Emily's experience as a visible minority in Africa is what has contributed to her passion toward and compassion for racial justice. Click through to read her story.

3 Eye-Opening Lessons I Learned as a White Woman in Africa

Today’s post is the first ever guest post to grace Verily Merrily Mary. Emileigh Rogers is a recent blogging friend of mine who blogs at Flash Back Summer and she is the woman behind today’s post. She is a fellow Third Culture Kid (TCK) like I am and I found her story and insight to be candid, interesting, and quite unheard of when the concept of whiteness is discussed. I was interested in having her share her story here so take it away, Emileigh!

Hey guys!  I’m Emileigh, and Mary has graciously allowed me to share a post with you guys.  I love Mary’s blog because I get to hear different perspectives on important issues that society doesn’t always like to discuss. I’m especially passionate about intercultural and interracial issues, and a lot of that stems from my experiences as a TCK in Egypt and Sudan.

I was older when my family moved to Egypt; I had just turned 17. My family moved to Egypt specifically to study Arabic, and I finished high school online while attending an intensive language school usually reserved for only adults.  My whole family attended and studied hard, and we lived in an Egyptian neighborhood in Cairo where no one spoke English.  After a year of study, we moved to Sudan.  We lived in a house in a Sudanese neighborhood next to the trash pile where everyone took their goats to eat.

My family was eventually kicked out of Sudan along with most other foreigners, and my parents now live in Egypt.  We love the people of these countries dearly, and Egypt and Sudan will always feel like homes to me.  I lived in East Africa in high school only before going to university, but I learned a lifetime of lessons that have forever changed who I am. Here are three of the top things I learned.

Emily's experience as a visible minority in Africa is what has contributed to her passion toward and compassion for racial justice. Click through to read her story.

1. My experience/worldview doesn’t necessarily create a full view of reality.

As I was surrounded by a new culture for the first time, I realized the way I perceived things wasn’t always true to what was really happening around me. I didn’t understand colloquialisms of the language; oftentimes gestures didn’t hold the same meaning for me as it did to everyone else. I had been raised to hold eye contact with people as a sign of respect and confidence, but now I always lowered my eyes in public to avoid appearing flirtatious. I saw how I could act out of one motivation, but it would be perceived in an entirely different way.  As I would talk about government and religion with my Egyptian friends, I heard us approach the same issues with different outlooks.  I realized how our “cultural lenses” and personal experiences affect how we see everything, and only by comparing notes with people from different vantage points can we get a more complete view of reality, much like the Indian story of the blind men and the elephant.

white woman in Africa 2

This is my Egyptian “brother,” myself, and my sister in front of some traditional Egyptian textile art.

2. America’s worldview about racial and cultural issues is not the world’s view on these things.

My parents live in a Nubian village, and Nubians are an oppressed people.  Artifacts of their heritage have been carelessly destroyed, they’ve been uprooted from their land, they are looked down upon for their skin color. When living in Sudan, I saw intense tribalism and conflict that went back hundreds of years. It was rooted in the slave trade between black Africans and Arabs from the north, religious differences, and greed.  I saw how humanity’s tendency is to separate people into groups: those “like us” and those “not like us.” Every country has some element of this; it just takes different forms in different places. No matter the place in the world, an ‘us and them,’ divisive mentality has to be intentionally fought by dismantling systems of inequality. Unity will not come about by accident.

3. Being different from everyone else is difficult.

For the first time in my life, after moving to East Africa, I didn’t look like anyone around me.  I didn’t speak the language.  I was a minority religion.  Having grown up in Missouri, this was a completely different experience!  I was suddenly intriguing, “exotic,” and weird to the people around me, and it was pointed out every day, all day.

White woman in Africa 3

Hawa the tea lady, myself, and my sister. Hawa sold tea and donuts on the street. I visited her a lot!

My experiences in Egypt and Sudan were incredible and, overall, extremely positive.  However, there were very difficult parts, and as is often true, these not-so-great parts had a deep impact.  

(Before I go on, please know I LOVE the people of Egypt and Sudan and there are many beautiful aspects of the cultures and many incredible, kind people.  That is my disclaimer; please know there is far, far more positive than it may seem in the following stories. It just so happens that, as is common, the negative experiences caused me to ponder and cope in ways the positive ones did not.)

I dealt with and observed the preference for lighter skin. I saw that many Egyptians considered me more attractive because I have white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes.  Women would photoshop their pictures to have lighter skin and lighter eyes and use whitening creams daily (which blew my mind because I thought their caramely skin tone was gorgeous!). While being sought after for being different might seem nice, it really wasn’t that great.  I was daily harassed and groped by men, treated like a piece of meat.  Many men assumed I was promiscuous and loose like the white women they had seen on TV, even though I dressed more modestly than many Egyptian women and was careful to conduct myself appropriately.  My brown haired, brown eyed sister could pass as Egyptian and didn’t receive much attention.  Yes, history and Western media had affected things, but I sorely wished it hadn’t.

I just wanted to blend in with everyone else, to look like everyone else.  I didn’t want my name to be khawajah, outsider, anymore. I didn’t want to be the desirable Barbie with the American passport. I just wanted people to see me. Or, better yet, not see me at all and let me blend in. I had to pray on a daily basis that God would help me let go of the anger I felt all the time.

Other times, people weren’t malicious; they were just curious.  They commented about how white my skin was, touched my hair and poked me, laughed at my accent when I spoke Arabic.  I didn’t mind these things so much; I understood that I was different and people were just interested.  But, still, it grated on me sometimes.  In Sudan, no one knew how to cut my hair, so I had to wait until our yearly trip out of the country or do it myself.  Sometimes I had to be careful about what I said because I was a religious minority. I had to learn to deal with feeling unsafe a lot of the time because my gender was a liability.  All of these things were foreign to me, and while I tried to cope with them the best I could, I ended up going to counseling a few years later to work through a lot of these experiences, especially with  danger and harassment.

