In college, I studied Political Science and African-American history. During these formative years as a university student, I read, wrote, ranted and raved about white privilege in America. Although there are varying definitions of ‘white privilege,’ in the most basic sense ‘white privilege’ is the possession of advantage(s) white persons enjoy over non–white persons (as defined by Kendall Clark of whiteprivilege.com an in-progress website that seeks to deconstruct this phenomenon). I personally like the way Wellesley College Professor Peggy McIntosh describes it: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Read more here: White privelege: Unpacking the invincible knapsack
In real terms, white privilege meant that I would have to work twice as hard to get half as far as my white colleagues. As a black woman born and raised in America, white privilege was something I accepted as part of the socio-economic and socio-political environment. When I was in kindergarten, Katie, a white girl in my class, asked me ‘why was I black?’ Puzzled, I did not answer. Instead, I sheepishly looked away and let the question hang uncomfortably in the balance. I later remember retreating to a corner of the school playground and crying hysterically because I did not know why I was black. Deep down in my 5 year old psyche, I knew that my white classmate had the power to question my identity but I, a black girl, a descendant of enslaved Africans, did not have the power to question hers. As an adult with a college education and a list of world travel under my belt, I now realize that white privilege lay at the epicenter of Katie’s question, innocent as it may have been.
That incident happened 20 years ago, but I still remember like it was yesterday. The incident is especially poignant for me now as I reflect on how my privilege as a Westerner has helped me gain access to certain networks, resources, and opportunities in Uganda where I have lived since 2008.
Ugandans do not see me as an African-American or a black American. Yes, they recognize the pigmentation of my skin and can clearly see that I am a black woman; however, I am still referred to as mzungu (a Luganda term meaning foreigner or ‘white person’). No matter how “African” my features, Ugandans perceive me as an American – no hyphens needed. Ugandans I meet do not take my complex history as a black woman from America into consideration. To them, I am a Westerner. A native English speaker. I hold the coveted American passport. I was educated at one of the United States’ most prominent private universities. I hail from the land of the free and the home of the brave. This translates to my own version of ‘white privilege’ which I will refer to as ‘Western privilege’ – it just has a better ring to it. While this article comes from my perspective as a Westerner living in Uganda, I am going out on a limb to say that this ‘Western Privilege’ phenomenon is prevalent throughout the African continent.
I enjoy a vast amount of privileges that many Ugandans do not. For the purposes of self-preservation, I take advantage of every privilege that comes my way as I seek to solidify myself as a successful consultant in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Thus, I find myself grudgingly taking advantage of my ‘Western privilege’ on a daily basis. While I appreciate the perks and benefits of ‘Western Privilege,’ this whole situation has been challenging for me as I face the daunting fact that, due to perceptions of American-ness, I am somehow not equal to my Ugandan colleagues. The playing field is not level.
When Ugandans first see me – a honey brown-skinned woman with shoulder-length dreadlocks and a gap tooth smile, they wonder – where is she from? It is almost as if they can tell, just by looking at me, that I am not Ugandan. I enjoy watching people squirm as they try silently to figure out my ethnic origins. Maybe I’m Nigerian (the nose?), South African (I get that one a lot), or Jamaican (must be the dreadlocks). The mystery game quickly comes to a close the instant I start talking. Apparently, my American accent is a dead give-away. Upon learning of my American-ness, people immediately treat me differently – better. When I go to offices, people invite me to have a seat – would I like some chai? How can I help you madam? From what I have observed, these same amenities and kind words are rarely offered to Ugandans.
Earlier this year, I was handling some immigration paperwork at Uganda’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. Initially, I was treated very rudely – as I have heard is the custom at this particular office. When I whipped out my American passport – there was this huge shift in the attitude of the attendant at the window. It was – yes madam, let me check on your file. This felt much better than the blank stares and eye rolls I was getting just moments before. One friend of mine, who is Ugandan, conjectures that I am treated better because people assume that, as an American, I have a lot of money. They want to close the deal and get my dollars; therefore, I am treated with the utmost care. This could certainly be true; however, I think the whole situation goes much much deeper than simple economics.
There are thousands of qualified, college-educated Ugandans living in Kampala who are unemployed, but Westerners are repeatedly able to apply for jobs and get interview after interview and job offer after job offer. I am sometimes offered jobs that I’m not even interested in. A few weeks ago, a friend told me that he could get me a job on one of Uganda’s top radio stations because, ‘with my American accent,’ the station manager would surely hire me in a second and pay me big bucks! I have no desire to work in radio so I politely declined – but the deeper issue is how these type of opportunities fall into my lap while there are so many qualified, educated Ugandans who are idle and unemployed all over the country.
A colleague of mine recently moved to Uganda from Ohio. Within 3 months of moving to Uganda, she landed a full-time job with one of the largest magazine publications in Uganda. Last month during a lunch meeting, she admitted that a Ugandan friend of hers was peeved because she got a job so quickly and he, a qualified candidate with a degree from a South African university, has been unemployed for nearly a year and unable to find work. Granted, she has journalism experience and holds a college degree but one has to wonder how many qualified Ugandan candidates were overlooked for this particular job position. I personally think more people, especially foreigners living abroad, need to think critically about if and how ‘Western privilege’ plays into equations like this.
Not only does Western privilege lead to increased job opportunities but it seems to me that Westerners have much more bargaining power when it comes to negotiating compensation packages. I was astonished to find out that some Ugandans make up to 50% less than their “Western” colleagues for the same work! The craziest part is that 9 times out of ten, Ugandan managers are the ones making these hiring and compensation decisions.
This begs the question – what kind of system is this where Ugandans perpetuate an unequal system where foreigners benefit from ‘Western privilege’ at the expense of Ugandans have to work twice as hard to get half as far.
As someone who watched helplessly as white privilege negatively affected my life as a black American woman, I am now faced with the reality that I am a beneficiary of ‘Western Privilege’ as an American woman living in Uganda. Although I am still struggling with how to address the problem of ‘Western Privilege’ and how it affects my life, I think the first tangible step is for Westerners to acknowledge the fact that their privilege allows them to more easily navigate Ugandan society and access certain networks, resources, and opportunities. Once we, as Westerners do this, a real change can begin.