Segou, Segou Province
Due to our long, sad history of racial oppression, segregation and discrimination, In America it is essentially verboten for a white person to at all acknowledge the race of a non-white classmate, business associate or anyone but your best of friends - unless they bring up the topic of race first, or you are walking out of the latest Spike Lee joint in which case it is expected.
And so in America, it is particularly rude to address someone by their race or ethnicity. To my understanding, to call the attention of a perfect stranger by shouting the name of their race is reminiscent of the days of slavery and Jim Crow when Southern gentlemen would tell the "boy" to shine their shoes. For example, if a white person walking along 132nd Street in the year 2008 were to purchase a hot dog from an African-American street vendor, the polite thing for the Caucasian customer to do would be to ask, "Excuse me, sir, may I please buy a hot dog?" and go about the transaction as if there were no racial difference at all between the two parties. It would be frowned upon for the white person to say "hey, black man, gimme a hot dog!" It would even be rude to call his attention with "Hey, hot dog vendor!" because to address someone by their profession would be to disrupt the natural foundation of equality upon which our casteless society was supposedly built.
That is why I think I have such a difficult time adjusting to the sheer literalness of the Bambara language and Malian culture. Here, it is quite customary for people in the market to say Tubabu, e be nka concon san - "Hey white French person, buy my cucumber!" Here in Mali it is no different than saying "Hey you with the blue shirt." Though every time I am addressed as Tubabu I cringe as a little bit of my liberal conceit of racial nonexistence is punctured by the inescapable fact that most people in Mali think of me as first and foremost a white person with oodles of money, and secondly that I am a Frenchman gallivanting around his former colony.
When I am at my village where people know my name and that I am an American who is there to work, it is not so bad. When in Sinsina or Sanadougou, if someone calls me Tubabu I politely tell them that my name is Madu and the next time they remember. But here in the bustling metropolis of Segou, only a handful of people know me, and so my racial identity precedes me by a full city block. In no other place have I ever before been made so conscious of my race. It is kind of like how I had never been made so aware by the society around me of the fact that I possess a Y-chromosome until The Elements of Style gigged at Mount Holyoke College.
I have become so accustomed to the crowds of children chanting Tubabu! Tubabu! that I have learned that in order to make it into a positive experience, I must seize the opportunity for cross-cultural education. When people call me Tubabu, I like to demonstrate the absurdity of the social construction of race by turning social conventions upside down. So when a kid runs up to me and points and proclaims "You are white!” I now announce with equal gusto trying to mimic their every intonation, "And you are black!" What follows is an awkward pause during which I want to believe that they realize the inferior quality of their conversational skills, and I hope that every time I do this it brings us a step closer to a post-racialist, post-nationalist global society.
When more business-oriented adults bring up my race, there is only one direction that that conversation could possibly be heading; Tubabu, wari di ya - "White French person, give me money!" So when people say that to me now - which is maybe every 5 or 10 minutes - I like to say Farafin, wari di ya - "Black person, give me money!" Often they think that I didn't understand so they ask me again, and I repeat, "Yes, I am white and you are black, so you should give me money!" The response I get is a puzzled look of astonishment as though I have traveled back in time, reversed the course of history to institute the Bambaras’ military occupation and exploitation of the French, and forever altered the space-time continuum. They often think that I am severely mentally ill and leave me alone.
It is particularly difficult in the market though when I am clearly purchasing food to put in my mouth and other people would prefer that I purchase food so that they can put it in their mouth instead, such as when I am buying a meat sandwich and a hoard of eight or ten garibu surround me and shove their plastic buckets in my face chanting Tubabu! Wari di ya! Tubabu! Wari di ya! as though it is the Qur’anic trope which they are supposed to be learning that week. For such sticky situations I need to come up with real humdingers in order to clear my path, so now I often employ a line like:
Sisan n be sogo san. N be fe ka denmisen fitini sogo dun. N be se ka wari di e ma, nka folo n ba fe ka e bolo ni e sen ta, oko n be na u dun.
“I am shopping for meat now. I want to eat little children meat. I can give you money, but first I must take your arms and legs, and then I will eat them!”
After that, the little beggar children usually put their hands in the air and run away screaming – which makes me think that I’m making full use of the novelty of my perceived racial identity.
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