My skin colour represents privilege and status. But it makes me an outsider too
“Mzungu!” Every part of the African continent has its own term for white people. In , where I live, children take great delight in screaming mzungu! at me, quickly followed by “Give me money!”
I was born a white boy in apartheid South Africa. Mandela was still in prison. The writing was on the wall for the apartheid regime, but there was still a long way to go. My parents – one Irish, the other somewhat Irish but English by birth (I tend to downplay this fact) – moved to South Africa at this dramatic crossroads in its history. They had a spirit of adventure (they still do), and the fall of apartheid was something they wanted to witness first-hand.
After stints in various European countries, I moved back to the continent of my birth four years ago. I live between Burundi and Malawi, where I’m involved in organising the and this year started up the film festival. These experiences, which bring me into contact with many different people, are often affected by the colour of my skin.
There are the moments that warm the heart: when I tell people I was born in Johannesburg, almost without exception the immediate, confident response is: “Ah. So then you are African.” They don’t seem to mind that I came into the world a privileged minority in an apartheid state. I am white, but I am not excluded from .
But the hospitality Africans instinctively offer to strangers is one thing. In day-to-day life, I struggle to make black friends. Those who know about South Africa’s grim past immediately assume that as a white South African, I’m a racist. Those who don’t afford me privileges I have neither earned nor necessarily deserve.
In Malawi, people insist on calling me bwana, the Swahili word for “master”. It’s often tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes there’s more going on. It is tied to a broader concept of patriarchy (which is not limited to race), but also to the colonial past. To be white and a man is to be superior.
With a name like Pádraic, being so obviously a foreigner also opens you up to lazy categorisations. “Are you American? Which organisation are you from? You don’t work for an NGO? So you are a journalist.”
Living in a cocoon with people of my own colour is not ideal either. You notice racist views you are expected to share. White friends of mine lock their bedroom doors when they hear there’s a black man coming to visit.
Some days, I try to forget that I am a white man on a black continent. But you can’t. Each day you are reminded by barefoot children, by beggars on street corners, by taxi drivers, by the places you shop, the company you keep. At least in the African contexts I am most familiar with, Malawi and the Great Lakes region, you cannot in any real sense escape the social status your skin colour traps you within.
In two months, I marry a Swedish national in Burundi. Born in Zimbabwe, she grew up across Africa, educated in South , Kenya, Uganda and Ivory Coast. There’s an undeniable affinity in our experiences. It’s not just our love of this rich and varied continent, but the fact that, as much as we belong here, we will always be, on some level, outsiders.
The colour of our skin represents privilege, status, wealth and a dark colonial legacy. But today it goes beyond that. It signifies access to markets and the freedom to move, to act, to speak openly. Being white in Africa is not the same, say, as being black in Europe. But the feeling of dislocation remains, the sense of somehow always being, on some small but important level, an outsider. White Africans are not a tribe, but we are, perhaps, a diverse and peculiar phenomenon.
When we think of white Africans, the term may conjure images of the Boers fighting the English, of Karen Blixen and , of conservationists making sure the animals of Africa are kept . The term is misleading and unhelpful. I refuse to be categorised by it: I am both white and (South) African, not simply “the white kind” of African. As , a Mozambican writer of Portuguese descent, puts it: “These are apparently contradictory worlds that I like to unite because they’re part of me.”