Racism in the west: Stories from an African Graduate Student

Let me preface all of this by saying that I find racism so detestable and so very stupid. If I was not affected by it, I would not be talking about it because I find it so energy sucking and mind numbing. Also, let me point out that I did not start experiencing racism when I moved to the west. I had been working in the conservation sector before that and that is the headquarters of racism in Africa. So, nothing new really, but these experiences and stories must be documented. Here are some of the most common manifestations of racism that I came across:

  1. When taking classes

I already talked about racism you experience when taking classes, especially if you are asked to work in groups. That is when you start seeing both covert and overt racism. My fellow Nigerian student told me that she struggled with this so much. If the professor left the students to form the groups by themselves, nobody would want to be in a group with her. In one of her classes, the professor had to intervene and form the groups by herself. By the way, we are talking about graduate students. Petty as hell. These are people who are 25 years and above mostly, but you see utoto galore!

2. On the bus/train

I did not experience this or perhaps I did experience it and did not notice. I used my time on the bus to demolish interesting books by African/indigenous scholars. Other African students would tell me that white and some Asian people would not want to seat next to them on the bus. They walk in, find that the only vacant seat is next to an African and they opt to stand instead of seating next to what they consider a sub-human, I guess. You might infect them with tropical diseases like Ebola and such. I was too busy consuming Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Okot P’Bitek, Chilisa, Kovach, Linda Smith and others to notice that people did not seat next to me. When you are reading such thinkers, you are in another universe. You barely notice what is happening around you. Intellectual hypnosis!

I met some of my very good friends on the bus. Only Africans spoke to me and I only dared to speak to Africans. One time I met a Ghanian student on the ride to campus. I had been watching a series about African Kingdoms that week. We spoke about the Asante Kingdom from where he comes from. He thought I was so knowledgeable. We became good friends and I got invited to many parties at their house. The fufu and Jolof were just incredible -always. Then I met another Kenyan who happened to be called Kendi, just like me. I went for many parties at their house. She is married to a Congolose – the parties were very pan-African. Sombe was oh!!Just too yummy. Then, one time I met an Ethiopian guy on the bus. That story deserves its own heading so let’s move to the next number.

These are not the stolen Haloween pumpkins. These were at a friend’s place.

3. Job searching for African professionals in the west

So, I meet this Ethiopian guy on the bus. We start talking. Oh you are from Kenya – my neighbour! He had also spent quite a bit of time in Kenya and he knew many places. Then he looks out of the window and sees a friend of his and waves. Then he tells me: You see that guy I just waved at? He is from Rwanda. When he lived in Rwanda, he worked as a TV news anchor. Then he moved to Vancouver. He thought that he could find the same level of job when he moved, after all, he was qualified. He starts applying for jobs and gets nothing. It takes so long for him to get a job. His family back home thinks he is doing well because he is abroad. They expect him to be sending money. He is nearly homeless. At some point he cut communication with them. I do not think he has spoken to them for over a year. He decided to use agencies to help him to search for jobs. One day he got called for a job interview. He wore his best suit and tie and showed up. He even carried his academic credentials in a folder. When he reached at the site of the interview, he realized this was a construction job. As in mjengo! He wore a suit and tie to a mjengo interview! By this time we are laughing out so loud, people on the bus are beginning to look. Why are these sub-humans making noise? They must be thinking. The way the story was narrated was SO funny! The Ethiopian guy carries on: Ati he came here looking for a TV anchor job! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!! Do you know where I work? I work as a security guard in a mall. And we both go haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! I did not ask him what he was doing back in Ethiopia because I had to get off the bus. I did not even get his name or contact and never saw him again. I was laughing so much I was crying by the time I got off the bus.

NB. The buses there are quiet or rather the people in the bus are quiet. Sio kama hizi zetu where there are preachers yelling, people selling everything from dawa ya mende to njugu karanga. They are QUIET. If your baby cries, people look at you badly. So, believe me, we were totally making noise in there!

