Race, Ethnicity & Power in Tanzania: first impressions

Today a schoolboy who appeared to be about seven or eight confidently approached me, leaned his face in toward mine, and made noises for a nonexistent language that he intended to sound like Mandarin Chinese. It caught me off guard. I paused for a moment, then proceeded to walk around him and continue my route home. A Tanzanian woman staying at my house was with me, and she confirmed that the scene was intended exactly as it appeared.

So…let’s talk about race.

Race relations in the United States have largely shaped my view around the subject. In my experience, opinions on the topic vary largely and are influenced by factors such as (1) the race/ethnicity of the individual, (2) the diversity and socioeconomic status of their past and (3) personal value systems and political leanings – amongst, I’m sure, other variables. I am of the (commonly progressive) opinion that discussing race is important. I believe that acting as if discrimination does not exist, and striving to ignore discussions around the issue because they are uncomfortable, is not helpful. If anything, it serves as a tool to silence minorities. Making statements about oneself such as “I am colorblind,” while maybe said with good intentions, does not make you open to recognizing the prejudices we all have. Without recognition, the odds that learned prejudices become unlearned are slim.

Abandoned Bus
Photo: Carolyn Neunuebel

I am curious about how race is perceived in other cultures, and how I am viewed as someone of mixed race. It is important to recognize that there are two parts to this discussion: (a) how society views an individual (i.e. race) and (b) the cultural identifications of that person (i.e. ethnicity). Those who look White in America will have different experiences from those who look like a member of a minority group, regardless of how that individual identifies culturally. It is important to recognize how people are treated differently based on race and ethnicity. Part of this is recognizing how one’s own self is socially perceived, how you identify and the privileges or disadvantages that accompany that.

My racial experience in the United States is that either (1) people assume that I am Latinx (2) people think that I am wholly or partly Asian (3) people think that I am White or (4) people don’t know what I am, but assume that I am a mix or something obscure. Ethnically, I would identify as an Asian American. I was born in Taiwan and am matrilineally Taiwanese, but I grew up primarily in the United States and am patrilineally American. (If I really want to show off my American roots, I could further specify that I am a quarter German and a quarter Irish, with at least a little bit of Native American.) My American upbringing has made me acutely aware of the interplay between race and recognizing where one stands in that context; how I’m regarded racially differs country-to-country.

I have found that Europeans don’t outwardly express their opinions on my race the way Americans do. I am skeptical that this is the result of a lack of opinion on the subject so much as it is that my American accent immediately places me a in a box based more on nationality and ethnicity. I obviously cannot tell you what it is like to grow up as a mixed race girl in Ireland, the Netherlands, France or Germany. The stereotypical comments I have received about how Americans think and behave largely influences my weighting of a European focus on nationality. In China or Taiwan, people seem to assume that I’m European when surrounded by a group of them, and recognize that I’m mixed when alone or with non-Europeans. Some might assume that I’m White or fully Chinese/Taiwanese, but that is not as common.

I’m focusing on my personal experiences with race and ethnicity not because I believe that they must be generalizable, but because I recognize the subjectivity of such a topic. Through the necessarily limited lens in which I engage with and perceive the world, I cannot know whether the way I’ve processed my encounters are shared across a larger audience. Still, consistent disparities that exist between races do provide an objective method through which one should recognize that people view and treat others differently based on such shallow measures. Also, there are shared, generalizable experiences that have been shown to exist in regard to discrimination. This post doesn’t exist to convince people of such things; it’s a necessary premise.

I’ll start off the discussion of race in Tanzania by recognizing the primary indicators of my position of privilege and power in relation to the average citizen:

  1. I have wealth. Few Americans would consider my bank account a showcase of power and privilege, but that only speaks to a form of relative poverty. I carry economic power both in the form of the exchange rate that I receive for the local currency (Tanzanian shillings) and the income I am able to earn in the U.S., where median household income in 2015 was approximately $56,000 per year [1] while in Dar es Salaam the median household income in 2007 was approximately $580 per year [2] (the country’s most populous city and the highest performing for this indicator).
  2. I live in a house with a disproportionate amount of White foreigners. In Tanzania, White people are called “mzungus” – although the term more literally translates as “foreigner,” it seems to be directed primarily at those of European descent. (I’m only called this when I’m with other White people, when alone I am called “China.”) White foreigners carry a reminder not only of historical colonialism but also contemporary power relations between countries (Tanzania received $2.58 billion in development aid in 2015 [3]; if you don’t know why aid is a form of power over a country, look at how conditionality allows Western institutions to dictate governance). My American roots combined with a failure to integrate into the Tanzanian community with my housing signals that I am potentially not here to learn about the culture but to treat the people and sites as a part of my global playground and label it “travel.”
  3. I am a postgrad doing public policy research. This showcases the knowledge gap between West and South. I make it a point to recognize and respect the value of local knowledge, but the idea that I can contribute to public policy work as a Westerner somewhat parallels the IMF ordering for market liberalization policies because they know best (in lieu of collaborating with leaders of that country). This is more of a face-value interpretation, because I work at a Tanzanian think tank, but is a reminder of the knowledge gap and global power relations nonetheless.

