Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Mzungu

I saw a white dude with a t-shirt that said Mzungu.   Now most people would not know what this shirt meant.   It's probably just a funny word to them.  I -- having worked in Southern Africa -- knew this was the word for white people said by Africans.   As I continued to look I noted that the shirt was in fact from Tanzania. So it probably did mean what I thought it meant.   Being that I live in Asheville -- Home of hippies, hipsters,  and people who will sing along with you at the gas station (that actually happened) -- I figured I would ask.

"Excuse me,  I noticed that your shirt says Mzungu and is from Tanzania.  Since I worked in Southern Africa I know that means white person.   I was just wondering why you would wear that shirt."
White guy looks awkward "Yeah it's from Tanzania,"
"I was just wondering why you would wear a shirt that pretty much just says white guy."
He now looks even more uncomfortable and starts to ramble.  "Oh well, it reminds me of being in Tanzania when I was at this awesome snake ranch, we were hiking,  and this kid bought me this shirt . . .  It reminds me of good times I had there . . . It's not racial."

At this point I could tell he was feeling pretty uncomfortable.  He probably had never thought about his shirt before or that someone would ask him about it. I could see clearly one of the Peace Corps Guys wearing a T-Shirt that said OshiLumbu ironically. (Actually I think the group before us did make those shirts ironically.)  They would've probably noted that's what they were called all the time and laughed.  I tried to give him an opportunity to let him in on the joke.

"I just saw the shirt and knew the meaning and wondered if you were wearing it ironically, or if you were wearing it just for the memories."
"Just for the memories."

So he was not in on the joke.  This is was probably a white male who had never thought about it.  I realize that most of the white men in my life have had to recognize their color and privilege at some point. My husband who wears "Not an accurate representation of a white person" T-Shirt ironically.  My best friend who I had frequent debates with in High School.  While he was coming out and we discussed our disadvantages, I told him that walking down the street no one could tell he was gay, but everyone could tell I was black.  That statement pretty much ended the debate.  All of the guys in Peace Corps had to deal with their whiteness on a daily basis.  But this guy had probably never really thought about it.

I could tell he was uncomfortable; in retrospect I wish I had let him sit with his discomfort.  Why shouldn't he think about his whiteness, or how what he wears means something.  But on instinct if rushed in to make him feel better.  I joked about how I was called Oshilumbu myself even though it means white person.  How my Namibian students told me I was not black.  His female companion joined and we laughed it off has he left the area and I could order my coffee.

But I wish I had let him sit in his racial discomfort.  I wish as a Black American Woman my training and instinct was not to make sure that the white guy is okay, even in this small moment of discomfort.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Reconciliation

Today in the shower I had a reconciliation of sorts.  I said "yay thighs."   Now for most people such a statement may not mean much, but for me that was monumental.  I have not had the best relationship with the top half of my legs.  It probably started around the age of 10.  As I started to develop, having a little bit of curves was something I wanted.  Mostly I wanted breasts (irony), but a booty was okay too.  However what I did not forsee was the mental havoc that would be wrought by my legs.

Honestly it may not have even been a thing, if it wasn't for Shane Parish. (That's right I just name dropped) My parents moved from the country to the suburbs of Cincy when I was 9.  I went from inner-city (primarily Black-American) elementary school to E. H. Greene in Blue Ash (primarily white).   This transition was hard enough (changing classes every 2 weeks because they put me in remedial classes, working my way back up to gifted classes, trying to find new friends, riding the bus for the first time instead of walking), but gym class made it that much harder.

 We had gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  We were all working for the presidential fitness test: running a mile, sitting up, pushing up, trying to do pull ups.  You know all the "up" things.   Over the summer I had started to wear a bra (ooh) and had more weight on my legs.  I honestly did not think about my thighs much other than wearing cords or track suits that now made sounds as I walked.  But when I stepped into the gym I now heard every step echo.  The green gym shorts were not the most flattering either. However what made it life scarring was Shane Parish calling out "Here comes Large Marge with Thunder Thighs," every time I walked into the gym.   It was terrible.

Even now my heart rate increases thinking about the anxiety caused by trying to figure out when to walk into the gym.  Was there a way to walk in without him noticing?
With a group of girls - nope.
Right before the bell - nope.
Maybe super early before anyone else was out - well I just never changed that quickly.
Suddenly for the second half of the year I came down with a terrible illness Wednesday night which would cause me to miss school for Thursdays and many Fridays.   If I went to school I would be sent to the nurse before PE with a fever up to 101.9.  My parents took me to my pediatrician, Cincinnati Children's and specialists trying to figure out what was wrong.  I had tons of lab work done, which I enjoyed more than walking into the gym.  Suddenly when I started the summer and then went back to school in 6th grade when Shane was no longer in my class I didn't have the end of the week illness.

Only when I was in medical school did I learn that this is a common and normal coping strategy for children.

Though I no longer had to hear him say those words; the image and the sound stuck with me.  I stopped wearing shorts in the summer and only wore long baggy pants.  Luckily it was the 90's and this was the style.  I gave up on wearing women's clothing and shopped in the men's section where I could buy a 40+" waist which I knew would go over my hips.  All of my skirts or dresses had to go below the knee.  That experience started anxiety, stress, and dislike of my thighs which so far has lasted over a quarter of a century.

In college I came to terms that my thighs were never going to change size and get smaller (my hip bones are actually set wider than others) and they were either going to be fat or muscle.  So I danced and worked to make my thighs as much muscle as possible.  But I still didn't like them.  I actually managed to lose weight in Peace Corps, but still didn't like my thighs.   I did yoga and jumped rope in India, and fortunately saris and most Indian clothing covers the entire legs so less worries.  I was getting my legs waxed regularly and there are few things worse than holding your fat taut so someone else can remove hair.

In pubic health school I started volunteering at Shadowbox.  (If you live near Columbus Ohio and don't know what this is do yourself a favor and go)  Shadowbox (Sketch Comedy and Rock & Roll) is known for having people of all sizes in all costumes.  So I had some fun and got into the spirit.  I forgot my pants one day and needed to borrow the skirt from one of the cast members.  I was amazed to find the skirt fit when I always thought she was way smaller than I.  So as a volunteer with fishnets I showed my thighs for the first time in years.
 

I still pretty much only show above the knee for performance or costume.  But with continued exercise and time I got to the point where I don't actively hate my thighs.  I can appreciate what they do for me on a daily basis; start to like them.  I can even say "yay thighs."