Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Taking American Race Relations on the Road ... to Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Taking American Race Relations on the Road ... to Africa

Article excerpt

Author's Note: I originally wrote this article in the summer of 2001, after returning from Kenya where I had spent the month of May with eighteen Illinois Wesleyan students enrolled in my travel course. Inspired by a series of articles devoted to study abroad programs in Africa (African Issues, volume XXVIII/1&2) in 2000, I hoped to contribute to the discussion by sharing the insights recorded in my students' travelogues. Then the September 11th terrorist attacks occurred, and soon thereafter the U.S. Department of State issued travel warnings against travel to several African nations including Kenya, which has prevented me from offering the course since. Although I have never underestimated the benefits of openly discussing sensitive issues as important as race relations, I was unsure of how to fit the discussion into a post 9/11 framework of analysis, so I put the article away.

The recent resurgence of American students studying abroad and the growing interest in programs in Africa among my own students is what motivates me to revisit the discussion again now. It is my hope that my colleagues who are experienced dealing with the issues raised in the journals my students kept while in Kenya in 2001 will add their expertise to the comments shared here. Such a dialogue can only enhance our strategies for preparing students for the varied experiences they have in Africa, and may even lead to a better understanding of the tension that sometimes characterizes the encounters between Africans and African Americans in the U.S.


Americans seem relatively naive about anticipating the potential pitfalls associated with wearing the prismatic glasses we use to see members of our own society, when we travel and study in other parts of the world. As an anthropologist who leads undergraduates to East Africa, I am in hot pursuit of a way to help my students avoid taking the particular way in which Americans understand race with them to Africa. So far, I have been unsuccessful in prying my students loose from the color-coded framework that has organized race relations for them throughout their lives. As illustrated in the journal entries of two African American students who traveled to Kenya with me during May 2001, American notions of race often become obstacles to understanding how social relationships are negotiated outside of the American context. Moreover, such notions prevent Americans from figuring out how they might fit into social structures that do not operate the American way.

Racial division in the United States has primarily consisted of the separation of people into those with "white" skin and those with "black" skin. The degree to which skin tone shapes American social relationships is signified linguistically in the way we commonly identify each other as "White" or "Black" in everyday parlance. As Lee Artz outlines in his book Cultural Hegemony in the United States, "In practice, race has regulated legal treatment, economic opportunity, and social status, and the most defining characteristic of race in the United States has been skin color." (1) While this statement might seem obvious to American readers, race does not work itself out the same way in all societies.

Relevant to this discussion is the fact that social relationships in Kenya are not defined by skin color the way they are in America. From a Kenyan perspective, "race" might be translated as: cultural heritage, first language, home district, family name, profession, and/or ethnic affiliation. While Kenyans do recognize physical attributes associated with people of different ethnic groups, learning a person's name is usually the best way to guess a fellow Kenyan's background. As budding anthropologists trained to look for the unique criteria with which people organize their societies, my students do not find the Kenyan basis of difference difficult to accept. What is difficult for them, however, is overriding their "default" mode of response to the interactions they have with people in Kenya, which they often explain in terms of the American race-power continuum. …

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