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“Wow, you’re so smart for a black person” is a phrase that has egregiously colored my existence and my American experience. Attending only PWIs (predominantly white institutions) my entire life, I’ve understandably felt different and antithetical to my peers. Growing up, I constantly had my name mispronounced, consistently felt hands of curiosity and confusion tangled in my hair, and always had people bewildered by my lunches composed of Nigerian foods and drinks. I was and am different. But that is okay.

Over the years, I’ve become more than proud of and embraced all of these differences as they’ve allowed me to bathe in uniqueness and be able to interpret things wildly different from my classmates. This morning, I attended a methodist church in South Africa with my professor today. It was beautifully done and filled with a diverse audience. What caught my attention the most was the sermon. Tall, white, and nearing almost 50-years-old, the preacher delineated the power of our lives, backgrounds, and walks of life in altering our interpretations. He said, “Today is Father’s day, and if you are grateful of your father or if you’re resentful of him, you’ll see different things. If you are white or if you are paralyzed or if you are able-bodied, you will see different things.” As an African-American studying in North Carolina, this statement couldn’t be more powerfully true. As a black person in America, I couldn’t be comfortably oblivious to the injustices that face black, brown, and beige bodies on a daily basis in the same manner a white person can be because they are not directly affected by it. I could not ignore the stark and obvious difference in U.S. and media attention to the high school shooting in the predominantly white and affluent Parkland neighborhood as compared to daily shootings in predominantly minority schools and areas. As a black person in America, I’ve always felt different and responsible to educating my peers on why this country can be f—– up at times. However, when I was accepted to the South Africa program for DukeEngage, I was happy and hopeful of the opportunity to be around people who are mostly black in an African country. I was content with having that feeling of being an alien go away, even if it was only for the short two months that we were here. Boy, was I wrong.

Minus the one week we spent in Johannesburg where I exceedingly enjoyed this sci-fi type of feeling of being in a place that was majority black {something I’m not at all used to}, all of that excitement dissolved when we relocated to our program’s base of Cape Town. Although beautiful and resembling my home with the beautiful scenery and the ocean everywhere one turns, I felt that feeling of uncomfort in my beautiful black skin creeping in and reminding me it will never leave me. Everywhere I turn, white people occupy all the spaces here in Cape Town. And the only time I can recall seeing a group of black people is when I saw the staff of maids of our Bed and Breakfast. I’d like to say seeing white people everywhere is not a bad thing at all and I’m not trying to be grossly discriminatory. What I am trying to get across is my confusion as to why the base site of a program focused on race and the racially-charged system of Apartheid is in a city whose population egregiously lacks black people? Why in an African country and in an African city do I still feel uncomfortably alien?

Yes, various things could be said to counter this argument. One could say that we are based in Cape Town because that where are internships are. Well, okay. But we could have easily found internships of comparable nature and tasks in Johannesburg or any other city in South Africa. Another could say, “Well, you did pick this program yourself, Maryam. You could have picked a program in a place where the majority of people are majority black.” Well, yes. This is true as well. But how is that last argument fair? Why should I as a black person switch and change my interests because the population and people are not matching my expectations of what African countries look like. I am an aspiring lawyer who has been immensely interested in race and racial issues for as long as I can remember. This is why I signed up for this program and I’ll be damned if I were to change who I was and what I want to do because one thing doesn’t go as expected.

Honestly, I do not know how to effectively end this blog. I am not complaining and I do not wish to bash the DukeEngage program. This is not at all why I am writing this. This opportunity has already given me so many memories and friendships that I would never have had before. What I am trying to say and get across is the implications of our actions, actions that are so…so American. We try to volunteer, we try to integrate, we try to understand people whose lives are so vastly different than us. However, we do this from a very outsider-looking-in stance. In trying to make ourselves feel better and make an impact on our world, we do it in ways that seem superficial and only scratch the surface of this world we say we are trying to ameliorate and understand.

I’ll end this in the best way I can. If we are going to talk about race, race relations, and a system of Apartheid that predominantly and evilly affected black African lives in South African, should we really be based in a city that exudes tourism, wealth, and the egregious whiteness that helped implement Apartheid? I do not know how to answer this question. But in my time here, I’ll try my best to understand this decision. Because it must have been made with some sort of purpose. Right?