A Kenyan Tourist, an Ethiopian Cabbie and Race in America

The Standard (Kenya)

Clara Nyamu

Published on 20/09/2008
By Clara Nyamu

When I lived in Kenya, racism was an abstract concept that was mocked in movies, music videos and comedies. The only time people worried about the colour of their skin is if it was related to a dermatological problem. In the States, that is not the case. Racism is a harsh reality that pops up in subtle ways every day. At times, simple things such as a trip to the city are enough to remind you of its presence.

This particular day started innocently. My sister’s husband was visiting from Missouri, and I decided to take him sightseeing in downtown Washington. To avoid the stress of driving and paying for parking, we did something I rarely do: Take a taxi.

While we waited for a cab on a busy street corner, an Australian woman came by to ask for directions to the museum, and we started chatting and comparing notes on what it is like to be an expatriate. My in-law left us talking and stepped on the sidelines of the road to hail a cab.


The first one whizzed past him as though the driver was on safari rally. “Oh, he’s probably on his way to pick someone up,” I told him when he looked at me quizzically. A second one appeared in the horizon, then drove right by as the driver cast a wary glance at him. He had no customer in the back and I looked on, stunned, wondering why he did not stop. The third one zoomed by too, and the driver looked stoically ahead without flinching. My in-law was getting frustrated.

Just when I was thinking that we should forget the taxi and take a train instead, my new Australian acquaintance yelled that another taxi was coming and waved her arm vigorously to stop it. The cab smoothly came to a stop right next to her. “There you go, hop in,” she said in her deep accent as we both thanked her. My in-law looked at me incredulously. “I bet you the reason they stopped so fast was because she’s not black,” he muttered as soon as we got into the cab.

True enough, it was. As soon as we were in the taxi, I realised the driver was Ethiopian and knew he would give me privy information because we were from the same region. I told him about our quest to get a cab. His candid answer: Most taxi drivers try not to pick black people, especially men, because as he put it, some tend to be trouble. I asked him whether he does the same thing, and he sheepishly said yes. When I asked him whether the only reason he stopped was because the woman who hailed it for us was white, he refused to answer but gave me a sly smile that validated what I thought.

The discussion moved on to another race hot topic: Barack Obama. American cab drivers are notorious for providing grassroots insights on elections issues, and this particular one did not disappoint. He lividly outlined his reasons why he thought the famous Kogelo “son” would have a hard time getting elected. He summed up his commentary by saying that this country is too entrenched in racism to take a chance on a black candidate. But aren’t taxi drivers contributing to that mindset by not taking a chance on black customers? I asked him. Again, he gave me that sly smile.

The irony

We finally arrived at our destination, and as we were getting out, he made a comment that we shouldn’t take our not getting a taxi personally because it is just an American reality.

“It’s just sad that even black people are discriminating against black people,” my in-law told him.

Ironically, the place where we alighted was right next to the Lincoln Memorial, where the Rev Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The same speech where he hoped that one day people in this country “will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Those days are not here yet. In the States, the colour of your skin is what people use to define you. Doors — even taxi doors — do not open as fast for blacks as they would if you were white.

Foreigners — especially from African countries — have been caught in the racism crossfire in the US. The only problem is that we did not grow up here, so no one taught us how to deal with it. It will always be a strange feeling that leaves you sad, confused and baffled. On our way back home, we took the train.

7 Responses to “A Kenyan Tourist, an Ethiopian Cabbie and Race in America”

  1. 1 TGG Sep 22nd, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I do not blame the taxi drivers for doing what they are doing because their lives and lively hoods depend on who is sitting in the back seat of their cabs.

