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.