The Lost Files: On Being Considered a White Woman in Africa
These are posts that have been hidden in my drafts for over a year… I just want to set them freeeeeee…!
I can admit I had issues with color growing up. Not the ‘oh you’re cute for a dark skinned girl’ or black-michael-to-white-michael complexes of many women in the diaspora. I had issues with light skinned people. In elementary school, much like Wale, I hated light skinned girls. They were unusually mean to me and they generally annoyed my life and state of being. They were also usually named some strange derivation of Tiana or Diamond (hood things… one can never understand). So when I got to high school and college, and people were telling me I was in fact light skinned… I was in denial. I was shocked. Infuriated even. Do you know what those people have done to me?! Do you know the misery they have put me through?!?!?! Even in my younger days I had devised a theory of light ‘skindededness’ that helped to explain the strange superiority that they felt over me… and imagine my joy after having taken some Africana courses and realizing there was actual historical truth and accuracy to what I knew in my preadolescence (young genius. I know.). In college, I was very much ‘down for the cause’ and I had very strong ideas about race and identity. So imagine my plight yesterday when I was actually referred to by a teacher as *gasp* WHITE WOMAN *GASP* ?!?!?!??!?!!?
So let me take a step back and explain my job and the role I play in the complex social paradigm that is the Non Governmental Organization (NGO). I know all about the burden of whiteness… about the white savior complex… and of the problem that is created when kids in small villages see white people as beacons of light while scoffing at their own kind. In my role, I am monitoring the implementation of a project targeting quality education. This means I watch teachers teach lessons that I recognize are sometimes orchestrated for our express viewing pleasure. I have been to schools in just about every region, both rural and urban settings. I have engaged a number of people involved in the process and I recognize there are a LOT of complexities with getting things right on the ground. I try to do very little talking on visits because I try to hide my ‘Americanness’ as much as possible. I, however, do end up doing a lot of talking… because that’s actually, well, my job. I know that I will take some heat for my accent and my skin being a little lighter than most Ghanaians, but I always get the nod If I can speak the local language or at least recognize the food. I never expect to be likened to white people, though I expect to not be accepted as Ghanaian (until I give them my full government— then they are just confused). BUT imagine my chagrin when on one specific visit, this week no less, I go into a classroom and the teacher says IN ENGLISH, and I kid you not:
“Why are you children not behaving. Don’t you see there is a WHITE lady in the room. Show her some respect.”
So naturally I look around to see if someone else has stepped in. Because I KNOW this woman is NOT talking about me. I know she aint. I. Know. She. AINT!
When I came to Ghana as a child, I hated being called ‘obroni’ with such a passion. I am the lightest in my family and my brothers used to go on an on about me being adopted and weird… I just wanted to fit in. But I had never been called a ‘white’ woman.
Like… she said it in english.
White woman. WHITE WOMAN. It li.ter.al.ly echoed in my ears.
And for 3.75 seconds I felt what white savior superiority privilege must feel like. (If you have never had the pleasure, it’s pretty much the same feeling as being the entire Justice League… in one person.)
I hated it.
I hated the fact that my being a white woman was something worthy of ‘good behavior’. I hated it because it reminded me of those times when I was teaching in Lousiana, our children would sit up and ‘behave’ because (as they said it) ‘Ms. Aboagye, it’s white people in the school wearing suits. We gotta be good.’— Ummm… No. You gotta be good
or else I will throw this good expo marker at your forehead for your own academic benefit. Yes… in America. This happens. IN AMERICA!
And so now I should probably come out of the closet and say I was a Teach for America teacher. I am not ashamed of this, but I also recognized my place of privilege in/ through this program. And that’s what has confronted me in both my NGO and TFA experience. I see my own people… but my own people do not see me as them <insert The Two Johns reference vis a vis WEB DuBois here>. And because I am not them, I am not worthy of realness. Which is fine… except its not. Because I LOVE people. Especially my own people. Like I really just do. So its actually painful. But then that’s just what that is.
I am nooooooot a white woman. They have a very unique space in the NGO world that I do NOT wish to be associated with. at all. And though they mean well… there are just some some social incongruities that make it hard to be truly empathetic. This recent post, helps to shed a little light on the issue.
I could make this post about me and insecurities with color specifically, and ultimately I will but this is really about the psychology of race and color.
The problem of low expectations for self.
The creation of hierarchies based on phenotypical make up.
The chasms that are built when theses hierarchies become entrenched and generational.
And I could go on and on about history, slavery, colonialism, colorism, segregation, imperialism and all other manners of intelligent discourse.
But really… I got my feelings hurt. I just can’t win for trying!
What have been your experiences with race, color, ethnicity and change making? Have these things affected the impact you can have in your role?