“I’m Not Listening”: Kenyan Whiteness

Kenyan whiteness is righteous rightness. Hyper-corrective toward non-whites, hyper-aware of its privileged status, hyper-willing to exercise its privilege and whip the natives into place.

A blustering white man yelled obscenities at my cab guy. When I subsequently confronted the blusterer—it’s that kind of day—he insisted: “he broke the law,” and repeated several times, “I’m not listening.” This in the banking hall of the Barclays Premier at Westgate—I don’t bank there, but I followed him inside to stage this confrontation.

“I’m not listening.”

It’s a curiously infantile statement coming from a middle-aged man—I place him in his mid-to-late 50s. Given this morning’s post on listening, I was struck by the phrase.

Q.E.D.

I try not to write when I am upset—irritation is a different thing. And, certainly, I try not to write when I am shaking with rage—at a whiteness that non-white Kenyans have allowed, even encouraged, to flourish; at a whiteness that need never question its rightness; at a whiteness that believes it is appropriate to belittle and demean non-white Kenyans, acting as though it need not take responsibility for its actions.

“I am not listening.”

What is it to insist on not listening as a foundation for Kenyan whiteness? How does Kenyan whiteness become a practice of not listening to non-whites? How might it be understood as an insistence on not listening?

Foundation. Practice. Insistence.

It is, perhaps, too simple to say that Kenya remains deeply segregated—class provides some opportunities for interaction, but not enough to matter. An inherited colonial whiteness has been buttressed by a multi-national and NGO whiteness. I use the singular, perhaps wrongly, to suggest that whiteness has clustered or, to use a metaphor I adore, agglutinated into a one-ness anchored by its relationship to non-whiteness.

Colonial Kenyan descendants, Europeans, North Americans, and Southern Africans clump together into something insular that can be incredibly ugly.

I am angry. Consequently, I am overstating my case. I know this. Yet, the case I am making about contemporary Kenyan whiteness is rarely made in public because money is at stake; rarely made consistently, allowing Kenyan newspapers to continue publishing racist screeds about “African inferiority”; rarely made into a cause for action because, again, money is at stake.

The too-swift overlapping transitions from majority white colonial governance to majority white tourism to majority white multi-national and NGO administrators have consolidated into something that cannot be critiqued. Something that simply does not listen.

Words may have replaced whips and, with the exception of Delamere’s descendants, whites in Kenya no longer shoot non-white Kenyans for sport. But it feels as though a whole bunch of white folk are running around, pointing guns at non-whites, and screaming, “BANG, BANG! You’re DEAD!”

11 thoughts on ““I’m Not Listening”: Kenyan Whiteness

  1. I’m not listening

    That might be exactly what Hilary Clinton said to African LGBTI a few days ago.

    I was yesterday just reading (again) about the shootings and consequent miscarriage of justice in that case involving Lord Delamere incarnate. That’s a real low moment, especially as the farce that is Jamhuri day comes up.

    My own anger branches off into two. I’m angry at this sort of whiteness; and angry at our own—often too willing—Uncle Toming. I see now what Steve Biko meant when he said:

    the greatest weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

    Even though the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” might not exactly apply currently to Kenya as they did apartheid in SA.

    On a very loosely related note: I remember once reading somewhere about how when the British tried to stop female circumcision (NGO folks are railing I just called it circumcision!) among the Maasai—I think it was the Maasai—that the practice then became attached to the anti-colonial struggle.

    I’m thinking back to Hilary Clinton’s “I’m not listening” and how the African response had sounded very anti-imperialist. I guess I’m thinking of how homophobia thus becomes attached to the anti-imperial need to assert our “independence” against another whiteness that also refuses to listen.

  2. I know exactly how you feel… witnessing this white Kenyans’ smugness on a daily basis and wondering what exactly you can do.. aside from following them to the banking hall and confronting them, at which point they will not listen anyway!

    We have a long way to go with racial integration in Kenya. The thing is, noone talks about it, and the status quo remains.

  3. Absolutely–hence the many disclaimers (explainers?) about my frame of mind when I was writing this post.

    And, of course, I’m wary (as we should all be) about singular anecdotes as grounds for argument. Not that I distrust the anecdote or the personal story–feminism has, to use Beyonce’s words, “taught me better than that.”

    Still, I’m concerned about the rhetorical structure of your reply: “x exists . . . y could just be,” because it feels far too familiar. This, again, from feminism and other minority discourses. Of course people have bad days; we all do. One way to observe the workings of power and ideology is precisely to see how one handles a “bad day” and a “short temper.” Regrettably, those who are culturally privileged, in no matter how limited a way (think poor drunk men getting home at 6 am and demanding their wives make ugali), exercise the power of their bad tempers precisely in ways that affirm their cultural power: one of these ways is a refusal to listen and another is a tendency to abuse those not as culturally privileged. I’m no anthropologist, but I have watched Nairobi closely while I’ve been here. And it’s striking what whiteness permits and is permitted to do. The anecdote I give here could be multiplied in many, many ways.

    So, yes. Bad day. But also my intention not to let “bad day” be an excuse for an exercise in cultural privilege.

  4. good argument!
    Regrettably, those who are culturally privileged, in no matter how limited a way, exercise the power of their bad tempers precisely in ways that affirm their cultural power

  5. Great post. It’s one thing to have whites being racist, it’s another fellow blacks defending racism. For the middle class, it’s ok if we’ve not experienced it (the other parties must have had it coming).

    Saw that in the way Tweeps handled the Art Caffe issue. Very very sad.

  6. Great post.
    I’m a white foreigner living in Nairobi. I’ve lived in other places – like Venezuela, Mexico, and Ethiopia – and I’ve never seen anything like the sense of entitlement white folks have here. And I see examples of it almost every day. And your post really captured it.
    What’s most remarkable is how quickly white people change in Nairobi. They were suburban no-body’s a year ago. And now they’re walking five paces ahead of their grocery bag-saddled maid or tossing a number for the queue indignantly into a guard’s face (both real examples).
    I was waiting in line at Nairobi Park behind two white women (perhaps British or South African of English extraction), when one of the women began to berate the poor KWS official. “This is why Kenya is still a third-world country,” she said.
    I was with my eighteen-month-old boy and said loudly to him, “I never want you to treat anyone like this, Miles.” And then added, “Horrid people” for good measure. But no one else said anything. The ladies muttered some feeble justification under their breath about how long they’ve been waiting, etc., but didn’t look at me.
    The only thing I can think of that explains it is the discourse here on corruption, that somehow this has convinced foreigners of their moral superiority. Which is a farce, of course, since their countries (my country) have merely legalized corruption.
    But I also think sometimes that the silence in that KWS office is part of the problem, as you suggest. Kenyans are victims of their own politeness. Perhaps if you keep chasing them down in the banks, shopping centres and restaurants, and keep writing when you’re angry, then maybe they’ll start listening after all. And in any case, at least you’ll feel better.

  7. I want to endorse your comments and, to a large extent am happy to do so. However, I feel that only part of the story is being told here and suspect, based purely on the original authors’ undoubted talent, that the omission is to a certain extent deliberate. Of course racism exists, largely on the part of white races but also on the part of others. I lost count of how many middle class Black Kenyans waxed lyrical about their loathing of the poor and/or muslims while sipping Chardonnay in Westgate bars. I worked for and resigned from two NGOs whose leaders [white and black] used their positions for personal gain, more often than not to the detriment of those they claimed to help. I also met countless white Kenyans among whom were good and bad examples of human beings. We all need to listen, sometimes to ourselves. Sometimes we’ll hear something we don’t like, and hopefully take some corrective action, but more often than not we will learn something.

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