Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash
To my extraordinary black savior:
“Beth, This sure has been a pleasant surprise. I have never had a real friend from the motherland… ” (10th grade yearbook)
“You’re the girl from Africa.”
It was only third period on the first day of school — and I hadn’t told anyone I was from Kenya. Turning toward your voice, I had to look up. Then I had to look up again.
Two teenagers could not have been more different.
I was still short then — a small, talkative, blonde, white girl with green eyes. I’m taller now and I still talk a lot, but you probably wouldn’t recognize me. You reminded me of a Maasai warrior — tall and black. In place of a spear and shield, you sported a letterman jacket to indicate your rank.
“Yeah, I’m from Africa.”
“Cool,” you smiled, folding down into the normal person sized desk. How did you fit in those desks?
I was hoping to fly under the radar that year. Too late. Someone in the church youth group had talked. It only took two days for the harassment to start.
Attending a faith-based, multicultural boarding school in the middle of an African country shielded me from many things, but not the cruelty of junior high. I had spent the last two years enduring relentless torment from two girls in my class. An athlete, being a tomboy helped on the sports field, but we had reached an age where I was no longer considered “one of the guys.” The end of ninth grade left me feeling shunned and lonely. Perhaps it merely served to prepare me for something much worse.
What it did shield me from was blatant and brutal racism. Oh, I was aware of it. My father was once offered a position in South Africa. I cried and cried. I did not want to live with apartheid. He declined the opportunity, in part, because of my feelings. Still, at fifteen, I continued to believe racism in America existed only in history books.
One morning, I was making my way between classes when a boy almost knocked me over. And then another. And then another. In the midst of being jostled down the hallway, I heard one of them hiss, “Ni**er lover.”
I was not then, nor will I ever be, shamed into feeling guilty for loving black people. More often than I care to admit, I am angry at and ashamed of white people — like those high school bullies in the hallway. There was no denial, but I also didn’t take a stand. I was alone and outnumbered.
For a week I tried to find alternative routes between classes. They would find me. I skipped lunch and hid in the library every day. I cried at home every night. I asked to transfer to the high school across town — one where the student body was predominately black. I wouldn’t give my father a reason for the request, so I stayed. All I wanted was to go home to Kenya.
At a time when I was angry, confused, and terrified, you saw me.
The second week of school began. The bell ending our mutual third period French class rang. I gathered my books slowly, planning my zig-zag-mad-dash to Geometry. When I got to the door, you were there and asked me to wait. There was no way to get past you, so I did just that. Before long, we were joined by one of your friends.
Together, you escorted me to class — quietly daring anyone in the hall to take you on. No one did. I felt relief. I felt safe. When that class ended, you appeared again. And again. And again. At home that night, I didn’t cry.
Later that week, one of the bullies stepped into our path and issued a racially-laced verbal challenge. I expected a fight. It didn’t come. You took the high road and we just kept walking. Without backup, he had no choice but to move out of the way. Until then, each friend you brought along was also black. That incident brought a radical change.
When the bell rang ending first period the next day, I met you at the door. This time the other student with you was white. He was the first in a multi-colored rotation of personal escorts — most seniors, most athletes (We had talked a lot about sports while waiting for French class to start.).
Together, the upperclassmen and athletes took a unified stand that day.
The novelty of a blonde girl from Africa wore off in less than a month. I no longer needed a protection detail because, ultimately, I am white. Though I wouldn’t have made it through the first few weeks (or French class) without you, two other girls from foreign countries transferred into school late. We formed our own Kenyan-Turkish-Sicilian coalition and became fast friends.
I think of that time period often because it opened my eyes to the obvious problem of racism that still exists in the United States. My worldview shifted on its axis.
When I returned to Kenya at the end of the school year, I started noticing some of the negative impacts of colonialism in the country I loved so much. I also began grappling with the “White Savior Complex” and how, without some version of it, I would not have Kenya as my home. It would be another few years before I truly grasped the concept of white privilege and how I benefited from it. Eventually, I got there too — and that is when I realized I could and should do more.
My one month of mild teenage harassment because I lived in Africa can in no way compare to the lifetime of discrimination you withstand because you are descended from there.
I recently had the honor of meeting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine. The trauma she tolerated, not just on her first day at Central High School, but the ongoing, relentless, daily torment forced upon her, shone a harsh light of perspective on my own memories at fifteen. I have never been more in awe of another human. When asked how she put one foot in front of the other that fateful day, she said:
“I am an ordinary person. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances can do extraordinary things.”
Thank you, J. Thank you for being extraordinary.
To this day, I remember you. I see you. I hear you.
Your life matters.
Note 1: This letter was originally published on May 17, 2020 on Medium. In 2020, I migrated that writing content to my personal webpage.
Note 2: #BlackLivesMatter is the modern, digital version of the Selma March. It is a movement advocating much needed change. The fact that protesting racial inequality is still necessary (make no mistake, it is necessary) half a century later, is shameful enough without this black rallying call being appropriated into some version of #AllLivesMatter. No one is saying your life isn’t important, but it likely isn’t the target of violence, hate, and oppression either. Prejudice and shaming are not equal to systematic racism; nor are they mutually exclusive.
Note 3: I learned over the course of the school year that the student body was not overwhelmingly racist, but they were definitely privileged.