This is a guest post by Doreen Yomoah, a vagabond currently living in Ghana. She's also a founding mother of the Women’s Liberation Army, a motley crew of women scattered throughout the globe who are sick of injustice and planning to do something about it.
I currently reside in Accra, Ghana, where I am a citizen and a member of the ethnic majority (the Ga). However, this is the first time I’ve even been in Ghana since I was 7 (and the first time I’ve lived here since I was one). One day, I was at a bar and met a white woman. My hair was in cornrows. I ran into her later, when my hair was in twists. When we met, she started going on and on about how interesting and intricate African hair is, and how she “wishes she could do that with her hair.” ( I could write a whole other post on white girls telling me how they “wish they could do that with their hair,” and then turning around and putting their hands in my hair like I'm a goddamn dog and asking me stupid questions like “where is your real hair?” It’s in my pocket. Where the hell do you think it is?)
I asked this woman if she really wanted to sit for eight hours to have her hair done, and she expressed shock and disbelief, asking if that was really what it took. Then she went on to say how “new” and “trendy” my hairstyle was, and I told her that braiding and twisting have been around for CENTURIES, and that my hair was no more interesting than hers was. She once again expressed shock to find out that braids aren’t a new style, and reluctantly agreed that my hair was no more interesting than hers.
This fawning and seemingly complimentary commentary about our hair is just another way to other black people. It’s as though she sees her hair as being “regular” hair, and our hair is some weird, exotic, abnormal characteristic. But when you’re in a country where the vast majority of its inhabitants possess (naturally, although a ridiculous percentage of women are relaxing their hair) a certain phenotype and you don't, you’re actually the one with the “weird” hair, not us.
On another occasion, my cousin and I went to a pub frequented by expats, and I swear to Gryffindor, when we walked in, I could hear crickets chirping. Every single patron in the place was white (with the exception of one Asian American woman), and every single server was black. It felt more like 1958 in Birmingham, AL, rather than 2009 in Accra, GH. The white patrons all looked at us as if to say “What are these negroes doing in here?”
“Oh hell, no,” I thought. It’s one thing for me to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable when I am in a bar in America, but there is no way I am going to be made to feel like some kind of an intruder into your “whites only” space in my OWN DAMN COUNTRY.
My third example of this phenomenon -- of white othering of non-white people in non-white contexts -- didn’t take place in Ghana, and it didn’t happen to me. When I was in China, I was tutoring a young Korean girl who attended American school. One day, she asked me why we look different and I explained that over thousands of years, people developed physical characteristics that helped them adapt to the environment around them, such as people developing darker skin to help protect them from the sun, and people developing lighter skin to help them absorb more of the sun’s rays in places where there is an inadequate amount of sun. She then asked what environmental factor led to her developing an epicanthic fold.
Now, not being an evolutionary biologist, I really didn’t know the answer to that, but I was pretty concerned that we were in East Asia, where she was a member of the racial majority (although obviously of a different nationality and ethnicity) and that many, many people (if not most) have that phenotype. And yet, she was still being made to feel like there was something about her eyes that was “different” and wanted to know the reason why she had it. I suspect it had something to do with the population of her school, as she went to the America school in Shanghai (which is overwhelmingly white), and I suspect they had created a microcosm of America there, where once again, people who are members of the racial majority in the country still get othered once they are at school. On a different occasion, one of my (white) colleagues made some comment about Asian people having “funny eyes” and I thought “no, asshole. We’re in CHINA. You’re the one with the funny eyes.”
Finally, here in Ghana, I was sitting one time with two white friends. Let’s call them Bill and Leila. Bill’s (white) colleague spotted him and said hello to him. He DID NOT EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE MY PRESENCE, made eye contact with Leila, and then smiled and greeted her. Bill then introduced the both of us to his boss who reluctantly and half-heartedly shook my hand. When he was leaving, he once again did not acknowledge me and said “bye” to Bill and Leila.
When I tried to point out to the other two what had just happened, they enacted the common white tendency to talk over people of color in order to explain away incidents of racism. This man is in charge of a major American governmental organization whose work primarily focuses on development, and I’m wondering what he's doing here if he has such little respect for the people he is supposed to be helping (although if he had bothered to speak to me, he would've learned that I'm not a local and most of the developments being made aren't things that I've been deprived of anyway), and if he just assumes that any black person he sees isn’t even worth talking to or even acknowledging.
So basically, while non-white people are considered people of color in majority white nations (whether the nation’s indigenous population is white, or if it became majority white through colonialism and genocide), in nations where we are the indigenous population and/or the racial majority, we shouldn’t be seen as “people of color.” We should be seen and treated with the same kind of treatment that “normal” people get in their own countries, and receive the same kind of courtesy that we extend to foreigners (which is something that white people fail to do to POC in their own countries, whether the POC are foreigners or locals who were born and bred in the country).
Has anyone else experienced this othering at the hands of white people, even in situations when they are in the ethnic or racial majority? What do you do or say about it, if anything?