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.