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How to Deal With Racism When Traveling Abroad

by Nessa Shera

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Several years have passed by since numerous acts of independence and solidarity, promising the end to racial segregation, but racism still creeps up at you everywhere you go. Kenya’s tribalism problems hardly prepare you for the sometimes funny, but most times insulting racist comments and rude remarks you experience out there. Sometimes a statement or situation just hits you; and you’re not exactly sure how to react. They however do make for entertaining travel stories.

While first visiting South Africa, and all throughout our stay there, we would at times experience some pretty interesting customer service. While shopping, I would ask a supermarket assistant for help concerning where a particular item was.  They would look at my skin color, immediately assume I was South African and start rambling on in their language. I believe this wasn’t an issue, probably just an immediate instinct or reaction on their part; it’s what they did after I let them know I wasn’t South African that wasn’t okay. They would almost immediately develop an attitude, half-heartedly indicating where the item was, which didn’t really assist me at the end of it all. This happened several times over, and not just in a supermarket setting.

My mother came up with a rather humorous idea on how to handle it, every time a South African started engaging us in their own language, she would reply in Kikuyu, which obviously left them rather perplexed. They would be left with no choice but to communicate in English, ensuring we got what we needed most of the time.

Then there were those out right insulting remarks that still astound me to this day. I was socializing with a fellow neighbor, when he downright said, “You know my parents told me not to hang out with you because you’re black”, after that our friendship wasn’t exactly the same. Sure it wasn’t his fault, but his parents. However, there were still racist characteristics that he also managed to inherit. I laughed it off and we still engaged in small talk; however I found it best to distant myself from those who were outright racist.

Socializing with fellow Kenyans or being in a foreign country with your family ensured I had someone to confide in. My family was part of a small group of other Kenyan families, who we would always socialize with; we would meet up or go to each others houses and enjoy a little get together. Share racist encounters, argue and laugh about it together, it helped lighten up the mood.

Then there were funnier racist comments. In my school, myself and a few Kenyan friends were in the track team, which sparked remarks about how ‘Kenyans were fast runners anyways’ so it’s obvious that I would take up running. Despite the generalization, it was somewhat true, my Kenyan friend and I were one of the faster runners in our class, so I chose to embrace it.

Despite several encounters of racism, I try not to assume a particular country or group of individuals are all the same, reverse racism is just as bad. Good experiences with friendly and understanding foreigners make up for the bad.  Basically in such a situation, call them out, address the issue and not the person, or simply just walk away.

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