Racism and white privilege in uganda

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The grand narrative of post-colonial race relations in Uganda centers on the displacement and expulsion of 90,000 Indians by Idi Amin whom he accused of racism and unfair privileges. Much less is written about the White community in Uganda in Amin’s era or in contemporary times.

The recent events surrounding the racialized job advertisement specifically excluding qualified Black Ugandans from an employment opportunity in a predominantly Black country is indicative of the wider problems of race in that  country – and on a continent that still affected by colonial racial ideologies.

Race and racial tensions are a social problems much like poverty, mental disease, or ethnic discrimination which affect a citizen’s quality of life and life chances. Much like other social problems, ignoring them won’t make them go away. The continued silence surrounding race relations in Africa by academia, media and the general population is therefore problematic – it contributes to on-going racialized ideology and behavior. Although no one wants to address race relations, they need to be acknowledged so that African countries can deal with existing racial inequalities and the on-going privileging of groups to build inclusive societies.

Shell & Bolton’s Racialized Job Advertisement:

In a recent job advertisement, Shell and Bolton International, posted an advertisement requiring potential Ugandan based employees to meet a race criteria in order to be considered for the job as an Administrative Assistant. Along with fulfilling the requirements of holding a Bachelor’s degree, speaking English, four years working experience, and holding a valid work permit, the company’s vacancy announcement stated that the applicant for Administrative Assistant “must ideally be a foreigner (Indian, Phillipino, White)”.

When the Australian Multi national corporation (MNCs) posted this racialized advert ran in Uganda’s “New Vision” newspaper on October 29th, 2014 and on online job search sites, Black Ugandans were outraged because their hiring practices disadvantaged Black Ugandans. To make matters worse, after the public backlash, the company ran a public notice stating that they only wanted to get somebody to attend to their international clientele because they had a Ugandan administrative assistant already. This was an equally problematic statement because it pointed to the belief that their Black Ugandans employees could not effectively communicate with international clients. It also made Ugandans question whether all working condition in the company were also racialized.

Not only did the public see their advert and explanation as racist but also illegal. A Ugandan national Kenneth Kaggwa who meets all the qualification except the racial one sued the company on November 7th for violation against Uganda’s Constitution and the Employment Act. His lawsuit accuses the company of discrimination and claims that the recruiting criteria does not provide equal opportunity. Discrimination against gender, race, and ethnic origin are illegal in Uganda. The company is now under investigation  for discrimination and other illegal activity . The company’s website provides little content about its activities or international projects but the discrimination case opened the floodgates for investigation into all the company’s activities including tax fraud

MNCs infamously circumvent host country laws, thereby undermining attempts at any genuine civil rights gains. Typically, African governments are powerless in the face of these companies or turn a blind eye to their discriminatory practices for other reasons. This leaves room for the creation of racialized spaces that are facilitated by their hiring practices. They privilege the hiring of foreign – and often White – staff or local non-Black staff.

For example, they may hire expatriates to fill jobs that can easily be done by local staff or reserve upper management jobs for foreign (and often White) people. Therefore the propensity for MNCs to exacerbate racial inequality in their host nations is great – but it is not unique to Uganda. Gabon recently deported expatriates due to discriminatory practices in the work environment.

Africa as a Cosmopolitan Space

Famous African People from diverse racial backgrounds. Credit: Blaise Raise on Wikki Commons

When people talk about race in Africa, countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe or Botswana quickly come to mind due to their problematic histories with race. Race in other settler colonies such as Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda or in the non-settler countries of West and North Africa are rarely discussed albeit the permanent presence of people from diverse racial backgrounds living there.

Post-colonial Africa includes historical populations of South Asians, Europeans, and Arabs that have lived there for generations. Adding to the multitude of ethnicity are expatriate communities from Europe, South Asia and Americas. The growth of East Asian nationals, mainly from China, has also resulted in the growth of this community as well.

This makes African countries multi-cultural cosmopolitan centers where multiple races -Black, White, Asian, and Arab – live, work and interact. This also makes African nations sites where colonial racial hierarchies are contested and maintained.

