Martin Luther King’s Dream Had One Little Hitch: Tolerance Isn’t All That It’s Cracked Up to Be

Part one of the 10 things I wish I knew before I left Africa
One of my teachers once told me, “If you want to succeed, put words to things which people haven’t put words to yet. Give a name to, verbalize or talk about gnawing feelings that people have that they just can’t describe.” Ironically, I am about to do that for myself and in so doing I hope I give voice to some of the things that YOU experience.

MLK and Malcolm X

Before I Landed in the Land Down Under

Before landing in Australia I was pretty sure I was the most charimatic thing since sliced bread took up a microphone and called itself the Backstreet Boys (don’t ask, it’s 1 in the morning, expect more metaphors like this to come). At the age of 12 years old I had gone from a social pariah who pulled my socks all the way into my hot pant shorts to the class clown who was always the life of the party. This continued all the way into high school with my having the distinct honour of being the only person who was in the bottom quadrant of the class, had the most strikes on my record for talking and cracking jokes in class and HAD NOT been suspended (profuse thanks to the management of Strathmore that are reading this.To Kenyans reading this, yes I went to Strath and no the suffix following Strath is not morons, we is smart em boys no deserve col dat us.)

This pretty much set the stage for my expectations as I flew over to Australia. I expected to land here and be the life of all parties I attended and mixed with the myth and mandingo and the girls I thought I would have it pretty good as far as girls were concerned. And so I arrived……….

It Was Like a Frog Slowly Boiling to Death
You know how when you cook a frog, you can slowly turn the heat up and the frog will never know that it’s slowly being cooked to death. That was kinda how my fall back into being a social pariah took place. The only difference between me and the frog is that I boiled much quicker.Much much quicker.

My first week here I was the coolest new accesory: Every boy was inviting me to their parties and declaring their unconditional love for me; girls swooned at my delightful foreign accent and everything was on the up and up. Three weeks later and every boy was trying to figure out how to best get rid of me, the swooning had become a ‘hope that he doesn’t try to say hi to me,” and I was hanging out with a witch.Yes, a witch. He was a full on Wicca witch, with the broom, the hat and the collection of mystic spells. Very nice guy inspite of his idiosyncracies. Needless to say it was pretty much downhill from there.

A Few Quick Observations

And so over the years as I moved from one person to another feeling rejected over and over again and comparing my experiences with those of my friends-some of whom fit right in- I began to notice a couple of things:

1) A lot of the Africans who get accepted quick are the people who are deep into the whole hip hop thing. Now I am not a gangsta rap fan. In fact in a couple of weeks I will be writing a piece on how we can free ourself of the verbal garbage spewed in gangsta rap on a continual basis. However, the kids who enter the diaspora with blunts in their mouths, their hands on their groins and chips on their shoulders tend to get accepted really well.

2) Another group that also gets accepted quickly are what I like to call the ‘cultural chameleones’. These are the people who can quickly and easily adapt their behaviour depending on who they are interacting with.These people absoloutely fascnitate me. One of them was a very close friend of mine and whenever he was talking to the Aussies he spoke entirely in their language: He cracked their jokes, played their games, watched their shows and listened to their music. When it was time for him to chill with his countrymen it was sheng 24/7 and never did I feel as though I was talking to an outsider.I was none of these things. As I lived here, my admiration of mainstream music declined rapidly. I went from a place of being deeply ashamed of my race and heritage to being absoloutely consumed by it (which is where I am at now; I must blog on this in future). In addition to that I was not willing to change because:a) I wasn’t a fan of their customs and culture; my identity was pretty well formed by the time I got here and I found it pretty difficult to relate their culture to how I’d grown up.b) I really did not want to change for the Australians because I felt that if tables were turned they probably wouldn’t reciprocate. Whereas I am not the type of guy who asks others to make sacrifices first, I will rarely make sacrifices for people I feel can never sacrifices, or changes for me.

Is This Where Tolerance Is?

Yup! To be clear by tolerance I mean: the ability to endure living with one another without being friends and without being enemies and with a basic respect for one another as members of the same human race.It was the only option I knew of if I was to accept this margninalization without having any hard feelings towards the people who I feel rejected me.

