Mozambique when I was anticipating the situation I find myself in now.

September 10, 2009 – NYC

There is a sense of freedom, walking around New York City alone, feeling that while people may notice you, you certainly aren’t the most notable person they’ve encountered that day and they likely won’t remember you. You can, amidst millions of people, feel wonderfully alone, more so than in any small town. In fact, the fewer people sharing your space, the less you can avoid their company until it is only you and no one else. In New York City, I am unremarkable. I know that when I go to Africa, I will no longer be able to escape in the crowd. I will stand out and be noticed in any context. So for now, I am enjoying my moments of solitude and ambiguity.

When I go home to New England I will once again blend in but I won’t stop thinking about race. It’s important to acknowledge the fact that people are treated differently. Many minority people in the United States suffer discrimination far worse that what I’m experiencing here. It’s not just humiliation and irritation. They can face violence and unequal access to jobs, education, health care and other basic human rights. I only have to suffer racial discrimination for two years. Some people deal with it their whole lives.


  1. It must be very hard to endure the rudeness and insensitivity to your status as a human being; the same as any human being should enjoy. When I read this, it strikes me how you are experiencing the pain of prejudice that is usually directed at those of lower cast or darker skin. It seems paradoxical, but the lesson I guess is that these behaviors seem to be a part of the human condition, regardless of color.

    It seems especially unfair for you to be experiencing this also because I have never known you to be the least bit prejudice toward anyone, in fact quite the opposite.

    But, in a weird sense, it's a rare opportunity to experience in reality what few whites really can. I would imagine that the silver lining is a richer sense of humility and deeper empathy that will serve you well in your future experiences.

    Each time that I read of your experiences and how you process them, I discover new found respect and admiration for you. You are a better teacher than you may realize, I know I learn from you all the time!!

    I love you! Dad

  2. Hi Clancy,

    I came across this blog post while googling for something else entirely.

    Ive yet to read your main page and find out where you are now and how things turned out, but I felt compelled to respond to the power of this post. I experienced the same frustrations, anger, humiliations and upsets while having otherwise what was the time of my life while volunteering in the Middle East for the British Council.

    The work and culture are difficult enough to get used to, being accepted as equal human being rather than as 'the outsider' takes time, and sometimes it simply doesnt happen. You remain an oddity in their society.

    Your very presence in some places is a major break with culture norms and taboos in that, they cannot conceive of what you have done. Their own daughters would NEVER do what you are doing- travelling alone abroad to another country amongst men and women you have no family connection with. Sometimes that gap cannot be crossed.

    I worked in both conservative Arab Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities. I had mostly WONDERFUL times on my postings but they were definitely punctuated by periods when I was very down, feeling vulnerable and craving for some semblance of my world back home.

    Those times did pass but they remain an important part of my experience. As your dad said in his comment, the experience of being the minority will teach you the kind of humility and 'walk a mile in their shoes' type lesson which you will never forget and which you could *never* have got at home. The experience of deep inner upset and awareness of your difference can be visceral.
    If more people experienced it, the US and UK would be very different places.

    BTW- you dad sounds genuinely lovely, supportive and respecting of you as an adult and your choices. You are incredibly lucky to have that.

    Anyway, here's hoping things got better for you Clancy. xx


  3. Hi Clancy,

    I'm Teaching in Indonesia and here they call white folk 'bule' I know how you feel. Some of the locals feel there are no holds bared when talking to whites, they like to see what they can get away with. Some conflict situations can get messy when they realize they are talking to a white, suddenly they realize you have less rights and street savvy and put on a right old show.

    Don't cop it all though sister, think of some smart comebacks and laugh it off. 90% of the time they don't want to hurt you personally, if anything it's sometimes their way of overcoming their shyness to speak to foreigners.

    Are you teaching in a rural area? I could see how it could be much worse in a rural area (if you are).

    Take care,