Thursday, September 25, 2008

Skin colour is not a licence to misbehave

By Opiyo Oloya

Now, I do not think skin colour when interacting with my staff, over 900 students and twice as many parents. I see my three secretaries, two vice-principals, 80 or so staff simply as colleagues not as whites. We treat each other with the utmost respect, care and love.

I never think of them as whites and I am sure they do not see my skin-colour. To them, I am Opiyo Oloya, or simply the school principal. Some refer to me as the boss, but I don’t encourage it. I am never “that black guy” to them. But, every time I visit Africa, I notice certain whites who act in ways that scream: “I am white and I am better than you.” This summer in Kampala, just such behaviour provoked a strong reaction from me.

It was a case of a muzungu behaving badly. The incident happened at the Sheraton, Kampala in July where I was on my way to meet some friends for dinner. The security guard at the main entrance was doing a fine job stopping everyone entering the lobby, asking them to put bags and other items where he could see them, before proceeding through the metal detector.

In post-9/11 when terrorists have found many ways to wreak havoc with the lives of innocent civilians, security is everyone’s business. The suicide bombing this past weekend of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan was a vivid reminder of the clear and present danger that exists in the world today. On this occasion, everyone ahead of me complied with the security requirements set by the Sheraton. Then it was the turn of two middle-aged white women to go through the metal detector. One of them sneered at the security guard and said: “Do you think I have a gun to shoot you?” The two simply ignored the metal detector, walking outside of it, still making some rude comments as they strolled into the lobby. The security guard said nothing, shifting uncomfortably from one leg to the other. I was livid.

Barely able to contain myself, I called out after the two ladies with the sternest headmaster’s voice: “Would you make the same comment in a hotel in Toronto or New York or London or Paris?” I fumed. “If the answer is no, then you get back here and walk through the metal detector.”

My voice did not leave any room for further quibbling, argument or second guessing. The women stopped dead in their tracks, backtracked, and walked through the metal detector. “I hope this makes you happy,” the woman who made the comment about guns said as she walked through the detector. Of course, it did not make me happy because I have seen many instances of foreigners behaving rudely toward Africans, often acting with condescending attitude toward the latter. To be sure there is a higher level of awareness among whites today than say in the 1960s when the dominant master-servant colonial culture ensured that the African always held the short end of the stick. Things have changed to the point that colour is not an issue for many whites living, working or travelling through Africa. To them, the African person is no different from the European person.

These liberated souls see only humanity and not the colour of the skin and, thankfully, they are becoming mainstream. Unfortunately, there is that enduring group of whites who, upon touching the African soil, are transformed into arrogant petty tyrants, strutting around with their noses in the air, disdaining the locals and pretty much behaving as if they are above the law. Indeed, their actions seem to persuade the locals that there are two sets of laws, one for them and one for white foreigners. They would sooner defer to the whites than challenge them for exhibiting bad behaviour. I have seen whites screaming at Africans for some inane mistake, or because the food was delayed, behaviour that would surely land the screamer onto the street in Toronto or even in the back of a police cruiser. Yet, the poor African calmly swallows the abuse as if whatever the white foreigner says is right—the thinking for the victim is that a muzungu is always right.

Indeed, a very high ranking police official in Kampala told me how the security detail for the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper who was attending the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in Kampala last November began screaming and yelling at their Uganda counterparts, demanding to be given preferential treatment beyond the agreed protocol.

“It was a very barbaric display of tantrum from officials coming from such a highly regarded country,” said the police officer in recounting the embarrassing incident. “At the end, we decided not to provoke a diplomatic incident,” he added. Ignoring bad behaviour that would not be tolerated in North America or Europe or anywhere else for that matter, is what makes some foreigners so bold when in Africa.

Unchallenged, they feel giddily free to take abusive licence toward the locals without worrying about backlash whatsoever. Indeed, I hate to think that such appalling behaviour arises from the discovery that a white skin purchases unimaginable power in Africa, power it could not muster in the streets of America, Europe, Australia or elsewhere in the developed world.

Exploited as a rare currency to claim racial superiority, it becomes the basis for mindless bad behaviour. The operating principle behind such thinking is that I am white and I am better than you and you better shut up. The best way to deal with these bullies who hide behind skin-colour is to remind them that their behaviour would not only be unacceptable anywhere in the world, but that many whites would find it offensive, degrading and appalling.
Being abusive is offensive regardless of skin-colour.

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