I Felt Like an Imposter
December 19, 2018 10:48 AM   Subscribe

'Passing for white’ was a complicated feeling at home in Ohio. In Chad, it was a whole different experience. Every time I crossed the courtyard, walked past the well in the corner and slipped out of the baby blue gate nestled into the high brick wall that surrounded my Chadian host family’s house, I instantly became nasara. It’s a Ngambay word that means both “foreigner” and “white person” at the same time. A little pack of children would follow me down the red-dirt street, chanting “nah-sa-rah, nah-sa-rah” and laughing.

During my first weeks in Moundou I had protested once – in jest – to Sem, a balding evangelical pastor with a belly and a deep laugh, who was my NGO’s main contact in the town. “You know my mom is black, right?” I said to him, from the passenger seat of his SUV.

“Yes, well,” he paused and pointed to my bare forearm, then looked me in the eyes, my blue eyes. “Just look at you, and then look at us!”
posted by MovableBookLady (10 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
posted by infini at 11:12 AM on December 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is very well-done. Thank you.
posted by bagel at 12:22 PM on December 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify, Nasara is an arabic loan word for Christian, colloquially applied here to "white people."
posted by iamck at 1:46 PM on December 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

That is indeed a really lovely piece. I was living in Kenya for a while as a white American, and was so often struck by the stark contrasts between the American and African experiences of race.

One favorite snippet - after a bunch of (adorable) 'mzungu! mzungu!' calls from some school children, my friend gets a thoughtful look on his face, and then asks - "If I were to visit your country, would children shout 'black person, black person' at me?"

Race is pretty inescapable in the day-to-day in America. But in most of Africa, while you've still got your evil white colonizers, they are (in this decade) more abstract entities, rather than a daily, concrete reality. So you get drunk guys yelling at you about illuminati conspiracy theories - so often only half wrong - and kids chanting "I'M FINE HOW ARE YOU" as you walk by.

A part of white privilege+experience in America is that white is the 'default' in many contexts, so as a white person you have the ability to ignore race in a lot of contexts where others cannot. I found it enlightening to live for a while in a place where my race was so conspicuous, and an inescapable part of so many encounters. In many cases, my foreign status conferred a LOT of unearned privilege. (And in many other cases, had to keep my guard up about being overcharged, or targeted in other ways purely on account of my race.) All the same, I learned a lot from the experience.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:05 PM on December 19, 2018 [12 favorites]

Well-done. I'd love to see more written by this guy.
posted by liminal_shadows at 6:01 PM on December 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

my friend gets a thoughtful look on his face, and then asks - "If I were to visit your country, would children shout 'black person, black person' at me?"

I presume you pointed him to Baldwin's Stranger in the Village?
posted by praemunire at 9:01 PM on December 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Strange reading this and realizing he grew up in my neighborhood. He describes it quite specifically.
posted by SystematicAbuse at 6:28 AM on December 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm having a weird reaction to the Chadian part of this essay. When I served in Peace Corps in Malawi, as a dark skinned black person I had the opposite problem: no one would believe I was American. I seriously spent a lot of my first year explaining the Atlantic Slave trade and the existence of native born black people to villagers. It made me realize that we Americans think that our history is known around the world and that our ideas about race are THE idea about race. I think the passing conversation isn't... quite appropriate because passing as white wasn't a thing in Africa. That concept was the creation of our specific brand of racism in the USA.

Note the ending: the child described him as "Chadian" on the inside--not black. I also think that it wasn't clear the children weren't discussing his identity but where he fit in their community. Saying he was Chadian inside. It was a compliment on how well he as fitting in. It was the kind of compliment my very white midwestern site mate got when he ate the main local dish nsima, or spoke the local language, Chichewa.

There are significant tribal and ethnic identities that exist in Africa that don't in American because African people had them stolen through slavery and European people gave them up to be white. Put it this way, if this author was in South Africa and he would likely be described and treated as "coloured" because that's where someone like him would fit in the cultural context. Blackness and whiteness just mean different things in Chad Vs. Ohio.
posted by CatastropheWaitress at 9:56 AM on December 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

It made me realize that we Americans think that our history is known around the world and that our ideas about race are THE idea about race.


Everyday I see African friends deal with news on people being shot for the colour of their skin in their home country with varying degrees of sorrow and bittersweet pain. Sure, they have troubles of their own, but they all know they're first class citizens in their country - its just money or education or luck that differentiates them. Not this.

On a separate note, I've had the unusual experience of being considered mzungu during one trip to a rather out of the way place in Kenya where I was even asked if I was Chinese (to give you context of how little they were able to distinguish between races, I'm medium fair Indian), and believe me, no matter how privileged it might seem to a casual visitor, I definitely would not want to be white in Africa, and continue with my work and career. Being part of the African milieu, online and off, has given me a deeper appreciation of being non white than all my years in expat culture and international schools ever had.

The bullshit the average African has to go through in this structurally biased "world" can be demoralizing and unfair, but it doesn't stop them. My research associate and teammate, who's twenty years younger to me, just blurted out the other day in a skype that this is such a great time to be alive - the phone has connected him to the world and all its possibilities, and East Africa in particular is the place to be for all things fintech, blockchain, and mobile etc Its this energy I like best, its not coming from an entitled place of privilege, its not spoilt rotten, its youth discovering the world and all its glory, to be grabbed with both hands.

Yay, the internets and mobile broadband and cheap data on prepaid plans available on cheaper Chinese smartphones.
posted by infini at 11:22 AM on December 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

"that our ideas about race are THE idea about race"

I had a wild conversation once with a self-described "antiracist" in the U.S. who was absolutely convinced that white privilege worked exactly the same way in China, where, to at least two decimal places, 0.00% of the people identified as either white or black. Absolutely wild.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:04 AM on December 22, 2018

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