Experiencing Whiteness

Author’s Note: Names have been changed throughout this piece

The dawn emerges, and, as if straight out of a movie, a rooster begins to crow. The rooster in question belongs to my neighbor, who is lucky enough to own several chickens. I’m in Gondama, a small town twenty kilometers from Bo, the second largest city in Sierra Leone. It’s 2013, before the Ebola crisis plunges the country into further devastation.

As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person! I greet them in Krio (How de morning?) or Mende (Be-ay-ee, asking how they slept). In turn, the kids insist that I pump my water first, even though there is a long line of energetic children and exhausted mothers waiting their turn. After some protesting, I eventually give in. The gesture is too sweet to ignore. As I apply the maximum strength available in my puny arms, they giggle at the White Woman attempting to pump water. The children giggle as I struggle to carry my bucket a few meters back to my home, water splashing out the sides, going to waste. Even the smallest kids in Salone are experts in balancing heavy buckets of water precariously on their heads, somehow not spilling a drop on the longest walk home. Their laughing eyes follow me as I wrap myself in a towel and walk to the outhouse to take a shower.

“Turn around! That’s not nice!” I yell at them, annoyed, but also secretly overjoyed at the sound of their chortles behind my back.

As I walk to the well to fetch water, I hear children call out to me, poo-mui, poo-mui! White Person, White Person!

Later that day, I step into my office, a legal assistance center next door to the small room I sleep in. There, we spend the day meeting with clients, hearing their stories, and addressing their legal problems and disputes. Many of the community members who come in are young, unwed teenage mothers who are seeking child support. Survival itself is a chore in Sierra Leone, where well-paying and safe jobs are scarce. Ironically, having a child at least means that the child’s father might give the mother food, money, clothing, shelter, or even school fees. Prostitution is rampant too, especially with young girls going to the nearby military barracks. Often we meet young women who are victims of horrific domestic violence. Rarely do the abusers face any sort of accountability, despite our best efforts. There are few resources to prosecute someone in such a poor region; the police tell us they have no fuel for their motorbikes, no money to investigate crimes or arrest the criminals.

Between client meetings, the day is interspersed with conversations with friends, neighbors, children passing by, and anyone curious or bored. A military officer, friends with one of my co-workers, comes by to chat. “You must take a Sierra Leonean husband,” he insists, taking a seat. When I tell him that I’m taken, he guffaws loudly as he slaps his palm down on his knee. “Your husband can marry a Sierra Leonean wife. You can both live here. I know many beautiful girls,” he chuckles.

At the end of the workday, I inevitably find Kadiatou and her younger siblings waiting for me outside my small room. She works nearby selling snacks at the junction, but she comes by almost every day. Sometimes she brings me delicious jollof rice, since she knows that as a lifelong vegetarian, I’m having great difficulty adjusting to the meat-heavy food. She’s a friend, yes, but the relationship is complicated. The line is unclear: is she friends with me because she wants to be, or because she knows I’m from America? She, too, asks me if I have any cousins who want a wife. She tells me to take a photo of her so I can show it to my male friends and relatives when I get back to the States. Everyone seems desperate to go to America. Everyone views me as White.

But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too.

In a development aid cliché, the neighborhood kids beg me to take photos of them and with them, using my camera. I ponder the ethics, but succumb to their persistent requests, their childish excitement. They pose for what turns into a photoshoot. In one image, a young girl holds a flower in her right hand and stands with one arm on her hip. In another, two young girls hug each other and smile, standing in front of a bush. I take videos of the girls gyrating to music played on their cell phones, using my hairbrush as a pretend microphone as they belt out their favorite tune. When I show them the shots, they laugh, thrilled to see their face on camera.

That evening, the girls put me on the spot. “Dance,” they command me joyfully. They want to see if I can move my body to the music like them. I’m stiff, lacking their natural fluidity, but I make an attempt. A small crowd forms around me. I guess I’m the village entertainment for the evening. After a minute, everyone claps, cheers, laughs, and joins in, from the three-year-old toddler to the sixty-year-old grandmother. Every night in Sierra Leone somehow turns into a village-wide dance party.

The kids are also fascinated by something else that points to my foreignness: my hair. They want to touch my hair, feel its texture against their skin. They’re surprised at the novelty of it all: it doesn’t need to be braided? You just leave your hair like this? They insist on plaiting it to see how it looks and how long it lasts. They braid my hair rapidly, with hands that are clearly expert, fingers that are nimble and comfortable intertwined with hair. They insist on taking a photo with me and my new hairstyle, my single braid glossy and thick, framing my face and tucked behind my ear.

It is briefly beautiful, but begins to unravel only a few minutes later.

