In the general population, many people feel as though they definitively understand what it feels like to not fit in. Many people experienced this during their awkward stages of secondary school, while others experienced this on their sports teams or in University when it seemed like everyone else just ‘found their people’. Feeling like an outsider comes in many different forms, and until very recently, I would have described this as a negative experience. Because really – who enjoys the feeling of not belonging?
But sometimes this “otherness” gives us perspective. Sometimes it gives us an understanding that we never could have imagined previous to these experiences. When you look at only one side of the story, you are not getting the full picture and are certainly limited in your ability to live that truth. Although in today’s times, this is probably becoming more the norm with the discovery of “alternative facts”. Without having experienced something first hand, is it possible to say that you understand it completely? With empathy comes compassion and the thirst for developing knowledge, but it is oftentimes only surface level.
I have lived, in my own capacity, what it means to be an “other” for the last two years. I have lived through the constant, never ending stares as I walk down the street in my town, wondering how long it would actually take for my community to get used to me. I have lived through the chorus of children chasing after me, screaming “/husa /husa” and begging me for money, cold water, a piece of paper that I have in my hand – whatever I have, or they think that I have, in my possession. I have lived through men grabbing me in the street, not understanding what an invasion to my physical body this actually is, while telling me that they love me and requesting my betrothal. When asked their reasoning, their response is always similar to “You are beautiful and I just want a white woman so badly”.
This is what it all boils down to, no matter where we are in the world: the seemingly never-ending issue of race, of gender, of sex, of privilege. Although these every day actions absolutely infuriate me, often to the point of enacting unhealthy coping mechanisms, I can recognize that these stares – these screams of excitement – these proposals all come from a point of privilege. The privilege that I was born with, allowing me to stop people in their tracks simply by my appearance of “otherness”. The questions that I get and the constant focus on my personhood comes from bored curiosity, as well as the aftermath of an apartheid ideology that still skims the surface like oil on water. There are so many instances that make me cringe – friends saying “they really worked hard, like white people do”; colleagues saying “this is what happens when you let black people do something, it just doesn’t come out right”. The institutionalized racism runs deep within the veins of this country, and I am continually reminding myself that Namibia, as an independent union, is only 2 years older than I currently am. There is such a long and winding road ahead of it, where many people will have their perceptions challenged – of both themselves as well as their countrymen.
Having someone ask what I am doing in their town, in their country, out of idle curiosity is nothing compared to the same question filled with hate that so many minorities are currently facing in the U.S. The intention of a question can change so drastically, not from the replacement of words, but the placement of a person on an imagined hierarchy. To be stared at in awe is one thing – to be glared at in complete misunderstanding is another thing entirely. I will never pretend to understand fully the experience of being an “other” in the U.S., especially in the terrifying times we currently find ourselves in. I can say that I have had a miniscule taste of what it is like to be reminded weekly, daily, even hourly that you are different – that something about you will never fit in with the status quo.
Let the “otherness” that is so blatant to others become the armor that you wear to protect yourself, while letting others see that there is more to you than the surface level differences. Learn to see “others” as unique, while accepting them as they are and inviting them to share a place at your table. This is the only way that we will do the hard work of bringing countries, cultures and people together, in a time when “America first” just isn’t going to cut it.