I had made what I thought was a conscious decision to classify myself as Not White. However, when my Senegalese classmate asked me to clarify and justify my choice of racial categorization, every thought in my mind stood static and rigid, incapable of forming into an articulate response.
I am an Upper-Class-Muslim-Indian-Woman-of-Colour-and-Fourth-Generation-Kenyan. Needless to say, my race, gender, social class and ethnicity have always been strong forces governing my life—whether I was fully cognizant of it or not.
Kenya is a highly racialized country, where communities and groups of people are distinctly separated along racial, ethnic and social lines. The three main racial groups present are the local black, the brown Indian and the white communities. It isn’t that simple of course, as each racial group has its own sub-ethnic categories and divisions. Divisions amongst local black Kenyans would be along tribal lines, for brown Indians it would be along religious lines, and for whites it would be along European national lines.
When Indians were imported into the country by British Imperialists, they were positioned as the middlemen between the white oppressor and black oppressed. Within this racial dynamic, Indians were both victims and beneficiaries of the colonial system. As the age of neo-colonialism began, the initial racial ideologies lingered and continue to permeate throughout the country.
Looking at my own history, it is evident to me that the dual role of Indians as beneficiaries and victims, oppressor and oppressed, procured a sense of privileged ignorance. Indians were allowed to gain access to structural privileges and socio-economic status that only white people had access to; and in turn, inherited their own sense of “whiteness.”
This is where my own personal dilemma begins.
Whiteness to me has always stood on a pedestal, it is something that has slowly, subtly and subliminally been socialized into my consciousness. Internalizing misguided ideas of whiteness didn’t come from observing, participating in or being subject to overt racism. It was far more insidious, but no less damaging.
For instance, my parents only have brown and token white friends—which not only shows the stratification of social circles based on race, but exemplifies the practice of befriending those of equal status or “higher up” the racial hierarchy. Or the colonial-style, predominantly-white school I went to in Kenya, in which the white kids had more social capital that no one else could attain, no matter how well-spoken or well-travelled the kids of colour were. The white kids were ever so subtly treated more like people. They were often assumed to be smarter, better behaved and more well-rounded, whereas their people of colour counterparts were treated as slightly less-than, more suspect. It was also always considered an achievement, monumental even, when a non-white kid hooked up with a white kid. Literally hooked “up.”
And finally, seeing explicit poverty, inequality and oppression of mostly black bodies. These are only some of the ways that have shaped and informed my prejudices and self-perceptions. They have manifested into a deeply rooted prejudice that not only are white people superior, but that everyone else—including my own race (in accordance with a racial hierarchy, of course) is inherently flawed. Fucked up, amiright? These are ideas which I consciously have to remind myself to unlearn. It has gotten easier with time, but that doesn’t mean I ever expect to arrive at an endpoint.
Because of the environment that I grew up in and all the colonial baggage that it comes with, I have very wittingly and unwittingly tried to perpetuate my own sense of whiteness (from the way I talk, the accent I have, to the way that I dress, and even some of the opinions I have) in order to negotiate myself in accordance to white-ideals. Quite bluntly, I wanted to be white so bad, because I thought it would somehow make me more worthy of love and acceptance. More worthy of the white boys and men that were undeservingly placed on pedestals. I wanted to be whiter through association—and I thought I could be, that I had to be.
One of the more palpable examples is actively trying not to learn my mother tongue, Kutchi. The little bit of it that I do know I learned implicitly, by virtue of proxy and environment, not ever by choice. It was only much later that I wondered how I could ever be a daughter if I couldn’t speak the language of my mother. It has only been in hindsight that I’ve teared up at the thought of choosing to forsake a critical part of my cultural identity for a sense of whiteness—it was never worth it. The embarrassment that I feel now, for not knowing the intricacies and depth of a language that defines me, outweighs—a thousand times over—the embarrassment I felt then, for even being remotely associated with it.
Six years ago, at the age of seventeen, I left home for the first time to live in Wales. With the beginning of a new adventure in a white-world, I callously, recklessly and abruptly ended a romantic relationship with my brown-young-love. I was naïve and impulsive, immature and scared, dumb and self-destructive. The underlying reason however, which still stings me with shame and douses me with regret, was the not-so-subconscious desire to make space for something a little bit… righter. Something a little bit… whiter. This is a truth that I have only ever admitted aloud twice, once to a friend, and once to myself. Of course this fantastical white-love never came; the ever-present and insidious racial and gendered power dynamics, which I never had the words to articulate, made such relationships complicated, to say the least.
Four years ago, I started my undergraduate degree at a university in Canada—it wasn’t until arriving here, where I was introduced to the postcolonial literature, where I was able to intellectualize everything I had internalized my entire life.
It was here where I learned that across all races of men, light-skinned women with straight noses were valued more than me. I learned that despite my social graces, my command of language, my love for poetry, someone with white skin and rosy cheeks could float into a room and have men attribute those qualities to her naturally. White women who read ‘post-colonial literature’ are viewed as worldly, socially aware, different enough to be intriguing, but familiar enough to be understood. Whereas I am merely incomprehensible, too exotic to be taken seriously. It often feels like I have to tone down my ethnicity; bite my tongue every time non-English slang is summoned into my speech, make my accent a little more palatable, learn to respond to the massacred pronunciations of my name, or learn to have my name not spoken at all, due to its foreignness.
It was in these moments, where I realized that if I could not embody their sense of whiteness, I would instead be their opposite. This is why, as for now, I choose to racially categorize myself as Not White. I find empowerment in directly positioning myself in opposition to what I so badly wanted to be and what I thought I should be. It sometimes feels like fighting a losing battle, but I try to remember that not winning doesn’t necessarily mean losing.