I am awoken each morning by the sounds of Arabic prayer calls piercing out from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque into the thick, clicking dark. Not a day goes by that I don’t make a baby cry or a donkey cart-driving seven year-old squeal out “Toubab!” in sickening delight based solely on the fact that I have less pigment in my skin than they do. I have never felt more different because of the color of my skin.
It is fascinating, albeit sometimes frustrating, to walk around the weekly Sunday market with Aissatou, my fellow volunteer in Ross Bethio. She is black (her parents of Sierra Leone and Jamaican descent), English-speaking, and a middle-class American. Nevertheless, the vendors don’t hiss at her to come over to their tents, call “Madame!” or “Bonzour!” in terrible French accents, or try to catch her attention with a tap on the shoulder or elbow assuming that she is rich and French. She can rifle through any of the piles of secondhand clothes on the street without getting hassled to buy or ripped off because the sellers assume, based on the difference of our skin colors, that I have more money than she does. Aissatou and I workout together on a regular basis, and one morning we were running down the paved national highway when we were passed by a busload of light-skinned foreigners who stared out of the coach window clearly startled and confused at our seemingly odd companionship. Aissatou turned to me and joked that they probably thought I was teaching her how to run like a good, liberating female (white) volunteer. We chuckled at how silly it was, but also choked a little on our laughter knowing that most of the outside world would probably take the sight of a pair of girls, one white and one black, running down the side of a road in conservative west Africa and come to a similar conclusion. These incidents and many other equally provoking experiences over the past six months have altered my perception of identity in ways that I cannot even begin to comprehend yet since I continue to live through them on a daily basis.
I am a naturally fair skinned, blond-haired and blue eyed female. My father is British and my mother is half Polish. I identify the concept of home most strongly with the Rogue Valley in Pacific Northwest of the United States of America. The population of my high school closely mirrored the demographics of our region of Southern Oregon, so I found myself playing sports and taking tests with many kids of European and Asian descent, and a few of Middle-Eastern and African descent. I know people who are Jewish, Christian, unaffiliated, Muslim and Buddhist. I cook tacos with my mother, make sushi with my brother, and bake mince pies with my father. For Christmas Eve my family comes together for the traditional thirteen-course, Polish feast called Wigilia, attends Catholic midnight mass with my grandparents, and leaves out cookies and milk for Santa.
Mame Awa, called Mawa for short, is a naturally dark skinned, black-haired, brown-eyed female. Her father is Wolof and her mother is Peuhl (Pulaar). Her home is Ross Bethio, Senegal. The population of her high school is split between the lighter-skinned, shorter Pulaars and the generally darker, taller Walo Walos (Wolof). She knows only Islam and has only met Muslims. She cooks Thiebu Jenn (rice and fish) and other Senegalese dishes for lunch everyday. For Tabaski, one of the largest Senegalese holidays, she watches her family kill a sheep, helps cook it, and then walks around to socialize with her friends at other peoples’ houses who are doing the exact same things.
Before this gap year in Senegal, I believed that America was a pretty typical country. Sure, they say it is a “melting pot” and a great many citizens, including me, have familial ties elsewhere in the world, but only this year did I realized just how unique the United States is in its unparalleled diversity. While Mawa and ninety-five percent of the rest of Senegal celebrate Islamic holidays, baby-naming ceremonies, and marriages in the same fashion every year, in America marriages are held in churches, vineyards and backyards and during the winter holiday season any one of your neighbors could be celebrating Hanukkah, a religious Christmas or one that has little to do with Christ, a Midwinter festival or perhaps nothing at all. The term “diversity” is tossed around in America so much that it seems to have become cliché. Americans have become so attuned to variety that we take for granted the fact that at any moment they are at most a hundred miles from the nearest Chinese take-out or taco stand, that every town in America is composed of several ethnic backgrounds, that each American family has their own personal traditions. America’s identity was built on diversity.
Identity and belonging are aspects of character that we are both born with and develop into through conscious choice. Describing the national identity in America is a tricky task because it is a uniquely diverse place. That is what makes it such a remarkable country, and that’s what makes it my home. I was born in a house in Oregon, but I choose to continue to identify myself with the United States because of the values for which it stands. I was born a small, wriggling ball of white skin and there is nothing I can do to change that aspect of myself, nor do I want to. It is diversity that makes the Unites States unique and I am proud to be a part of a country that accepts others without exception for skin color.