Racism Far From Over In America….

Posted on September 28, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Girl in DC/with Clara Nyamu

When I lived in Kenya, racism was an abstract concept that was mocked in movies, music videos and comedies. The only time people worried about the colour of their skin is if it was related to a dermatological problem. In the States, that is not the case. Racism is a harsh reality that pops up in subtle ways every day. At times, simple things such as a trip to the city are enough to remind you of its presence.

This particular day started innocently. My sister’s husband was visiting from Missouri, and I decided to take him sightseeing in downtown Washington. To avoid the stress of driving and paying for parking, we did something I rarely do: Take a taxi.

While we waited for a cab on a busy street corner, an Australian woman came by to ask for directions to the museum, and we started chatting and comparing notes on what it is like to be an expatriate. My in-law left us talking and stepped on the sidelines of the road to hail a cab.


The first one whizzed past him as though the driver was on safari rally. “Oh, he’s probably on his way to pick someone up,” I told him when he looked at me quizzically. A second one appeared in the horizon, then drove right by as the driver cast a wary glance at him. He had no customer in the back and I looked on, stunned, wondering why he did not stop. The third one zoomed by too, and the driver looked stoically ahead without flinching. My in-law was getting frustrated.

Just when I was thinking that we should forget the taxi and take a train instead, my new Australian acquaintance yelled that another taxi was coming and waved her arm vigorously to stop it. The cab smoothly came to a stop right next to her. “There you go, hop in,” she said in her deep accent as we both thanked her. My in-law looked at me incredulously. “I bet you the reason they stopped so fast was because she’s not black,” he muttered as soon as we got into the cab.

True enough, it was. As soon as we were in the taxi, I realised the driver was Ethiopian and knew he would give me privy information because we were from the same region. I told him about our quest to get a cab. His candid answer: Most taxi drivers try not to pick black people, especially men, because as he put it, some tend to be trouble. I asked him whether he does the same thing, and he sheepishly said yes. When I asked him whether the only reason he stopped was because the woman who hailed it for us was white, he refused to answer but gave me a sly smile that validated what I thought.

The discussion moved on to another race hot topic: Barack Obama. American cab drivers are notorious for providing grassroots insights on elections issues, and this particular one did not disappoint. He lividly outlined his reasons why he thought the famous Kogelo “son” would have a hard time getting elected. He summed up his commentary by saying that this country is too entrenched in racism to take a chance on a black candidate. But aren’t taxi drivers contributing to that mindset by not taking a chance on black customers? I asked him. Again, he gave me that sly smile.

The irony

We finally arrived at our destination, and as we were getting out, he made a comment that we shouldn’t take our not getting a taxi personally because it is just an American reality.

“It’s just sad that even black people are discriminating against black people,” my in-law told him.

Ironically, the place where we alighted was right next to the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The same speech where he hoped that one day people in this country “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Those days are not here yet. In the States, the colour of your skin is what people use to define you. Doors — even taxi doors — do not open as fast for blacks as they would if you were white.

Foreigners — especially from African countries — have been caught in the racism crossfire in the US. The only problem is that we did not grow up here, so no one taught us how to deal with it. It will always be a strange feeling that leaves you sad, confused and baffled. On our way back home, we took the train.


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