Due to economic power dynamics, Tanzanians might charge a “mzungu price” to foreigners at the markets. You pay a small premium; either because you are viewed as being able to afford it, or because you don’t know better and it’s a market opportunity. This “premium” is typically nothing compared to the advantage I receive because I grew up and earned my money in the U.S. Maybe I’ll be charged an extra 2,000 shillings, but that’s $0.89 on an already inexpensive good. This, naturally, makes foreigners sought after consumers. Walking down the street, it is common that shop owners will yell, “mambo! karibu!” to draw your attention and welcome you. Even if you are not near shops, walking down the street means passing plenty of bjajjis (the Tanzanian version of a tuk tuk). The streets of Dar are teeming with them. It is typically assumed that foreigners will pay for a ride in one, resulting in being incessantly honked at as drivers hope to reach you before another one does.

Price premiums and honking are small inconveniences; for me, the most existentially compromising aspect to these interactions is the constant reminder that I come from a country of wealth and privilege. A country that is part of the West, which has benefitted from historical exploitation of the one I currently reside and others with colonial pasts. A power structure that persists today.

Walking down the street involves frequent attention in the form of greetings and stares from the general public as well. When locals say “mambo!” I happily respond “poaaaa.” However, sometimes I notice someone staring at me without a smile on their face. In these moments, I try to initiate and be friendly first. About half of the time, I receive a positive response. The other half, I receive no reaction at all – only a continuation of the stern stare. This concerns me. Not because I am frightened, but because I want to know what they are thinking and how my presence translates to them.

The ambiguity around how my race and ethnicity affects the dynamic of who I interact with in Tanzania makes me unsure of where I stand. I don’t have enough knowledge of the deeper social contexts. I am particularly concerned with how I approach my work. I met a mixed Tanzanian woman the other day who told me that sometimes people confront her and accuse her ancestors of enslaving their own. This occurs despite that her nationality is Tanzanian and she grew up here. Of course, I do not agree with her being regarded in such a way; but I also couldn’t possibly blame Tanzanians for showcasing persistent cultural wounds regarding such a topic. My awareness of this is why when my bag was stolen by a man on a motorbike I didn’t feel as if the act was necessarily unjustified. It felt symbolic of the the contrast between the respective lives we each lead and the histories that supported my existence versus his.

Bjajji Upendo
Photo: Carolyn Neunuebel

My biggest struggle in Tanzania is ethically navigating my research and interactions. My presence carries a potent dynamic when interacting with locals. I stand out, and I don’t like it. I can’t speak the language well, so I can’t connect with people in a way that allows me to sufficiently learn about and understand their way of life. I don’t know how to connect with and understand the experiences of Tanzanians, and it makes me question how culturally sensitive my work is here. When I studied in China, I didn’t experience such a cultural barrier. I didn’t stand out unless I was surrounded by other Westerners. I can speak the language, so I could connect with people there. I’m half Taiwanese and people felt comfortable about my presence in a way that prevented my dictating a new group dynamic.

I believe in the importance of these thoughts and gaining a first-hand account of how a former colony like Tanzania regards the West and its inhabitants. I feel as if my experience is further complicated in terms of race because Tanzanians don’t think that I’m Western, they think I am Chinese. I’m obviously different, but I don’t necessarily carry a reminder of the country’s colonial past in my appearance. Still, I know where I come from and the ambiguity around my race makes me feel uncertain about how to proceed. These are relatively first impressions and my views will evolve in the next couple of months. I am worried, however, about not being able to form a deep understanding of the subject before I leave. Three months doesn’t seem to be sufficient time to experience and learn everything that I want, but such a feeling holds true for life itself.

Dar Side Street
Photo: Carolyn Neunuebel
[1] https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/acsbr15-02.pdf
[2] http://www.repoa.or.tz/documents/brief_4_lr.pdf
[3] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/DT.ODA.ALLD.CD?locations=TZ
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