“Teacher,” he said with his hand partway in the air. He wore a very Rwandan suit of beige plaid with a white shirt and a cherry-red satin tie underneath: very smart. In a classroom full of teachers, he was on the only businessman. His question caught me off guard for a moment. “Can you tell us how it is for you to teach about African-Americans and their history in the United States. You have told us about how whites enslaved blacks in America, and now you, a white person, are teaching black people in Rwanda about this.” His voice was not accusatory, simply curious.
It’s my American Literature class, a group of 100+ students gathered in small desks close to my laptop and projector in a cavernous hall. I’m an English teacher, not an African-American scholar or critical race theorist, and my students began today’s class very new to the topic of African-American literary voices. We were winding our way through the basic elements of the civil rights movement, with the PowerPoint presentation frozen on a page with the NAACP and KKK juxtaposed.
I paused for a moment, dissecting his question in my mind. To be white, the color of the oppressor in this history/literature lesson on slavery, reconstruction and civil rights, teaching black students about black writers. It called to notions that whirl in my head every day. My corner of Rwanda (the top leftish corner, to be exact) is a place where I am confronted by race every day. Each morning, I say goodbye to the guard beside my gate and walk out to the street. On the main road, I can go right or left; right leads into Musanze, a good-sized town with a revolving tourist population here for gorilla and golden monkey trekking. To the left, my more common direction during intensive teaching weeks, is my university, a fifteen minute walk along the road and a rocky path to the back entrance of the school. It’s this walk that reminds me that I will not, and cannot, really blend in here. Even though I walk this road four times a day, to school and back home for lunch and to school and back again, people stare at me. They watch me as I make my way down the road, laptop bag bumping on my leg, looking quite American in pants and a sweater and sunglasses, often with headphone buds in my ears. I will pass people talking and I will hear, even as I walk away with my back toward the pair, their heads turn and voices follow me. People tend stare at me. Everyday. On the road. At my university. Little children call out at me or run to touch my hand. Most often, they greet me with a common cry: “Muzungu! Muzungu!”
Swahili for white person (although I’m told it originally meant “wanderer,” and was assigned to German and British colonialists in the late nineteenth century since they seemed to always be passing through), muzungu is an easy word to pick out of a Kinyarwanda conversation. Children in school uniforms exclaim it gleefully when I walk past, announcing my presence to the neighborhood. It’s not a mean-spirited cry, but one of interest. A white person! How strange! Why is she walking down this road? The road doesn’t see many white people, especially not thirty-year-old females walking to their university lecturer jobs.
But it is strange to be a white person in those moments. I feel an uneasy spotlight on me, the gleaming sun and the cries of children pointing out that I am different from those around me. I’m an introvert, through and through, and have little appreciation or comfort with unwarranted attention. Once in while, children come up to practice their few English words. Sometimes, the conversation turns to this: “Good morning muzungu! Money?” They giggle when I smile at them and wave them away. But it’s true, I am white, and I have money.
And now I am standing in front of a classroom, lecturing about the Harlem Renaissance, a movement which “urged black artists to reclaim their ancestral heritage as a means of strengthening their own expression” in the years following the legacy of slavery and subsequent reconstruction. We began with Langston Hughes’ short poem from 1923, “My People.”
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
The class read it along with me, for the first time in two days of challenging literature able to understand, connect to, and internalize every word: my hope when teaching transformational literature like this. They read it again to themselves, their voices scattering and fragmenting, out of sync, to fill the large lecture hall with a cacophony of sound. When I tried to change the slide to introduce the author, they stopped me—I didn’t put this poem in their reading packet and they wanted to write it down. “Hughes,” I told the class when we began again, “championed the idea that black people could, and should, take pride in themselves as a people with a culture and ancestry in their own right, separate from the white experience.”
We moved slowly through Zora Neale Hurston’s excellent “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” an essay in which she notes that she didn’t know she was “colored” until she left the comfort of her small town and entered the outside world, getting on a boat as “Zora” and getting off in Orlando as a “little colored girl.” As we read through the essay itself, I felt for the first time as I really understood, in some strange parallel, what she had lived in this moment. When she went to Orlando, people began to assign her to something different than she had known for her whole life. Instead of just being “Zora,” she now had a label: she was not just a regular, label-less person, she was a colored person. In Rwanda, I too have a label—yet the spirit behind it is not equivalent to that of the label given to Zora nearly a hundred years ago. My label, muzungu, still belays the privilege of my racial inheritance. I am not better than people here, nor am I more valuable or important simply because I am a teacher and I am here with the purpose to work to improve the capacity of other educational professionals. But being white, I stand out and, even more, I represent something, something born in colonialism (or even before) and continued in this era of postcolonialism. I come from a country of wealth, where even the middle classes out-earn 90% of the remaining world. While my family doesn’t live in luxury, at least compared to the wealthiest in the U.S., they are a safety net that can comfortably catch me if I falter. To be white here is to demonstrate something: I am different, and I have access to more. When people see me, this is what many assume: you are white, and you have money. And they assume this because it is true. We have money. We have access to upward mobility and education. We have the ability to choose to come to a developing nation. Or, conversely, we have the ability to choose not to come to a developing nation. But I struggle with this: this privilege isn’t just about money and opportunity; it’s something apart from this, and that is something I struggle to adequately express. It’s about power.
After Hurston, Martin Luther King, Jr. was ahead in the day’s lesson plan. Before we moved to the MLK background explanation, the hand went up and the question: my whiteness in the midst of a lesson (and a classroom) of blackness.
I unwhirled my thoughts, two months in the making, and tried to answer him. “I am very honest,” I told the class, “About the sins of my country, lead by white people, people like me. We enslaved thousands of people and treated them as if they were possessions.” I referenced the board, where I had written “3/5 Compromise” when we discussed the inclusion of black people in the Constitution: each worth 3/5 of a person. “And racism is very much alive in the United States today. We have been imperialists and we have used our power to make ourselves rich through the oppression of other people. I think as white people, we need to be honest about this. We need to be honest about our position of power. I wasn’t those people, but I am connected to them and to their legacy. So, I don’t know how to explain how it feels to be a white person teaching this. I can only tell you that when I read these authors, and I see their passion and their desire to change society, it inspires me to want to do the same.”
He nodded and thanked me for my response. It didn’t completely say what I wanted to—but I still cannot find the proper words. To be confronted, every day, with your race is a challenge that many are able to ignore, especially when your race enjoys a position of majority and dominance. In the United States, I am Leanne. In Rwanda, to some, I am Leanne, the American teacher and slightly odd person who recently fell into a ditch and gets a little bit too Socratic during lectures. To many others, I am a white lady, whatever meaning that has or demonstrates. While this discussion of race and privilege rattles and challenges my critical consciousness daily without giving me adequate words to address it, it makes me realize that I can understand so much better the experience of those who do not share my skin color in the whiter regions of the United States: what it is to stand out, to be in the racial spotlight, to be different. Even if my differentness is apart from Hurston’s.
Thankfully, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, not my own, faulty, stumbling attempts to explain a complex situation, finished the day. We ended with “I Have a Dream,” the crackle of the old recording of his voice filling the room.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!