08/08/2011 11:57 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2011

A White Man in a Black Country

I traveled to Kenya and learned some things about himself and our conceptions of race.

I traveled to Kenya with my wife Elena and six year-old son Cole. A minority for the first time in my life, it made me think differently about race and my own racism.

As Kenya is a former English colony, which became independent in 1964, I am sure there are white Kenyans, but I literally never saw one during my entire visit. At the Nairobi airport on the way home,  I did notice a number of inter-racial couples with beautiful babies with light brown skin everywhere.  I stopped counting when I got into the double digits.

Everywhere I went, very-dark-skinned men and women kept welcoming me home, like I was a Jew returning to Israel. I am neither black nor Jewish, so at first, the kindness confused me. I kept trying to imagine walking north on the East Side of Manhattan, past 110th Street, and the residents of Harlem taking a look at my blond hair and blue eyes, welcoming me home.



Everyone we met cheerfully greeted us with the Swahili "hello." Our drivers, waiters, and our guide Protus took a particular shining to Cole.  They'd bear-hug him whenever they saw him.

This made me think of a recent column by Shawn Taylor, a black man with a light-skinned daughter, about how, at the playground, he's treated like a leper instead of the proud father he is. In one recent incident, Taylor was playing with his daughter and another little blonde girl. The blonde girl fell to the ground by accident, and her mother assumed the worst about Taylor. She calling him a n*gger in front of his daughter. Taylor's kept his cool, but he had to comfort his daughter, who was in tears.

Recently, a man drove a white van into our community back home. He tried to convince a young boy to get in the van, but the boy ran away, screaming. It left the community in a state of paranoia. All of the parents gave their kids the don't-talk-to-strangers talks.

So after Protus, a large black man, took our son in his arms the moment he met him, Cole asked,  "I thought I wasn't suppose to talk to strangers. Is he okay?"

"Yes," I said, "he is a very sweet man who is just being nice." But inside I wondered what I would say if a black man on the playground back home did the same thing.


Read more of Tom Matlack here.

Photo by the Author