Does Tolerance Really Suck?
Multiracial festival

Yes…..and no.No, because if you look at it from a global perpective it’s absoloutely great. Here I am blessed to live in not only the most livable city on Earth, but also one of the most multicultural- it’s either second to Montreal or number one I forget. The fact that all of us can coexist without absoloutely slaughtering each other is a true testament to what human beings are capable of doing. There are definetly lessons I can take from Australia that can be translated to our multi-tribal society in Kenya.On a personal basis, there are definitely things about chosing to be a tolerant person that suck. One is the fact that everytime I enter a conversation with an Australia there is a voice in the back of my head that says pretty much the same thing every time:

“You know that this won’t last! They will get to a point where they will realize that we can’t get along and then I’ll have to watch them go through the awkard phase of trying to end the interaction.”

Five Years Later

So here I am, five years later. I must admit those first couple of years really hurt. I never felt so expendable in my life. Wanting to avoid feeling that expendable ever again has driven majority of my decisions over the last five years.

At this time I still don’t have Australian friends on speed dial. However unlike five years ago I am much wiser and much more tolerant and understanding of just how things got to be the way they are right now. In addition to that I am finally at a place where I do not blame the Aussies at all for not accepting me and definitely do not hold them responsible for the solution.

Interracial friendship

So after reading this, what if you say to yourself, “I don’t want to go through that.” I want to have great relationships with my brothers and sisters in other countries. I don’t want to feel lonely or isloated. How can I avoid this and have great friendships while in the diaspora? Let me share with you a couple of things that I believe, had I employed from the get go would have made my Australian social experience much smoother:

1) Why Do You Have Relationships With Other Human Beings?

By relationships I don’t just mean intimate, romantic or male-female relationships. I mean ALL relationships. Every friendship you develop. Every person you flirt with. Take some time to figure out why you do it. What does being with other people give you that you can’t get on your own? Now, I know that for a lot of you this is probably the first time you have ever stopped to think about this and so I know a few of you will probably come up with some eloquent response like, “Uuhhhh, I dunno.” That’s fine. If you did know, or if someone had been observing you all your life, why would they say you have relationships. Would they say you enter relationships:

1) To feel special/unique?

2) To feel needed?

3) To feel loved, unconditionally cared for?

4) To magnify your emotions- to make your joy more joyful by spreading it , to share your successes and make them even greater etc etc

5) To feel as though you are a part of something, a community?

6) None of the above?

7) Another reason?

Answering this one question can make a huge diffference in your life because you can now begin to consciously seek people who meet your emotional needs and this can only lead to more fulfilling relationships.

For me, personally, the reason I enter relationships is pretty much to feel needed and feel special. I have a great family and so I have always felt and loved and cared for and so from a very young age when I went out into the world it was to feel like I had a unique gift that someone was just waiting to receive. If I feel you need me, and that I am bringing something to your life that NO ONE ELSE can, then I always joke, “You could be an absoloute prick,” and I will still be your friend.

So if you stop reading here that’s cool, but take the time and figure out why you interact with other people. Don’t be like me. Don’t wait for relationships to sour before asking this crucial question?

Interracial couple with child

2) Curiosity, Empathy and Appreciation

When it comes to an existence in a foreign land, curiosity just might save the cat. Rather than pre-judging the customs and cultural habits of foreigners as stupid just because they differ from ours, take time to ask, “Why do they do that? What is the pay off for them?”
Some other good questions to ask are, “What can I learn from their habits, fashion etc? What similarities do they have to me?” These questions help you discover commonalities that you share with other people. Ultimately aren’t all friendships based on having things in common, even if it is just one thing.

Empathy comes in when you are willing to take a walk in their shoes and see life through their eyes. Take a walk in Australian skinny jeans, whether or not you agree (or can fit ) with them or not. Do this WITHOUT bringing any of your prejudices along and with an intention of fully understanding why other people do what they do. This will definitely get you friends quick because correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we all just love it when someone is willing to listen, REALLY LISTEN, and see life from our point of view without judging us.

Finally, it’s appreciation. On the base level, appreciate them for just being your fellow human beings. Beyond that, if in the midst of your curious explorations you find that you have similarities to foreigners, cherish them, celebrate them, nurture, grow and appreciate them.

3) What Do You Bring (or What Could You Bring) to the Table?

This in my opinion is the most important solution of all. After discovering why you interact with other human beings in the first place, take a moment and ask yourself, “Why would anyone ever want to hang out with me?” This is especially for you high maintenance people who have a lot of standards and preconditions and requirements that people must meet to become and remain your friend. Ask yourself, “Am I really worth hanging around? Would someone of high standards want to hang out with me?” If the answer is, “Yes,”, “Why would they?”

