Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

A while ago I was in the car on the way downtown to a meeting, staring out the window, letting my mind wander, when I saw something so unexpected I did a double-take. What I saw, which I found so unbelievable I had to look again to be sure, was a white guy driving a black guy around. And almost as soon as I took that second look I realized the assumption underlying it, and I was ashamed.

In the States that would never have happened. Almost no one at home has a driver, certainly not enough to make a racial stereotype about it. The Driving Miss Daisy days are long over. A white guy and a black guy in a car are friends or colleagues or dating or married or whatever. In Guinea they're a white guy and his driver, or so my subconscious tells me anyway.

The privilege that comes with being in the white majority in America is nothing next to the privilege that comes from being in the white minority in Guinea. It only takes a sideways glance to mark me as someone foreign, probably well educated, by Guinean standards filthy rich, and possibly somewhat important. There are rich, educated, important Guineans too of course - many who are much more of all three of those things than I am - but they don't have it emblazoned on their face like I do. And apparently like every other white person in Conakry does, because now I'm seeing it too.

The human mind is a great generalizer, a tremendous pattern-finder (or pattern-maker). I find it a little disturbing how quickly and thoroughly mine has picked up on the patterns of my new home. I'm certainly not about to generalize myself into taking up the white man's burden or joining the Klan, but it makes it a little more clear to me how those sorts of ideas take root.

By the way, what did I see on that second look? It turns out they were in a right-hand drive car; the black guy was driving after all. That did not make me feel any better.

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