Having lived in Germany for most of my life, apart from one year I spent in Spain, I have never really been confronted with my whiteness before in everyday life . But here in Kenya, being white, also known as being a mzungu, makes you different from the vast majority of people.
One blogger makes an interesting observation about the term:
You might find that you go through stages with people calling you mzungu. At first, you might think that it is kind of interesting, amusing even. It might even fit into what you were expecting to experience in Africa etc. After a while though, you may get a bit fed up with being shouted at in the street, the actual words don’t really matter, you might have had a bad day and not want the hassle.
Ian Anderson – Polishing Peanuts
I don’t think that you can compare this to the racism many non-white people experience in majoratively white societies. I am in a very privileged position here, sometimes precisely because I am white. You cannot usually say that about people of colour in many other countries.
But I think there is another comparison to be drawn: As a woman, I am used to people just coming up to me on the street, cat-calling me or telling me to “Smile, baby!”. For some reason, a few men (not all men, of course) think that it’s OK for them to comment on the way I feel, look and behave, and to do all of that in public for everyone around to hear.
But here, the way strangers just say “Hi, how are you?” somehow feels different. Not as intrusive, usually, and more friendly. And both women and men do it.
Still, I think being in the “fed up” phase described in the quote above might offer white men a tiny glimpse into what it feels like for women all around the globe to be harrassed for the way they look. Even if it’s not meant to be mean.
Mzungu, by the way, does not literally mean “white” in Swahili. According to the sources I’ve seen, it translates to “someone who wanders without purpose / someone constantly on the move”. Wikipedia explains: “The term was first used in the African Great Lakes region to describe European explorers in the 18th century, apparently as a result of their propensity to get lost in their wanderings in Africa.” Only later it has been coined to refer to all white people.
It describes someone for what they do, not for what they look like. If you insist on labelling people, I personally think that’s a much nicer way of doing it. Even if it’s just for being the idiot who gets lost all the time.