a reflection on racial stereotyping, by Ian Harwood


This picture was taken by a student at Arusha Day in Form 4 while the student in the picture acted out a play. I was impressed overall by the class’s willingness and talent at adopting the personalities of the characters they portrayed in pictures. But in this particular picture, it was an allusion to a racial stereotype that struck me. The girl’s pose in this picture caused many of the students to laugh, and I was reminded of a number of movies and television shows that have portrayed a black woman with a bad attitude, looking at someone with a disapproving furrowed brow. This sort of stereotype of a person with a generally bad attitude has more connotations than I’m sure I’m aware of. But I was intrigued by how this girl’s expression reminded me so distinctly of this image, yet was so clearly different in this classroom.

One of the most interesting parts of my experience here in Arusha has been to drastically shift my understanding of stereotypes. There are racial stereotypes here as well, which as a mzungu (a foreigner or white person) I appreciate, but they are so different. The largest group here is Africans—black people. I am a minority, treated differently, and called out on the street audibly by the color of my skin. Sometimes this is frustrating—it’s a pain to be singled out and bothered when I’m trying to travel somewhere. Often as I walk to my after-school project, where I know the kids well and they know me, it feels strange to be treated like an outsider all the way to the school, and then to be treated like a local—like a friend— when I arrive. It only makes the outsider treatment seem inappropriate.

I’ve thought about the kind of attention I get here, though, and generally it’s very positive. Though I’m a minority, I’m viewed as wealthy, generally respectable, and either as a guest of the country where I am welcomed or as a potential customer where I am haggled. When a black man pulls a knife out pointed at me on the street here, he’s trying to sell it to me as a souvenir. This contrasts the body of black stereotypes found in the United States. I think it has done me great good to be in a predominantly black nation for many reasons, one of them being that I have some small appreciation of what it is like to be singled out by race. As frustrating as this can be for me, I cannot imagine how much more frustrating it must be to be singled out because of race in a negative way—if instead of people thinking that I was wealthy, they thought I was less capable, or more dangerous, or something like that.

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