If you have no sense of humour, you will not get it. We Africans laugh at our sorrow. And it is because this guy was laughing his head off and narrating the story in the most humourous manner that I was laughing. This was one of my best days on the bus!

Now, if you are an African professional moving to the west, please know that you will not get a job of the same stature as you did back home. There are doctors and lawyers driving taxis out there. The infrastructure of racism will now allow you to get opportunities matching your qualifications or experience. Actually, they treat you as though you have no experience or education at all until you go through their system of education and jump through all the hoops. Another friend from Nepal was telling me that even in the low skill arena there is a hierarchy jobs. Jobs that do not require a lot of energy like blowing leaves during Fall are reserved for white people. You will not see immigrants from Asia or Africa doing such jobs. And when I think that high school graduates and other lowly qualified white people hold powerful positions and earn large salaries in my beloved conservation field in Africa, I shudder!

4. Searching for housing

If you have read the other blog you will see that a Nigerian student helped me get accommodation outside campus. She had been told of that house by a fellow Nigerian student who was moving out of that very house. It is easier for Africans to get housing through this network of referrals by other African students. When it was time to come do my research I left the house I was staying in because I did not want to continue paying rent for many months. I was conducting my research in Kenya. As the end of my fieldwork drew nearer I started looking for another house. I kept sending messages to people who had posted ads and got no response from many of them. The only one who responded, asked me to list all the spices that I use to cook. You should have seen me trying to think through what spices I use. I did not hear back from her after sending the spice list. I asked the friend of mine I have mentioned in previous blogs to call landlords and go check the houses for me. She called a few and went to see the houses but none of them was suitable. I was getting really desperate because it was a few weeks to my return. Will I return to Vancouver and be homeless? There is not like here where you can ask someone to host you. Most people share houses and just have a single room. She called one more landlord and they agreed that she could go see the house. When she told her that the person who was looking for the house was not her but her friend from Africa, she asked her: Is she black or white? My friend was so offended and left there in a huff! She informed me of the proceedings. I wrote the lady a nicely nasty email. I went all Martin Luther K on her – I shall not be judged by the colour of my skin…. She even had the temerity to write me back and say: it looks like you black people have not moved on. You should forgive. White people have moved on. I did not have time to respond to that email. I was already getting stressed out about not finding a place. I decided to reach out to practically every African student I knew and asked them if they knew of any available housing. Luckily, another Nigerian student came through. She knew of a friend who was looking for a housemate. I did not want to fuss about what was and wasn’t in the house. I paid immediately. I moved into that house and never left until I left Vancouver. I could not bear the stress of looking for a house again. And mind you, I was renting a room in a house. It was a two bedroom house. You share the house with another person. Each one of you has their own bedroom but you share all the other spaces. I was paying CAD 500/KES 45,000 per month for that.

5. The white smile

This is going to be a difficult one to explain. If you have not seen it, it is quite difficult to conceptualize. White people would do a quick smile that involves just moving the lips, not revealing any teeth, and then look away. They cannot look you in the eye and neither would they say anything to you. I noticed this early on. I asked a friend who studied in the USA about this and she told me that – ah, they are just nervous. I found it so uncomfortable. How are you supposed to respond? Smile back? With teeth or without? A genuine smile should showcase your dental formula, right? Anyway, I was once speaking with an Ethiopian friend (not the one from the bus , another one). He analyzed it thusly: They behave as if they have seen something dirty. That is why they look away. People know about racism in the USA because its all over the media, but places like Canada are presented and like to present themselves as multi-cultural open societies. Hakuna kitu kama hiyo! In Vancouver the city was sort of segregated by race. There is a place where Indians, Chinese, White people stay, etc. Africans are not very many in that city, so they do not have their own block. As an aside, one of the friends I made there had MADE IT and was living in what was considered a white area. She told me that white people and their kids appeared shocked that they lived in such a neighborhood. Haaaaaaa! Wooohho! I have been to several parts of the USA and I found the white people there to be more friendly or more openly hostile. I prefer out and out racism by the way rather than the racism hidden behind liberalism and these fake smiles. Once I was visiting a friend in Kansas and white people were actually saying hi to me. That never happened to me anywhere in Vancouver – not even in the rural areas. I would say in Vancouver white people do not call you nigger with their mouth/voice, but rather by their body language.

