One of the many attractions of studying abroad in Africa was the chance to experience life as a minority race. For the first time in my life, I’m living in a city where almost all the faces I pass are a different race than my own. When I look at the faces in the government, the same is true. Here in Dakar, I’m an anomaly, and I stick out.
That is an experience in itself. But the additional differences of how people relate to racial differences compared to the US are staggering. It is pointed out quite often that I’m a ‘toubab’, or a foreigner. According to my host father, this name comes from a word for ‘doctor’, referring to one of the first interactions the resident population had with the French. At one point it just referred to French expats, but it’s expanded to include all white foreigners. And yet, there is no malice in the label. It’s a statement of fact – I’m white, and look different. The same logic applies to students who are referred to as ‘chinois’ (used for anyone who appears to have East Asian ancestry), ‘arabe’ (not necessarily Arab, has included my friend of Indian heritage), or any other racial labels. The concept of having mixed-country racial identities seems to be difficult for folks here to grasp – the idea of ‘Indian-American’, ‘Chinese-American’, or ‘Mexican-American’ is very strange to a people who identify only with ‘Senegalese’, regardless of personal or family origin. Nevertheless, there remains no negative connotation to pointing out these differences in racial characteristics – it’s just a fact.
I had a long conversation about this with my host brother Papi about this. It was prompted by him asking about the events transpiring in Ferguson and St. Louis. With such a strong perception of America as a country of freedom and opportunity, he was completely baffled as to why there were American cops killing young black boys. And that’s a hard question, especially for me. While I have observed the continuing problem of racism in the US, and while I continuously try to educate myself on it, I will never have the intimate knowledge of a lived experience with it. But there are some elements that seem clear, especially in contrast with Dakar.
First and foremost – Papi knew, even as a non-American observer, that the conflict in Ferguson is inherently tied to racism and specifically anti-black racism. That fact is one that it seems a lot of white America has yet to fully grasp or accept. We can debate specific situational factors until the end of time, but the fact remains that there are too many instances of white cops shooting black young people, both young men and young women, who were unarmed and, by most all accounts, completely unthreatening at the time of their needless deaths. Even if it is not said in so many words, these white cops continue to feel ‘threatened’ by the very presence of these young black people, and their response continues to be immediate escalation of violence.
I believe that this may be the biggest visible factor that plays into the enduring racism in the US – no one in positions of power want to admit that race still heavily influences their judgment, and in a negative way. No one wants to be called or shown to be a ‘racist’, even if all their thoughts (and actions) align with such a label. But even more so, none of these folks at the top of the privilege totem pole want to talk about race, and the fact that different races exist, and the fact that there are still so many institutional factors at work against those who are not white. And a lot of this is self-protecting: to admit that there is an imbalance of privilege is to admit that you, as a white person, receive some form of unfair opportunity that others, as non-white people, do not. And this means that the leaders in the Ferguson area don’t think or don’t want to think about the disparity between percentage of white folks in the population compared to in positions of power, and in the police force. This means that this disparity has persisted for years and years, and needed just one more act of senseless violence against a young high school graduate to spark massive backlash against an unjust system.
It becomes clearer and clearer the more time I spend in Senegal how messed up the American way of dealing with race is. Here, there are many separate ethnic groups (Wolof, Poullar, and Serre, to name the biggest). They have different traditions and languages. They have very recognizable last names that belong to each group. It would be very easy for this to create tension or even violence between groups, if they purposefully ‘othered’ those who were not in their specific group. But instead, the opposite happens. They have a relationship called ‘joking cousins’ between specific groups and last names. When opposing groups meet and exchange family names, they’ll go off on stereotypes about that family – “oh, you’re a Dioup, I don’t want to eat dinner with you, you’ll be greedy!” or “Oh you’re a Ndiaye – haha, I own you! You have to obey me!” Any tension that could exist between the clearly divided in-groups and out-groups is smoothed over and eliminated by universal jokes that everyone knows are not personal, and are reciprocal. I fully believe that these animosities remain so calm because the differences are acknowledged as existing, and simultaneously acknowledged as inconsequential.
Being a minority race in Senegal definitely is a weird feeling, and at times can be scary. But yet, I know that it can never compare to the feeling of being a minority in the United States. I cannot purport to know how to magically solve the racism problem back home, and as a white person, it’s not my place to lead the discussion. But what I do know is that having that discussion is essential. Taking a page out of the Senegalese book, to acknowledge and discuss our racial differences, might just be a way to reach a similar level of comfort, humor, and nonviolent in the relations between races.