When I am jogging, it happens quite frequently that children will start running alongside or behind me, often mocking my speech or yelling things I can't quite understand about the “white woman” as they do so. I used to laugh it off, pretend that I was in on the joke, let them know that I knew they thought it was funny . . . but my patience quickly ran out. Now, as soon as a kid starts to follow me, I immediately stop, frown at them, and wave my hand in a “stop” motion to show that I don't want them following me. It's really irritating, but I try not to get too upset about it, because (as I remind myself with varying degrees of success) they are just kids and don't know any better.
But today, as I was running, a fully grown woman – probably around 30 – started running alongside me. Surprised and annoyed that an adult would be acting this way, I stopped running and turned around.
“Don't do that,” I said bluntly.
“Marg shmar shmargh,” she said – an obnoxious, gibberish imitation of an American accent.
“Fuck you,” I said.
Laughing, she turned to her friends. “The white woman says 'fuck you.' White woman calling black woman names,” she said. “The white woman scared of the black woman.”
“Why are you following me like the little children do?” I said.
“The white woman scared of the black woman. White woman calling the black woman names,” she said to her friends again, ignoring me.
“You're very rude,” I said.
For some reason, even though I knew it was pointless and I should really just forget about the whole thing and walk away, I felt a petty, frustrated need to explain that I wasn't being racist – I just really didn't want this woman following me, aping my movements. I futilely tried to explain to some other people who had come over why I was annoyed – since the woman either didn't understand me or just refused to respond to anything I said – but eventually I simply left. When I was a short distance away, I started jogging again, and the woman sprinted up behind me to chase me again. I stopped running and walked the rest of the way home, and, her fun spoiled, she turned back laughing.
Interactions like this always leave me feeling unsettled and upset. It's a mix of my humiliation at being treated as something vaguely less than human, and my feeling of shame in having acted out my frustrations inappropriately. It drives me absolutely crazy when Liberians of any age (but especially adults) talk about, but not to, me as though I am not there – or worse, make fun of things I am saying or doing as though I can't see or hear them (as I felt this woman was doing). But that's no excuse for me to turn around and de-humanize them the way I think they are doing to me.
It shocked me when I first arrived in Kenya, and then here in Liberia, to hear other volunteers or aid workers talking disparagingly about the attitude of “these people” or making similarly broad, negative statements. It was amazing, I thought, how easy it was for “cultural differences” to become an excuse for a subtle racism. Now, when reading through my own blog entries, I sometimes become fearful that I am guilty of the same thing – that, in trying to understand the very real cultural differences that do exist, I am overgeneralizing, focusing only on the negative, refusing to see another point of view and wrongly extrapolating my limited experiences to an entire country of individuals. When I say, as I did in my last entry, “a lot of people seem to think that it is the responsibility of those in power and not the individuals in the society to maintain order. There is very little sense of personal responsibility” -- am I not being racist myself? Once again, I have to ask: when do I cross the line from an objective, though negative, analysis of national differences into cynicism and prejudice?
In any case, it is because of these fears that I feel so confused and disturbed when I experience a total breakdown in cross-cultural communication such as the one I described here. In my eyes, this woman was mocking me to my face and then refusing to actually speak to me – treating me like a child or even a dumb animal . . . but clearly that is not at all how this woman or the other Liberians interpreted this situation. And I can't help but wonder if I, in my frustration and lack of understanding, am unconsciously reinforcing my own hidden racist tendencies, becoming less instead of more understanding. And that thought terrifies me.