Perceptions of race

The other day I happened to stop by Madame Diatta’s first grade class, and was welcomed in as a “scientific specimen” for the lesson she was in the process of completing.

The lesson was an ‘initiation scientifique,’ and having sat in on a few of these before I can say that these constitute one of the most fascinating parts of Madame Diatta’s government-designed curriculum to observe from a cross-cultural perspective. It might sound pretty ridiculous to say that kids who can barely hold a pen or pencil are subjected to science lectures, but that’s the truth. The seeds of scientific knowledge are planted at this age. It is true that often times Madame Diatta finds the government-outlined lessons to be ridiculously advanced or simply irrelevant to her massive hoard of fifty-plus children, but she does her best to translate the scientific concepts into French-Wolof shouting matches with the little ones that will make them understand. I once sat in on a lesson malaria in which Madame Diatta taught them that people who don’t sleep under mosquito nets will get bitten by the female mosquitos (I didn’t even know it is the female ones!), the ones that buzz in your ear, and catch malaria.

This time, I happened to walk in on a lesson on “different types of people.” Mme Jiata had already been through the whole thing once and so she shoved me in front of the class and told me what questions to ask. First question: what did God create on earth? The kids already knew what to say and all thrust their little hands into the air, snapping their fingers and bouncing out of their seets, shouting the familiar chorus of madame! madame! L’EAU, they all said, LES ARBRES…. ET LES PERSONNES! How many different types of people are there? I was then told to ask. DEUX! they all answered. LES GARCONS ET LES FILLES! Then came the interesting question. How many different colors of people are there? I asked the children. It took them a few moments as they counted the little circles of color that Madame Diatta had drawn on the board behind me. CINQ! they all said. Black, white, brown, yellow and red. What color am I? Madame Diatta asked. NOIRE! they all shouted. And what color is she? Madame Diatta asked coming over to put her arm around my shoulders. BLANCHE! they all screamed. Who are the black people? Madame Diatta asked. Ce sont les afri…. CAINS! And who are the white people? She asked. Ce sont les…. TUBABS!

This word, I know for a fact, is one that every little kid in that classroom knew (while I would have some doubts that they all knew the word ‘africain’) as I have yet to be able to walk the streets of Sebikotane without be greeted by a chorus of “tubab! tubab!” I have racked and racked my brains trying to understand exactly it is that makes shouting tubab! a never-ending, irresistible source of entertainment for little kids here, and even some adults. And also what exactly the cultural difference is that makes this phenomenon totally OK to the Senegalese, but somehow deeply bothersome and even offensive to me.

I tried to explain it to my host sister once, when we were sent one evening to the tailor to get measured for the matching outfits that my host mother had ordered for us. Out in the streets I was obviously met by the same never ending chorus as usual: tubab! tubab! And from the kids who knew me from school Gaya! Gaya! And the occasional Mademoiselle Gaya! As usual I did my best to ignore all the calling and Adja asked me: aren’t you going to respond to them?

Answer them?! Tubab! Or even Gaya! Gaya! is not a question, nor is it a greeting. And its not like I’m a walking puppet trained to do a little dance or something ever time I’m poked. I obviously couldn’t say all of that in Wolof but what I did say was: Adja, duma animal. I am not an animal. I am a person. Which sent Adja into fits of laughter.

Now I know that just because people call to me in this way doesn’t mean that they equivocate white people with animals. It’s not racism. They are just some bored little kids who have an amazing capacity for repetition and for copying each other, and who probably find the sight of a real live white person to be one of the more exciting parts of their day. So if I know its not badly meant, why does it bother me so? I think it goes back to when I was a kid and when I learned that pointing out differences, or labeling people by their physical appearances is not a good thing. Everyone could see that Johnny was fat, that Michelle was skinny, that Tom had freckles and that Sarah had big teeth, but no one needed to point these things out. And then when it came to designating skin color differences, you had to be extra careful about how you phrased it.

