Thursday, November 19, 2009

Being White in Africa, Part II

(Correction from before – Ishmael Beah's book is called A Long Way Gone, not A Long Way Home. Don't all rush out and buy it at once, now. I wouldn't want to be responsible for a riot at the bookstores.)

As promised, here is the exciting sequel to Being White in Africa.

I wrote earlier about the frustration of Liberians assuming (correctly in general and relative terms) that white people are rich. This wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't for the communal culture aspect I've talked about. To the frustration of many Westerners, many Liberians – to an extent – have a communal approach to property (though of course, this is a rough generalization for a country containing a diverse mix of ethnic groups and cultures). Thus, people are generally very generous with their own belongings, but also assume that we, the rich foreigners, will contribute more than they will by virtue of having more resources to contribute.

It makes for a constant balancing act – caught between my American sense of “what's mine is mine” and the feeling that I'm culturally and ethically obliged to share what I have. Then there is the frustration of seeing some of the things I do give away wasted (like the schoolbook I bought for one child that was lost by the next morning), and the conundrum of where to draw the line if I do decide to give. Should I buy the neighbor's children school supplies? What about their friends, when they come? And what about THEIR friends, and their friends' friends, who all come knocking at my door when they hear I have free pencils for anyone who demands?

There's no good answer to these questions, and to be honest, though I don't think it's right, the way I decide to act on a given day often depends on nothing more solid than what I feel like doing at the time.

In addition to these issues, what I wanted to write about before was the way in which white people here are given special and often superior treatment as compared to native Liberians.

There are countless examples of ways in which this is true – UN cars driving past women and children carrying heavy loads to stop next to me and offer a lift, people moving to the backseat of a car so I can take a place in the front, and so on. When I go to the bank (always a confusing, time-consuming, and uncomfortable experience), I am sometimes offered a private room in the back in which to withdraw money, rather than waiting in line with everyone else for a teller.

Sometimes, it is difficult to avoid taking advantage of a situation. People are confused when I turn down a lift in the car, and it's easier just to take the ride, even if it doesn't seem quite right if I think about it. When it comes to the bank, I dislike the experience of going so much that I often take out a month's wages at a time, which is a far larger sum of money than most people are withdrawing. Thus, I ask for a back room because I'm uncomfortable withdrawing money in the very crowded, very public front room, where it's easy for many people to observe exactly how much money I have. (At least that's what I've told myself. But lately I think I'm just making excuses).

Why do Liberians give foreigners special treatment as compared to their own people? The same attitude is common in Kenya, and many foreigners (especially expatriots who have been living abroad for long periods of time) take the special attention for granted – a modern sort of colonialism. Both there and here, I think in large part the situation continues to exist because of money. Your average foreigner in Africa is far richer and more powerful than your average African. Simple economics dictate that it is more cost-effective to cater to the interests of the rich than the interests of the poor, and skin color is an easy (if not always accurate) way to distinguish between the two.

Here in Liberia, there is a somewhat more charitable reason for the difference in treatment as well. In Kenya, a country built on tourism, most people assumed that I was a tourist. Here, a country with almost no tourist base, the majority of foreigners are here doing aid work. So people (correctly) tend to assume that I am here doing volunteer work, and offer rides or little things like that as a gesture of goodwill.

The whole issue is another example of a way in which my sense of right and wrong is being challenged. It's far too easy to take advantage of the situation, either intentionally or unintentionally. I would love to pretend that I never do, but I know that is not true. I do show up at the door of the UN refugee association, asking to sit on their porch and use their wireless internet (though I have no connection with them and there's really no reason they should let me inside). I don't KNOW for sure that they're letting me in because I'm white, but I can't help but think it helps. I do get lifts in cars, and I have asked for a private room in the back at the bank.

Does that make me a bad person? I'm ashamed when I feel like I've taken advantage of an unfair situation, but on the other hand, I'm not going out of my way to try to be treated specially. Can I be blamed for grasping the opportunity when it presents itself, especially when there's no way to know for sure if I'm being treated differently because I'm white? (Most of the time, I feel like the answer to that question is “yes, you can be blamed” -- and yet I do it anyways – though I'm not proud to admit it).

1 comment:

  1. Hello there,

    I read your email with alot of keen, it is indeed true that many countries in africa will treat a white person alot better than their own native, the only countries i know white people are treated second to their own nationalities is Eritrea,somalia,ethiopia - these people also have a sense of pride,high self esteem. I was amazed when i visited there, no one stares at a white person like in other countries, you are treated equal to the rest. I am somali and my husband is dutch, for the first time in our lives, we never had people stopping to stare, my husband gets that alot in Kenya, when we go for dinner, we get attended to much quicker, the same in the banks,hotels, name it. I think the problem in Kenya is that the natives feel inferior to the white person, it is a shame, the colonial history of slavery seems to drip down generation to generation- almost like an acid.

    I am glad atleast you are writing about it, africans need to take pride in themselves, they need to be re educated about why someone is white while another is black- its purely due to ignorance!