I learned, somewhat, how it felt to be a minority. Obviously, it’s not an apples to apples comparison with minorities in the U.S. by any means, but it gave me a taste of what it’s like to have people assume things about me simply because of my appearance, to be the odd woman out.  It hurt sometimes, and I had that anger to deal with more often. As  racial issues have come into the media spotlight more in the past couple years in the U.S., I’ve heard my thoughts and feelings expressed by people of color in the States. I could not 100% identify with everything they said, but I could empathize a bit.

Racial equality has become even more important to me because I know what prejudice on a personal level feels like.

It isn’t just hypothetical head knowledge to me. Even though much of this understanding came through negative experiences, I’m grateful for it. It has helped me understand others in a way I never could have before if I had stayed in a bubble of people just like me.

white woman in Africa

My dad, kids, buckets, and me. The squatter kids didn’t have running water. We would fill up all of their containers once a day from our house’s tank if they needed it.

These three lessons about how my experiences don’t equate to full reality and how being different feels like have changed me forever. I share my story because I believe strongly in comparing notes. I believe in contributing to the collection of global stories we can all access as we develop strategies to eliminate racial injustice. When it comes to whiteness, I know that it is a complex concept that has evolved over time while the privileged part has remained. However, stories like mine, stories of being a white minority, are all but absent in conversations about race. Even rarer are stories of how being a white minority has caused a white person to become compassionate and passionate about issues of racial injustice. I share my story with you because I know the more vantage points we can view from, the more likely we are to spot solutions in pursuing social justice. Collaboration and diverse teamwork can be difficult to navigate, but it’s worth it!

white woman in Africa

My family with an Egyptian family. This was at the home of our building’s security guard.

Do you have any experiences that may be surprising to others, that may not fit the assumptions society has of you/your culture/ your race? Has an experience with a different culture changed how you view intercultural and interracial issues where you live? What do you think are barriers to interracial collaboration where you are at? Let me know in the comments below.

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Emileigh is the blogger behind Flashback Summer and she loves talking about all things vintage lifestyle while adding an intercultural twist. She writes on sewing, knitting, history, vintage events, and old-fashioned ways to welcome people into your life and make a home comfortable. She also has an international twist on a lot of her posts because she realized that “vintage” usually focuses on just Western countries, and thinks that needs to change. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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  • Growing up as a TCK hugely impacted my passions and my heart today. Although, probably because I grew up in Malaysia and later on lived in China–I have never found being a visible “minority” difficult. On the whole, people here are extremely kind, extremely respectful, and extremely welcoming. I even wrote an entire blog post about how the Chinese people treated me when I spoke highly flawed Mandarin while living in their country vs. how Americans treat people who speak highly flawed English while living in America. (Spoiler alert: People were proud of me for even trying to speak Mandarin and even helped me find my words. If that doesn’t show the utter difference from being a foreign white girl in Asia vs. being anything else foreign in America, I don’t know what does)

    I’ve never felt unsafe–wherever I’ve lived here, the community has taken in my family as one of their own, when I walk around our small town, I know the aunties and uncles are looking out for me because they know and love me and my family. In China as well (I moved there after college with my husband), I was the only white person in our entire apartment complex, and the only white person for probably 8 or 10 blocks of the city as well (we lived in ShenZhen. Lots of foreigners live there, but we lived on the far distant opposite side–taking a subway for 3 hours would get you to the district where all the foreigners were). People want to talk to us and ask where we’re from–and once they found out I spoke Mandarin, they’d chat even more. I get asked for pictures and we talk and we are given snacks and brought out to dinner by complete strangers. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt prejudice, though language barriers have sometimes caused me to sit awkwardly in the corner with a smile plastered on. 🙂

    Granted, since I was 19, I’ve always had my husband, affectionately called “my bodyguard” with me, so that contributes to the feeling of safety. My experience living cross-culturally, I believe, had a big impact on my marriage. Couldn’t really end up marrying a fellow white kid born in Michigan like me but never left after my kind of childhood, could I? Odds are, we wouldn’t get each other. I think it’s funny, looking back, that my husband and I found each other the perfect match–a TCK from Malaysia and the son of Mexican immigrants. Vastly different experiences, and I didn’t even know a word of Spanish when we met, but somehow, we both get it, because we’ve both lived across cultures.

    I think the biggest barriers to interracial collaboration here in Malaysia are problems with corrupt government (look up the whole “Bersih” and “Red Shirts” protests and the background, there’s part of the story right there) and the whole system of financial and educational advantages given to the majority people group, i.e. university quotas, etc. But I do have hope for Malaysia’s future…it’ll take work, though…

  • “It has helped me understand others in a way I never could have before if I had stayed in a bubble of people just like me.”
    This quote made me think about a vlogbrothers video. John Green was talking about a book about a North Korean refugee (I didn’t read the book myself). The man was actually kind-of selfish and “horrible” by our standards, he ratted out his family for treason, he stole food, etc, etc. It wasn’t until he escaped that he grew compassionate and started to work to smuggle people out of North Korea. I guess it makes me think that once you are removed from one situation you can view the world in a totally different way. It is easy to ignore race issues in the USA when you don’t live with POC and hear their struggles. It is easy to assume they are “dumb” and “stupid” when you see a bunch of POC in poor areas, and not have to fight from the bottom up yourself.

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