By Naduah Wheeler
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
I was always the only brown kid in my class. Growing up in a town of fewer than four thousand that counted demographics by person not percentage, my family was the racial diversity. That lead to some…interesting…moments. As a kindergartner, the children in my class ran around me, making “Indian” noises. I’ve been asked whether I was “dot or feather Indian” more times than I can count, and childhood insults always became racialized. Even when my skin wasn’t a source of conflict, it was clear I was different. While talking about the Trail of Tears, my contacts had an ill-timed malfunction causing my eyes to tear up. My teacher instantly assumed I was crying over the classroom material and insisted it was okay for me to leave class. While well-intentioned, this (and similar history lessons) demonstrated was that I was different than my peers. Throughout my childhood, teachers and peers continually reaffirmed my otherness in various ways.
As I began to attend summer programs in different cities in seventh grade, I realized I wasn’t just different, but that I could be different in a variety of ways. Outside of my small town where people didn’t already know I was Native American, I discovered I was “ethnically ambiguous.” This manifested in strange ways. People automatically spoke to me in Spanish at random times, some friends insisted I was “part Asian” while I told them very matter-of-factly that I was still Native American no matter how convinced they were otherwise. I was told I could “pass as Italian” if I wanted to. To which I asked why I would not want to be Native. While the specific expressions of comments changed with my newfound ambiguity, the casual racism did not. The core message of all these comments was the same: you are different.
Imagine my surprise when I began traveling outside the United States and all of a sudden I was no longer different. When I went to Greece, people spoke to me in Greek before English and were surprised when I stuttered back broken Greek in an American accent. In Turkey, I was told I “looked Turkish but walked like a tourist.” In Italy, people didn’t assume I was American either. Even traveling throughout Asia, people assumed I was local. In Laos, I was approached by a middle-aged white couple while I was waiting outside a café. After we exchanged Lao greetings, the husband looked nervously at his wife then tentatively asked me, “any English?” For a year and a half of travel, I was no longer different. I was just, “normal.” I blended in.
“Normal” disappeared when moving to Ghana. I stand out more here than I ever did in the United States. My difference is reaffirmed every day when children yell “siliminga” (white person) at me as I bike into town. Unlike in the United States, in Ghana this difference carries privilege, not discrimination. Globalization, colonialism, and imperialism created a fascination for and reverence of whiter skin here. I’ve had young girls walk up to me in the market, compare their skin to mine and compliment how much paler I am. Bleaching creams are readily available and the effects of these attempts are fairly evident. When we travel, we are almost guaranteed a spot on a tro tro or bus just by walking up with our whiter skin. Often when walking through town, I’m reassured that my whiter skin protects me from violence, sometimes from conversations with friends in town, sometimes just a personal feeling of safety. People constantly want to be our friends and everyone is eager to get to know us. It’s alarming to say the least.
It’s heart-breaking to see people echo the same sentiments I felt as a teenager. I remember wanting to be whiter in high school, avoiding the sun to become paler. I remember thinking the only way to be beautiful was to be white. Now I see those views reflected in the young children around me, but instead of idolizing the white, blonde-haired actresses on television, they’re idolizing me, and my “brown” skin. Brown skin I had to fight to become proud of. Even here, our Dagbani teachers have made jokes about being “too black” and often our colleagues will wait in the shade, avoiding getting darker in the sun. Lighter skin is perceived as more attractive, more desired, better. While the standard of who qualifies as “white” may have shifted here, the shadism remains.
It’s hard. I want to break down the assumption that my skin is “better” because it’s whiter. I want to be able to communicate my own fight for comfort with my skin, something nearly impossible given the privilege it grants me here. I want to go back in time and undo the hundreds of years of colonialism that made me hate my Native cheekbones, long for green eyes, and try to avoid the sun, the same colonialism whose effects I see here in Ghana. I want to explain how absurd these racial categories are and how even though I’m a siliminga here, I’m far from it in the States, but I can’t. Regardless of how arbitrary and unwanted the attention and privileges I receive from my skin are, I can’t undo the systemic forces that created them.
However, I can use them positively as much as possible. I try to avoid exploiting my skin to gain favors, following the example set by the other people in Bimbilla rather than pushing ahead of them. I can try to explain my own history with my skin color when I have a close enough relationship to people. I can make sure I reserve tro tro and bus tickets in advance to ensure I don’t accidentally take seats away from local people. When appropriate, I can utilize my privileges instead of denying them as well. I can be more insistent in certain conversations, using the small freedom being a white woman has to push gender roles and boundaries as appropriate. I can get appointments for Songtaba, our local partner organization, or the women of Kukuo, knowing I will be a priority because of my skin. Perhaps most importantly, I can bring the stories of Kukuo to the United States, making sure their stories are heard and respected. I can do what Songtaba and the women of Kukuo need me to do, because while I may be unable to change hundreds of years of history, I have the power to shape the future.