Being white in Ethiopia is weird. I want to say it’s not weird, because I went to elementary school in the ‘90s and was raised coloring with eight different shades of Crayolas designed specifically for skin colors. I am also really jealous of people who aren’t white, because I think toasted saffron or tilled earth is a lot richer than my pasty, flaky unchurned butter shell. But it’s weird to be reminded of your skin color on a daily basis when it’s something you don’t really think about on your own. And it’s weird to explain sunburn or acne to people who seem to have never suffered from such phenomena. It’s really weird to be stared at and poked and prodded just because of who you are on the outside.
Being white in Ethiopia is complex. I thought that being white in Africa would allow me to better understand the minority experience in America, but it doesn’t. Because when Ethiopians stare at me and say ferenji and touch my hair without asking on busses, they’re not doing it with an air of disdain. They’re doing it with an air of wonder. And to be honest, sometimes jealousy. Being white doesn’t inherently correlate to excess money or power, that is what I tell my Ethiopian friends, but sometimes I don’t believe it. Because at the end of the day, I really might not have the birr children on the street think I can effortlessly dish out, but I’m only going to be in this poverty-stricken country for a few years, tops, then to move on to a place and lifestyle of my own choosing. This place, this is their everything.
Being white in Ethiopia is never easy. It means drawing a crowd just by purchasing potatoes at the market. It’s being more exposed and visible than trying to hide in a hoodie at a 1200 student liberal arts college. It makes you become bitchy and assertive and think the worst when a teenager on the street just asks you your name. It means watching an old man, an old man with kids and grandkids and cows to milk at home, lose his pride and end another conversation on the road just to look at you and turn a smile into the most pitiful face you’ve ever seen. It means saying no and wondering if he’s crazy or if you’re just jaded and tired and worn.
Sometimes being white in Ethiopia makes you believe in your whiteness even more, and I hate that. Yet I’m forced to do that everyday: separate myself from what’s not white because if I tried to just put on colorless glasses I’d be the fool.