Saturday, August 9, 2008

Tubab Like Me

In the de facto class segregation of the United States of America, I have not had many opportunities to be overtly consciuos of my race. After all, though I put "white" on my census forms, never before have I ever felt really white. I mean, honestly, what the fuck is white culture? Playing golf, eating mayonnaise and wearing those stupid salmon-colored pants? I don't do any of that shit. I come from Russian, Polish, Hungarian Slavic stock, I identify with fellow ethnic Jews, musicians and earthy hippies. Ok, so my freshmen and sophomore years I accepted Hadley Arkes' invitations to the Colloquium on the American Founding - which is pretty much the whitest thing I've ever done. But I found that if being white consists of dressing up in a stuffy suit and listening to people who have had boring missionary sex exactly 2.3 unmemorable times wax philosophically about their bizarre fixation on weird, kinky sex and its compatability with Platonic-Aristotelian ethics, then I have very little to identify with white people.

Ergo, I do not think of myself as white. I think of myself as a Jewish democratic revolutionary.

But here in Mali, I am white, uptight and out of sight. Here people who do not know my name as Madu Doumbia #5 call me "Tubab" - which is a derogatory term like "honky" or "cracker", only it is even worse because it specifically refers to the French. You see, unlike us Americans who should be grateful to France for bestowing upon us le Marquis de Lafeyette, victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and the Statue of Liberty, Mali suffered under the cruel, exploitative colonial occupation of the French from 1880-1960. Granted, "Western Soudan" as it was then known, was subject to considerably less direct exploitation than more convenient colonies like Algeria for nothing more than the Bambara tribes were a long distance up the malaria-ridden Niger River. The French tried to play the role of "mission civilatrice" here with a system of Francificating and pacificating "Western" schools, and so many generations later Bambara still fear white people coming to their village because the last time that happened back in the day they took everyone's kids by gunpoint. During the First and Second World Wars there was also a lot of involuntary conscription of military-aged men.

So when I'm walking around the village of Sinsina and little kids start crying because they see my very obviously non-Bambara face, it's not because I did anything particularly wrong. They're crying because they heard stories about the Tubabs who came here 50 years ago and stole grandpa away. And thus I am the recipient of the blame for something that I did not do, something that my parents and my grandparents did not even do, but something that a race of people whom I do not even really identify with, a race which has only over the course of the past 30 years begun to accept the most Islamophobic and Arab-hating of my people as members of their exclusive country club, did before my parents were even biologically capable of conceiving me. But then again, as anyone who has ever been to Israel/Palestine, Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia might know, ethnic conflicts of the past are not dead; in fact, they're not even past.

Let's just say that its very discouraging integrating into Bambara society when all the collective sins of White People are held against me.

But I manage. Adults in Sinsina treat me with more respect, and they all know that my name is Madu Doumbia #5. Though a lot of kids still come up to me when I'm trying to study my Bambara flashcards, "Tubab! Tubab! You have a camera! Take a picture of me! Give me candy!" There is nothing more emasculating than being thought of as another stupid Tubab with nothing to offer more than my bank account. I look at them really menacingly at them and ask "What is my name?" And if they say Tubab one more time, then I go right for the Achilles' heel of any naked child - the armpit - and tickle them until they call me by my real fake name. So far it has worked - none of the kids in my 'hood call me Tubab anymore.

But its when I go to the city that I really get it bad. The only white people other than vicious colonialists whom the Malians have ever known are rich, stupid white people who come on buses to see the mosque of Djenne and the erstwhile capitol of Islamic culture-turned-dusty small arms trading post that is now Timbouctou. So except for when I'm in Sinsina where people know what us Peace Corps Trainees are all about, i.e. whenever I go to Bamako, people are very, very friendly - because they think that I might give them money. Beggars are really aggressive here, because unlike American beggars they aren't looking to buy drugs to get high - they want to buy food so they don't starve to death. And they're used to French-looking i.e. white people feeling collective guilt for the years of colonial occupation and handing out money. They go right up to my face and in either French or Bambara say "Money! Money!" And they do not go away until I tell them Allah m'a son; i.e. Allah will give you money if you pray harder.

Though everyone mistakes me for a big, stupid tourist, unlike the tourists, oilmen and the Embassy staff, Peace Corps Volunteers as a rule are very poor - we eat what the peasants eat, only with enough additional nutritional content so that our teeth don't rot out. I don't feel any white guilt towards the ubiquitous beggars in Bamako because 1) I don't have any money to give them; 2) I'm spending 2 years improving their country's water sanitation infrastructure, also with no money. I have become so quickly accustomed to Malian nutritional poverty that I have come to eat anything that I can get my hands on (which is also the reason why I ended up in the Bamako Peace Corps Medial Unit for the night a few weeks back - I learned my lesson that I should be more discerning as to what potentially parasite-laden fruits I put in my mouth)

Likewise, many Malian businessmen are also used to white people being really rich, really stupid, and really manipulable. It is hard knowing when you're getting ripped off; for example, I bought this really awesome shirt for 2000 West African francs - about $4.73, which I thought was a steal. Later I found out that if I were not white, that same taylor would have charged me more like $500 francs, or slightly more than 1 dollar. The standard of living in Mali is really, really low, and so prices are so low that my Western orientalist mind cannot confound how cheap life really is.

Thankfully, over the past month I have learned enough Bambara that I can actually haggle at the markets now. My Jewish mother would be proud. Hey Mom! I can bargain in another language for things that are already dirt cheap!!!! Malian merchants are used to being able to rip off stupid Tubabs, but what they're not used to are Tubabs who actually speak their language. I can now say things to the effect of I am not a stupid Tubab. I live in Mali, and I do not have money. If you give me stupid Tubab prices, I'm giving my money to the guy next to you who sells the same bootleg merchandise. So far, the few times I have pulled that one out, the merchants have caved and lowered their prices 75% to what actual Malians pay.

As my Bambara slowly improves and I can talk about more high-level subjects than my food preferences and bodily functions, hopefully people will treat me more as an individual person than as a generic Tubab. Perhaps one day the friendlier kids who come up to me saying "Bonjour! Bonjour!" will realize that I'm not from goddamn motherfucking France. I'm from America, dammit, and I'm not white, I'm a self-hating Jew. I do not yet know how to explain Marx's theories about post-nationalist proletarian consciousness as espoused in The Jewish Question, but in time I suppose that that too will come, donne donne.


Unknown said...

hope you will see this comment at some point. I found your article fascinating but sad. We can add Mali to the list of peoples who hate us in the world-at least those of us who are white. I laughed when I read that your mother's bargaining skills have travaled with you to Mali and have been so useful. Please let us know where we can send you care packages. Sa well and be careful!
Love, Dina

Anonymous said...

I'm Armando, 30 years, im from Sweden and Finland(from both,yes). I have been to the Gambia 3 times and I got called "tubab" more times than I can count.
Its a very rude word,,I have heard that it means "2 bobs". I have read that Bob was the money of the British invadors and that they paid 2 bobs to the Gambian workers, for a hard job. I have different roots too,,,im from Sweden,my mom is Finnish and my dad was from Brasil, and his ancestors from Portugal, Spain and Israel. But to the Gambians I was a TUBAB, and they blamed me for what the British slave traders did long before I was born. LOL. But,,what to do? The world is crazy since day 1. I like the positive sides of Africa, though..and one of them is that there is no winter like here in Finland. I like your article. Its interesting, and I would love to help the Africans too,,,IF they respect and understand me.