Can you imagine how great it can be if for example you figure out that the one thing you have always brought to friendships is say, a listening ear and a shoulder that others can cry on? I can assure you that one thing that is universal and everybody goes through is problems. You could pretty much go from being the listener, confidante and counsellor at home to the listener abroad. I know quite a few people who are absoloutely adored because of having this gift.
What if you are a funny man who can crack a smile from a corpse. Then, all you have to do is watch what the funny men here do and what makes people over here laugh and you can go right back to being mister funny man.

The Angry Mentality

Interracial couple fighting
Something I am yet to mention is that my reaction to the marginalization is far from being the only way people react. There is however another reaction that a lot of people have to this feelings of rejection and it’s anger.

They direct their anger at the people who reject them. Some of the signs that someone might be having this reaction include:

1) Listening to 2pac’s song, “They don’t give a……about us” too many times a day.

2) Constantly having the conversation, “We are better than (insert race or nationality here) people because…….we have culture and they don’t/we are friendly and they have no community/ we are not all about money etc etc.

This reaction has a host of advantages: People who adopt the angry mentality tend to set very high standards when interacting with foreigners and don’t ,”take crap.”. In a society like this that can slowly beat one to the ground piece by piece, this mentality can also be useful to have as it keeps a fire under you butt when the society is trying to push you down. And of course, people who are angry tend to be able to do more than people who feel sad, lonely or depressed.

The disadvantage of course is that its a high stress reaction that brings stress to you, strains your existing and future relationships. For this reason and because it simply isn’t in my nature to blame others for my problems, even when it is their fault, I didn’t adopt this mentality.

Great collage

Now I know a lot of you are saying that, “It can’t really be that simple.” You are absoloutely right , it’s not. A lot of it you have to play by the ear as you go through the challenges of every day life. If you want one simple tip that can save you a lot of hastle then it would be this.
Find people in the diaspora who live the type of life you want to live (this is not restricted to socially, it can include economically, spiritually, in their intimate relationships etc) and find out what they believe, what they think and what they do and basically do what they do-as NLP practioners would call it modelling. If you do this I see no reason that you shouldn’t have uber fulfilled while you are in the West.

I must note that in this post I have made a large number of generalizations just for the sake of clarity and to keep it short. As always, leave a comment and let me know if this post has served, anything I may have missed or any thoughts that may occur to you as you read this. Till next time………

Be blessed so you may be a blessing unto others,



  • By sergio, April 25, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    great shit, i am mexican studying in the same way and i refuse to eat their grese food, listen to crappy musica and watch stupid programs jus to get along with these people

  • By Mwangi, April 26, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    @sergio: I was once that angry. I eventually got out of it but your anger definitely has its advantages….and of course, disadvantages :)

  • By terry, August 12, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    heavy duty .well thought off.I like this

  • By Mwangi, August 12, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    @terry: Thanks. Wrote this about 2 years ago as one of the first articles…glad to see its still appreciated.

  • By Jarnel, January 15, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    Yes u can get along with EVERYBODY. Be u African, Asain Hispano,Caucasian etc
    But first u gotta make yourself the individual that are and NOT a folk or a group.

  • By carole, January 26, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    hey – great ideas here. Im in the opposite situation to you – a white woman that moved to Africa and is struggling to really fit in. Its easy to be open minded and want to fit in with people but once you get passed a certain stage its like you hit a brick wall, and I have no idea how knock it down.

  • By admin, January 27, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    @carole: And that is exactly what happens to us over here. I don’t remember at which point it was when I realized that essentially xenophobia, dislike of change and foreign people is the norm as opposed to some anomaly.

    There are two ways to deal with the situation that I know of:
    1) Change yourself so you can fit in. In everything you do or say, think about it from the point of view of providing value to people in your host country ( as they perceive value, not you ) and work consciously and diligently on assimilating into the culture.
    2) Just give it time: Over time, whether we like it or not, we get to a point where we either have to assimilate to adapt or reject the place entirely. Wait to get to that point then figure it out.

    The long and short of it is, you are different culturally from they are and as such what you are experiencing ( as I have experienced) isn’t hitting a wall but your wires never really having touched, so keep working on getting your wire across to where you can tap in to what they are, and make it a part of you.

    Apart from the terrible metaphor at the end, I hope that helped………….

  • By, July 17, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    Great insightful post. Loving your open-mindedness and truthfulness.

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