White Privilege in Africa

Shell and Bolton’s bold discriminatory hiring practices serve as a reminder to Uganda and the rest of Africa of the role that race still plays in Africa’s multi-ethnic, multi-racial societies. The colonial hierarchies that are based on race are still very much alive in the country as much as they are on the continent as a whole in spite of being governed by Black leaders. This is because the construct of White Supremacy (a belief  that white people are superior to other races and should therefore dominate society) that was inherited in the colonial era is still manifest. White supremacy does not only refer to a band of men in KKK style white hooded capes burning crosses in front of the homes of Black families. Neither does it only refer to AWB style men in Khaki uniform waiting for their mythical Apocalypse at the hands of the Black ruled South African government.

White supremacy can also exist in subtler forms such as White privilege – the idea that society awards unearned privileges that benefit White people beyond what is commonly experienced by other races under the same circumstances due to their dominant position in society socially, economically or politically. Even though the advert includes other races, the privileging of race in Shell and Bolton’s hiring practices is a form of White privilege because it operates in a global environment where Whites have been positioned at the top of the racial hierarchy.

The concept typically applies to predominantly White societies such as the U.S. or England but is relevant in the African context too. Our colonial histories of racial minority rule prove power and privilege is not about numbers, it’s about access to opportunities, institutions and spaces. Similar to predominantly White societies, privileging of people based on their skin color has permeated all aspects of African societies.

Race is still a determinant factor when it comes to opportunities that affect one’s life chances and how one is treated daily on the continent. Privileges that White people gain at the expense of darker skinned Africans is one example of continued privileging based on color race or ethnicity. As Sawlani highlights in his article “Tourism, white privilege and colonial mentality in East Africa” privileges can be seen in diverse ways on the continent both inside and outside of Uganda. It can manifest in the form of the privileging of White tourists, expatriate or citizens on the continent in public spaces.

Preferential treatment in African bars, restaurants, banks, airports and stores still continues that favors White populations. In these spaces, there are several instances where the skin continues to determine the type of service one receives or how fast that service is received. In several instances, Black Africans have reported being helped last by businesses when having arrived before White people. They have also reported being given sub-standard service. Lastly, they have reported being profiled in shopping malls as suspected criminals due to their race. This treatment comes from both Black and White (and Asian) populations who have all internalized the global racial hierarchies.

Global Racial Hierarchies in Local Places

Racial stratification on the continent in settler and non-settler colonies have not disappeared, they are just silenced. They are a reflection of a global racial hierarchy where Black African governments (and their people) occupy a lower space.

Due to the unequal power relations between international MNCs’ governments and African governments, unequal global power dynamics can easily manifest. They project racial ideologies and practices – which are illegal in their own countries – in Africa. When these are coupled with existing colonial ideological racial legacies, it exacerbates race divisions.  They contribute to the creation of segregated work spaces in the country. Segregated spaces are not limited to the work space. There are also recreational, leisure or living spaces on that are equally segregated. It also undermines legal frameworks that are meant to protect against discrimination.

Issues of privilege and race in Africa are often not discussed but racial privilege exists. In part, this may be because all of these societies conceive themselves as “post-colonial” and want to move beyond race. They strive to be inclusive post-racial societies where race doesn’t matter. However, the presence of racialized segregated spaces, everyday micro-aggressions and overt discriminatory practices based on race are a testament that race still matters. Ignoring race or pretending it doesn’t matter does not help Africa address ideologies that support the privileging of races. The idea of a color-blind society has not been realized in Africa – nor in any society but it should something move towards. Therefore enforcing non-discriminatory hiring practices that result in disparate impact or treatment of select groups is important. This includes an end to acts giving people an unfair advantage.

Sitinga is a scholar in Sociology and African Studies. Topics of interest include socio-economic development, nation-branding, tourism, image, identity, and the global political economy and of course, Africa!She has worked worked in non-profit, healthcare, development, and education organizations. She is on the board of the Malawi Washington Association and Southern African Community USA. She has lived in Malawi and South Africa and currently lives in the US but you can catch her online, blogging at rebrandafrica.org and dualcitizenshipmalawi.org.

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