White Skin Abroad

I never thought much about my whiteness until I mingled in spaces where my white skin stood out like a scar.

For five years, I lived in a remote city in China with a total of four foreigners. Attention from strangers was so common that on trips back home to the United States, I felt snubbed. What, no one wants to gaze at me, ask me out for a meal, or take my picture? Especially at tourist destinations in China, it wasn’t unusual to be asked to be photographed by up to ten strangers. I was exotic, extraordinary, a beauty. I was special, not because I really was, but because I was white.

Uganda was the first place I ever lived abroad. I traipsed in with the naivety of a white woman on a holy mission. For six months I lived with an African family with no indoor plumbing in a village outside Kampala. The family’s maid had a blotchy face from attempting to lighten it with skin whiteners. Kids stroked the fine blond hair on my arms, commenting on my “feathers” and marveling at my light hair.

Neighborhood children sprinted to greet me after work, each of them attaching themselves to one of my fingers, so I arrived home with umbrellas of African children shooting out from my arms. “Muzungu, muzungu,” “White person, white person,” they’d call. “Give me money,” they’d say. I laughed, trying to explain I was a student without money. I pretended I wasn’t rich in comparison, trying to ignore that I could be air lifted out of country if I was injured, or bailed out by my parents if I was in trouble.

It wasn’t until I returned to Uganda eight years later, with graduate cultural training and years of experience living abroad, that I could interpret their looks. With a history of colonialism, white skin signaled privilege, wealth, and power. It hinted at oppression and still carried the stench of the slave trade. Rather than admiration, I sensed an undercurrent of suspicion, my white skin bearing the weight of an unspoken history. Whiteness felt like a barrier, not a bridge.

My first year out of college, I taught at a 100 percent African American school in Lawndale, Chicago, again skipping into a broken system I was certain I could repair with sheer optimism and will power. When I peered in the mirror on bathroom breaks, I was shocked by my pasty white skin, so accustomed to staring at the warm brown hues of my students’ skin.

The most beloved white teachers lived within miles of the school, while I commuted from the North Side. Those teachers not only knew their students’ names, but the names of their parents, aunts, uncles and grandmas. Perhaps overcoming the walls of my whiteness on the West Side meant moving into the neighborhood. It meant trading comfort for commitment, security for staying. Without that buy in, I wasn’t welcome.

No matter our skin color, entering a culture where we’re the minority holds up a mirror to our own skin. In the eyes of others, we view ourselves and begin to believe those images projected back at us. In China, that compounded my pride. In Uganda, my shame. In Lawndale, my fear.

Acknowledging skin color opens us to seeing ourselves from another vantage point. Our ethnicities carry the complicated coils of history.

The danger comes in thinking our skin color, and for me, my whiteness, has no weight, no bearing on the relationships I say I want to form.

Whether we like it or not, know it or not, say it aloud or not, whiteness tags us with history, assumptions, and baggage wherever we move about the world. While it’s not always something to “fix,” it issomething to name, and ask ourselves, “Would a brown or black friend be treated the same way?” Why or why not? How can this lead to confession, repentance and lament? How can it lead to change, learning, and growth? How does whiteness fit in the dazzling mosaic of God, situated as one tiny sliver in a more impressive whole?

As a white woman, I hold those snapshots from other cultures with trembling hands, and ask how I can be humble. How can I wield privilege for good? How can I allow the flames of history to rage around me and burn away the pride, melt away the defenses? Now, justice usually looks like listening, learning, and loving from the dust.

Traveling offers opportunities to admit the world notices whiteness even if we do not wish to do so. If we have the courage, it helps us glimpse ourselves through the lens of other, wiser eyes. It coaxes us out of blindness into sight.

Leslie Verner is a goer learning how to stay. Other cultures, spicy food, deep conversation, running and sunshine nurture her soul. She, her husband, and their three children live in Colorado. She writes regularly about faith, justice, family and cross-cultural issues at www.scrapingraisins.com and elsewhere on the web. Find her on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.