  2. 2 gabis Sep 22nd, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    I have had a similar experience with Taxi drivers but I really don’t blame them. I don’t think, the drivers are racist. As sad as it may sound, they are merely being practical. I remember one cold winter, after a night of clubbing, I was trying to get a cab. Cabs went by me without stopping and I almost frost to death. After like 30 minutes, I managed to get a taxi. I struck a conversation with the driver and asked him why so many drivers decided not to stop for me … he answer was plain simple … because you are black. And I asked him, why they wont they stop for a black man, his answer was most of them have had bad experiences with black customers – mugging to be precise. this is in no means to justify their actions but i understand where they are coming from.

  3. 3 EgoCentericMoron Sep 22nd, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    In this time and age, sadly, racism is man’s reality. I don’t care where you live or what you do, you experience it in some kind of form or shape. Particularly in North America, it is a part of everyone’s life. So I wonder what exactly the writer was attempting to tell us. Perhaps I am too dumb to understand his crappy rhetoric which has no substance or may be he is just another racist African who wants to highlight how Ethiopians are viewed as being racist towards Africans in America.

    Whatever the case may be IMO this was just a waste of time and bandwidth…hell I can write a better piece… I hope Tadias will post interesting materials in the future…

  4. 4 DJ Sep 23rd, 2008 at 10:47 am

    My response to this article is: “Where have you been?” I don’t know what this article was trying to accomplish by stating that cab drivers are racist towards black people. Every black person in this country faces some kind of racism in a daily bases, the beauty about the whole thing is that with all of that bigotry we are in a position to elect the first black president. That dream will only happen here in America. You have to have a thick skin to survive in this country or it is going to eat you alive. This is America a country that was built with racism. The diversity of this country makes it so successful and appealing to many people but the dark side of all of that is ‘Racism’.

    BTW……the writer made a huge mistake taking a cab to D.C. to go site seeing. The best way would have been the metro train. This will give the person to actually see the D.C. Metro area as a hole and actually save a whole lot of money and if the visitor was from Missouri most likely they have never been on a metro train and it would have been a better experience. I will stop now. Over all for a person that doesn’t live here it would have been a great awareness article.

  5. 5 Gemtuzumab ozogamycin Sep 23rd, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    some how when it comes to equality foreigners hold america to unrealistic standard. Prejudice is a fact of life and will always be around in a heterogeneous society. Ethiopia: Amhara vs. Oromo. Kenya Kikuyu vs Luo. Rwanda Tutsi and Hutu etc.

  6. 6 Michael M Sep 24th, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    If I were Clara Nyamou, I would be writing the story after a little bit more investigation on the matter. I would’ve asked Kenyan taxi drivers too before writing and I would’ve tried hard to know the crime rate and statistics and I would’ve asked if taxi drivers hate money that comes from black people in America.

    ‘We the x tribe are better than the y tribe to British, French, Belgian, Portugues people etc. etc. …it is the y tribe which is bad not us the x tribe even though we look some how alike…’ How much expensive education is wasted on some writers who think of one thing and one thing only and that is to please ‘the viceroy’, and never for their own people, only instigating the y tribe to write nasty stuff about the x tribe and then…? Some bad habits that make us ashamed of being Africans sometimes shouldn’t be imported to USA.

  7. 7 modern sage Mar 21st, 2009 at 2:17 am

    It is more of a survival instinct than racism.I have lived in Washington DC for many years and do know that, the streets can be mean.Many cab drivers have been found dead in their cabs with bullet wounds to back of their heads just for a lousy few dollars or whatever the case.So i am sure that better “safe than sorry” is the rational here…better pay a fine…and be accussed of perpetuating racism, than be found dead, a statistic.I used to get mad when the cabbie behaved that way,,until i myself got robbed then i understood.Most of the cabbies have become street smart and are better at evaluating bonafide riders from thugs but it is not easy.At night it would be hard to pick a black person in an American city.It is just the same as putting fiber glass partitions in some banks, a security precuation.That it.Not all black people are thugs or robbers.Infact majority of them are extremely positive people.But there are a few bad apples there just as in any country.There are also plenty of white criminals too.

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