This is one of Mark Twain’s more famous quotes, and in general, I think he was right. Certainly interacting with different peoples and cultures is almost always enlightening and enriching.
That’s what missionaries and MKs, like myself, often argue. We like to think of ourselves as worldly in this way, exposed to an exquisite variety of traditions even just within our own religious faith. The body of Christ has many parts. The Kingdom of God has no borders. I’ve heard evangelical missionaries and MKs on the conservative side of current debates over racial justice in America proclaim that they themselves can’t possibly harbor racist viewpoints because they lived many years in Africa.
I can’t speak for others, I don’t know what is in their hearts. I am not making any accusations here about anyone but myself. But I know what has lurked in my own heart coming out of an upbringing in Africa, and it bears some confession. The sad truth is, I have held bigoted views, towards both Africans and especially African Americans, against which that experience did not immunize me. In fact, it was conducive to these views. Stay with me.
As a child in Kenya, we white missionaries were a freaking big deal. I think I might be able to identify a little bit with Oprah or the Beatles on this in fact. Where ever we went, in my memory and perception, it seemed people scurried to help us, lined up to shake our hands, very often scrounged around their meager possessions in search of gifts for us, gave us the most comfortable seats, served us the best food. The children looked at me with wide eyes and sat behind me stroking my long, blondish hair, as if some of my White Girl Magic might rub off on them (more likely they had just not seen hair like mine very often). I attended a Kenyan primary school where I was one of the few white children. I often ate lunch at the headmistress’s table. I got excused from Swahili class to do whatever I wanted instead (now that I have worked for over a decade trying to master Swahili as an adult, I really have some strong words–in very bad Swahili–for whatever adult made that decision).
Based on a colonial history and present-day geopolitics and economics, white skin in Africa confers on the bearer automatic power. It is assumed you have money, connections, resources, expertise, skills, even moral authority. That belief has changed somewhat over the years, now that countries like Kenya have a sizable, educated middle class. But certainly back then, being white was a very big deal. We were a very big deal.
Our entire presence in Kenya was in a way premised on an implied superiority of some kind–my parents came, presumably, because they had something to offer, something more, something Kenyans didn’t have. To do things Kenyans couldn’t do and teach them things they didn’t know. Why else would we be there? We had come to save the day. We were heroes of the story. It doesn’t get any more vaunted than that.
I lived in a little privileged bubble while there. My parents came and went from the bubble, but I generally stayed there, and that’s how I liked it. I didn’t interact much with Kenyan children, especially once I left the Kenyan primary school and went to a predominantly American missionary boarding school. And frankly, I didn’t really want to. They were often dirty, they sometimes didn’t smell the best, they had no cool toys or games. They didn’t speak my language.
I did feel badly for them. I saw abject poverty up close. At times, I wept over it. I felt guilty–so very guilty!–for what I had. I saw what little opportunity they had to rise, and I admired the few who managed to do so. But I didn’t identify with many Kenyans as child. Looking back, it is clear that I thought they were inferior. I am deeply, deeply ashamed of that. Now that I’m an adult, I see all the ways I am inferior to them. But I also think, given the shape of things, given the stark disparity between my life and theirs, given the way my family was special everywhere we went, given the immaturity and foolishness of children–it’s not a great wonder I drew these conclusions.
Maybe I was the only bigot among my cohort of MKs. Again, I do not presume to know what was in other hearts. I can only confess and repent for what was unfortunately in mine.
Part Two of my bigoted past came when I returned to the US for college and began to experience the racial issues and divisions in this country. And I wasn’t terribly impressed with Black America.
For one thing, it was the early 1990s, and there was a resurgence of interest in all things Africa among Blacks here. There were movies and T-shirts and Kwanzaa celebrations. And it just enraged me. Very few Blacks I encountered seemed to actually know anything about Africa. They couldn’t name individual countries. They didn’t know anything about the present-day politics. They didn’t realize Kwanzaa wasn’t celebrated there at all. I didn’t like their claim to Africa, MY Africa, where I had grown up and where I left my heart. Of course, never mind that my own claim was pretty shallow, if I were honest, especially given the bubble version of it I had made little effort to escape.
I also resented their complaints about racism here. In contrast to the deprivation and lack of opportunities Africans faced, I felt these folks were incredibly spoiled. I knew plenty of Kenyans who had come to America with nothing and made good on the American dream (they, too, often complained about Black Americans). I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t do the same, why they preferred to “whine” about the past.
And why they preferred to point fingers at white people like me. These Black people weren’t deferential and kind like the Kenyans! They didn’t reflect back to me the image I wanted to have of myself–a good-hearted white person who had superior skills, morals, and resources I could share with them if only they would accept my help. The Kenyans I grew up with and that racial experience suited me much better than these angry Black people demanding more and making accusations. No thank you.
At this point, I had very little concept of African American history. I had studied American history, of course. But the version I came away with–and I’m not sure if I got it primarily from the white evangelical missionary school I attended or my family or just American culture writ large at the time–portrayed slavery and segregation as an unfortunate “chapter” in American history that had ended without leaving any residue behind. The version of slavery I got was pretty sanitized, a Gone with the Wind story in which Mammies were part of the family and slaves loved their white owners and deferred to them. Treated them much like Africans treated us, in fact.
Then I went to graduate school. I got a PhD in American History. Very long story short, I got the truth about the devastating cultural, political, economic, religious, psychological, generational trauma of slavery and segregation. I learned the truth of the Black experience in America, how inequalities have seeped deeply into laws and norms and mindsets, Black and White. More broadly, I learned just how slow and hard change can be. I also studied African history, and learned about the similar, but generally not as sustained or as all-encompassing damage that colonialism left. Still, I could see a direct line from that experience to all the red carpets rolled out for my family and for myself.
And friends, I began to be grieved for what lived in my own heart. I began to see the bigotry, the condescension, the sense of superiority that lived there. I saw the lack of compassion, education, empathy, and understanding that fueled it. And I began to repent. I am still learning and repenting to this day.
Again, I am reluctant to make any sweeping statements about the American missionary enterprise in Africa or elsewhere and its racial dimensions and assumptions. I simply wish to tell the truth about myself. Perhaps my confession will prompt others to look in their own hearts. Perhaps they will find something similar. Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps they managed to remain unaffected by the economic and racial disparities with which they lived, or perhaps they learned better, positive lessons from it.
I only know in my case, Mark Twain’s assessment of cross-cultural experience requires a caveat. Travel CAN be fatal to bigotry. But travel within a framework of implied superiority can have the opposite effect, especially if one does not go into it with the historical knowledge, self-awareness, empathy, and humility to overcome it.
But maybe I’m just an unusually awful person. Definitely not out of the question, ask my husband!