Chilling with the great Dr. Selina Makana at Yosemite National Park. We were always the only two Africans in the whole park. We might as well have been part of the tourist attractions :)! But nothing new to me. Conservation spaces are like that. Such trips were serious therapy from the sting of racism and other struggles!!!

6. Stares if you are with a person who does not look like you

This will happen all the time but more so if you are with a white person. Its like its not expected or supposed to happen. Cognitive dissonance. One time we were at the swimming pool with Aneeta and her baby. I held her baby while she swam. I got lots of stares. If it were in the USA, they would have called the cops on me and said that I had stolen a baby! Some of this stuff may just seem like prejudice if you think of racism as structural injustice, but it is the superstructure of oppression. Its from developing a dislike or disdain for another person that you decide they should not earn the same salary as member of the superior race, right?

Aneeta and I in the University Rose garden. One of our favourite places to decompress!

7. Herpes

If you read the first blog in this series you will remember that I was tested for syphilis as part of the procedure to get a visa. Do you know I thought that there are no STDs there? I visited a friend who lived in one of the interior parts of Vancouver at some point during my stay there. One of the things she told me was a shocker. She told me was that there was an outbreak of herpes in that area. Whaaat???

What is the connection of this with racism? Why did I have to be tested for Shypilis in order to get the visa? I must remind you that it was introduced to Africa by Europeans . I had to pay money for that. I could have used that money to survive there. It was made to look like there was no Syphilis there and I was the one to take it there!

Just one last thing. White people are somehow able to forge very loving relationships with their dogs and cats but not with the likes of us. One time a Rwandese housemate of mine was walking around the shopping centre. She tripped and fell. She saw a white person who was saying oooooooooohhhh and moving towards her. She thought the person was coming to help her. To her utter surprise, the person just walked by her and went to pet a dog that they had seen near by. She was traumatized by these experience. haaaaaaaaaaaa!!!

Yes, of course there are a lot of wonderful white people. I know some of them. Some of them are my friends. The fact that there are many great white people does not mean that racism does not exist. I even feel so stupid calling people white, black, brown, etc. Anyway, I am not the one who invented racism. I am just a victim of it.

The next blog will be about job search post PhD. For this one you will need to fasten your safety belts. Its gonna be a BUMPY ride.

4 thoughts on “Racism in the west: Stories from an African Graduate Student

  1. It is indeed a stupid world we live in. I am from South Africa, and I have to say that the reason a lot of people in SA are racist, is because our ANC government are one of the most corrupt on the planet. They lie, they steal and they take bribes left right and centre. People can say that that happens all over the world, or all governments are corrupt, but not to the point that there is absolutely NO MONEY left to build or maintain infrastructure, or to deliver basic municipal services to the people, or to maintain or improve hospitals and schools. When someone in government is caught out being corrupt and having stolen all the money that was maybe meant to go to the building of a clinic (for instance) they just get moved into another position with no consequence. I am talking billions of rands (R- South African money unit) that have disappeared into thin air.

    I am not saying racism is acceptable in any way, but there are often another side to some of the stories. Plain racism because you are black and I am white is just not right. I say if there can be more respect for others as human beings, things will be better. Not wanting to sit next to a black person in a bus??? Come ONNNNNN…that’s plain crazy.


  2. It’s 2.38 a.m in Kenya r.n, I had just gone to bed and so is my friend who studies in the US. When I read number 5 I woke him up and asked him to read it. He had told me about it like 2 weeks ago. It was a different feeling when I heard about it for the second time, I remember him telling me that when they smile at you don’t mistake and think you can now talk to them the next day, it’s as superficial as it can be.


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