The Senegalese on the other hand, talk about appearances a lot, and openly. Moussa who? Oh, the fat one. Fatou who? Not Fatou Diop, its Fatou Ndiaye, the super dark one. And then women never hesitate to tease each other: sa doom naaw na de! Jeez, your baby is ugly! Any of these phrases would obviously not be socially acceptable in the US… America, the melting pot, the land of tolerance and diversity. Comparatively, American society is certainly more diverse. Or perhaps more interesting to say is that the ‘ideal American society’ is extremely diverse, make up of people of all sizes, shapes and colors. And yet while we pride ourselves in respecting and valuing differences, we don’t talk about them much – whether differences in appearance or racial or socio-economic background. Its as though we try to soften, blur and ‘forget’ the differences so that everyone can live in peaceful, harmonious, equality. Hence the often discomfort when designating people by their skin color. All of this heightened of course by our recent history of slavery, racism and the civil rights movement.

The Senegalese do not strive for the same equality that we do. Those of “lower social status” aren’t shunned or discriminated against (laundresses, maids, street children) – they would be welcomed around the bowl in my host-house just as well as any one else. But just as with gender and age roles, everyone has “their place.” There are inevitably limits to what is given and what certain people are allowed to do. As for ethnic differences, comparatively to the US Senegal is not very diverse, but if you look more closely from within you”ll find that people come from all sorts of different ethnic backgrounds – pulaar, wolof, seerer, joola, mandingue – and that people take these differences quite seriously. Different ethnic groups have ‘joking relationships’ which give the Senegalese license to tease and insult complete strangers. Peuls and Seerers for example and Seerers and Joola will automatically tease each other anytime they meet. I’ve noticed this a lot amongst teachers at school. For some reason the Seerer teachers are in the minority and so are always picked on by their colleagues. He’s just a Seerer, that’s why he can’t write properly… Another funny story is when M. Diaham, one of our GCY instructors, stole the shoes belonging to Oumoul, one of our language teachers from the Baobab Center, and refused to give them back to her unless she paid him (all because M. Diaham is a serrer and Oumoul is a Peul and because apparently stealing something that the other leaves behind at one’s home is a joke that is traditional between the two). The result of all this is obviously that ethnic differences, and everything that comes along with them, are always known and talked about openly.

We “tubabs” obviously are excluded from this anciently founded web of ethnic relationships and joking traditions that allow people of different backgrounds to relate from the moment they meet. And people just wouldn’t understand the sensitivity that a westerner might have about “being different” or the respect that one would consequently expect. I can spin myself in circles trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong: am I just being oversensitive or are they really just that rude?

Well, on the spur of the moment, back in Madame Diatta’s classroom, I decided to try to teach the kids an extra little lesson.

And who are the white people? Madame Diatta asked. TUBABS! they all roared. Yes, that’s correct, I said, but when you see a tubab out in the streets, its impolite to yell tubab. You can say Bonjour madame or Bonjour Monsieur, comment ├ža va madame? But saying tubab is bad. Dengeen? (do you understand)

Luckily Madame Diatta seemed to support my idea enough to translate for the kids what I had said in wolof. I’m not sure how well they absorbed the message but, at least I gave it a try.

After that Madame Diatta needed my help figuring out where all the other colors of people are supposed to come from. Who do you think are the yellow people? She asked me. And the red people? Well, I’ve never seen a red or yellow person in my life, I felt like saying. But then again, I’m not exactly white am I? So I helped her reach the conclusion that yellow people come from Asia and red people from India. And she announced it to the squirming, wandering, barely attentive by now, little students.

Five months ago this lesson might have seemed very wrong to me, just backwards, even borderline racist. To reduce entire continents of people to little circles of color on the chalk board. But I’ve been here long enough now to know its totally benign, and just the reality of people’s understanding of race and the world here. India and Asia are places that are only known of in name. And I guess you could even say so about Europe and America. At the very least the kids went home that day knowing that other colors of people exist in the world, even if they think they come in all the colors of the rainbow.