Him: So, you are friends with white people, (folds his arms) HOW?
Me: (takes a deep breathe) umm what exactly do you mean?
This was the start of many conversations that I had about race and equity when I was visiting my family in my home country, Zimbabwe last year.
I left my country when I was 19 with a scholarship to the University of Chicago and more than a decade and a half later, I am now building my career in a foreign country and enjoying a fascinating and fulfilling life filled with people from all over the world. Being back in my childhood home was a humbling and grounding experience for many reasons, but especially because it expanded my thinking on race and equity.
The person asking me the question above was my father. We proceeded to have a conversation about why this was his curiosity about my life. You see, our country was one of the last African countries to attain independence in 1980. Up until that time Zimbabwe was under British colonial rule, and that heavily influenced my father’s relationship with whiteness. My father is a man who accomplished a lot in his life despite everything he was up against. He grew up in a time when they had whites only areas, and as a black man, he needed a pass to walk in parts of our city at certain times. His bosses at work had always been white people. In fact, “murungu.” which means “white person” in my language, Shona, is still a term used to refer to anyone successful in my country. My father’s perception of white people was that they were above his own humanity. Therefore, he was immensely fascinated to meet my friends in America, when he came for my MBA graduation five years ago. He was surprised to hear them talk about me like we were “equals”. In his head, this is a total misnomer and could never happen.
Him: So, when you wake up, you say good morning to them, like we do our neighbors here?
Me: Yes, I do.
Me: Because they are just people to me.
We talked about this perception of superiority of whiteness through the lens of my experiences, and realized I had an entirely different reality from the beginning. I was born in 1987, post-independence Zimbabwe. My generation is considered the “born- frees” and did not directly experience the heavy hand of colonization. In retrospect, my relationship to whiteness was influenced by one specific experience.
My parents are huge on education and our family carried a tradition of enrolling all of us in the Harare City Library to encourage learning as soon as we started first grade. The library shaped my world in significant ways.
The Harare City Library was where I experienced white people for the first time. Being lower middle class in Zimbabwe, I would never see them otherwise. As a British colony, English is one of our official languages, but command of the language varies according to your socio- economic status. Because of the library, I was reading and writing in English far above my family’s socio- economic status early in my life. My dad would take me to his job, and I would sit there chatting to his boss, a white man, and all his colleagues would be shocked that I could do this in fourth grade. This mastery of the English language gave me an advantage that would take me far.
Additionally, the library planted in me a love for writing. Starting off with writing summaries of what I read for my mother, I went on to win multiple writing competitions at this library. Writing became a hobby I have nurtured throughout my life, and I continue to find comfort in processing my thoughts on paper.
Perhaps most significantly, this library defined my relationship with whiteness. As mentioned earlier, I did not grow up around white people because of our socio-economic status and I only saw them for the first time at the library. I read books sitting next to them, practiced my English with them and won writing competitions against them as peers at this library. This is how I learnt so early in life to just see them as PEOPLE, like me.
Him: * proudly showing my picture from work* see all these white people, they are listening to my daughter!
My dad’s friend: Oh wow, it’s like she is one of them.
Therein lies the difference between how I approach the world and how my father sees it present day. I fundamentally never believed that white people were superior to me, intellectually or otherwise. I was gifted with his tenacity, but he exercised it with the boundaries set for him by the world into which he had grown. I, on the other hand, did not have these boundaries even mentally and have gone after what I want in life with an audacity to belong, everywhere, even among white people.
My ambition has sometimes been a point of contention between me and my father. Our conversation gave me an insight to what was always behind his thinking, and I came away with more empathy and understanding for him. He was socialized to think we could never be part of white people’s world. He is not all the way wrong, as the world is not very pleasant to be navigate as a black woman in this age either. But certainly times have changed enough for me to be able to create space for myself and others like me. The conversation also gave me perspective to the source of my purpose. I am always going to be the person fighting for equity, because I believe it at my core from back then. I truly believe that everyone deserves a shot at their wildest dreams, despite the color of their skin, and where they are from. I just had never realized how much of a privilege the mindset I move through life was.
My nieces and nephews in Zimbabwe: * hunched over my phone looking at my Instagram pictures with my friends* So all these white people are all really your friends?
Me: * with a smile* Yes... yes, they are…