on white liberals
In a lovely little book I came across while preparing for my general exams, Kerry Michaels, a writer and television producer tells this story:
It was 1985, and I was going to travel around Kenya by myself before visiting my brother, who was working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Malawi. I had only a vague idea of what I was going to do in Kenya. Having traveled all night, I arrived, exhausted and a little nervous, at the Nairobi airport at about five in the morning.
The terminal was a big, square hall--very austere, very official-looking. I glanced up. There was a balcony that ran all around the room. Standing on this balcony at perfect intervals were the blackest men I had ever seen in my life. They wore olive-drab uniforms and crimson berets. They all held rifles across their chests. They made an incredibly powerful, aesthetically stunning image: regal posture, beautiful, chiseled black faces, caps all cocked at the same angle.
I know this might sound stupid, but as I, a white American woman in my late twenties, looked around the airport, I realized that the power structure was black. The customs officials were black. The security officials examining my passport were black. Everyone who controlled my fate was black. It occurred to me what it was truly like to be a minority (albeit, when you are white in Africa, an empowered minority). In New York, if you're the only white person on the subway, you're still not a minority, because the power structure around you is white. In the Nairobi airport, I realized how different it was to have the power reside in a different race. It was the black men who were holding the guns. The government they served was black. The idea that the whole country was being run by black people was absolutely alien to me. To be white and find myself situated at the bottom of this massive hall, with these black men standing with guns over my head, really gave me a sense of what this inversion of power feels like. Why had I never realized this before? You think that as a white liberal you get it. But you don't.