*     *     *

But I’m not White after all. My skin can be anywhere between the brown of the soil and the brown of caramel, and my hair is thick and black. I’m American, yes, but I am Indian too. My family hails from Andhra Pradesh, a state in Southern India, and we immigrated to the US when I was starting elementary school. There’s no getting around it: I’m a brown girl, through and through.

Landing in Freetown, I expect confusion about my origin and doubt that I’m truly American. I am fully prepared for endless questions about my skin color and ethnicity, questions like—Where are you from? But where are you really from? Where is your family from? These are the kinds of interrogations I experience regularly back home where I’m not seen as fully American and certainly never considered White. I’m not the type of American historically represented in pop culture or media, nor in the most popular movies or television shows exported to Sierra Leone.

For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing.

Somehow, this interrogation never comes. Throughout my two-month stay in Gondama, Bo, and Freetown, I’m treated with the adoration that the White Man usually garners in these communities. I’m the center of attention in almost every village I pass through. The chiefs come to talk to me, plying me with generators that can play movies and light up the dark, and with palm wine to taste in the evenings. Young women freely give me food and even lend me their clothes when I get caught in a sudden downpour. Okada (motorbike) drivers crack jokes with me, knowing they can charge me a higher rate. Everyone is willing to help me out, no matter how destitute they themselves are. I’m asked to give out graduation certificates to children at a local school. Everyone wants me to dance, sing, eat, and drink with them. Everyone wants photos with me. Everyone wants to be my friend.

Yet, I’m also treated like any other White person, which is to say, the site of deep-seated hopes, desires, and anxieties of communities affected by conflict, poverty, and the influx of development aid despite a struggling local economy. Every day I’m asked for money, food, water, clothing, pens and paper, and electronics. People start staking a claim to my belongings. You’ll give me your mattress when you leave town, right? Promise? Men are constantly flirting with me, asking me if I can marry them, take them to America, or if I can introduce them to someone, if I have cousins or friends who need a man.

For the first time in my life, I feel White. In a way, it gives me a thrill to be a mini-celebrity. After decades of never quite feeling fully accepted as an American, having my identity questioned and questioning myself in turn, this feeling of belonging is refreshing. In fact, the experience of Whiteness is more than that—it is intoxicating. There is a certain benefit of the doubt my “Whiteness” confers on me in the village. I am immediately loved, appreciated, and valued. My motives are not questioned. It’s assumed that I’m here to help. I’m automatically welcomed. To be White, I finally understand, is to have consistent privilege, to be looked up to, to be almost universally admired. But this love is mixed in with anger, jealousy, revulsion, and in the community I live in—dependence. The people I meet are trapped between submitting to the poo-mui and being realistic about their needs. At the end of the day, survival wins out.

Sierra Leone struggles with a complex relationship with the White Man. In 1787, British abolitionists and philanthropists settled about 450 former slaves in Freetown. Under the guise of empowerment, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, a charitable organization, played a crucial role in signing up indigent Black people in London to form a colony in Sierra Leone. But the project’s aim was mixed in with a heavy dose of racism: there was also a desire to remove the Black poor from the streets of London. Exporting them off to West Africa seemed a way to kill two birds with one stone. Sierra Leone earned its nickname, the “White man’s grave,” for the high mortality rate of colonists and missionaries due to infectious disease and lack of sanitation. The new Black settlers, unfortunately, were not immune, and many died from exposure to malaria and yellow fever. In 1807, the slave trade was outlawed. The British established a naval base in Freetown primarily to intercept slave ships and rescue and resettle the freed people at the base. In 1808, Freetown became a British Colony and a stronghold in efforts to end the slave trade. Over time, more than 50,000 former slaves were eventually resettled in Sierra Leone. The descendants of these liberated slaves became known as Krios. They lived alongside members of various tribes and ethnic groups, such as the Temne, Mende, and Fula. In 1961, Sierra Leone finally gained its independence from the United Kingdom.

Though the country was colonized, its citizens also take pride in the role Freetown played in ending the slave trade. Sierra Leoneans began their relationship with the White Man as purported philanthropist, and today continue to be dependent on the White Man. The White Man enslaved them, deported them, liberated them, colonized them, and yet, created them. Today, too, the communities I work with know that as much as they seek liberation, the poo-mui is a vital source of development aid and financial support. Without aid from the poo-mui, even more children might die before the age of five from malnourishment and easily treatable diseases. Even more young women may drop out of school because they can’t pay school fees, buy uniforms, or because they don’t have pads when they start their periods. Perhaps even more women will die in childbirth without foreign-funded hospitals. It’s a fraught relationship, but one that ultimately succumbs to the harsh reality of poverty and development in this country. Survival wins over emancipation. So today, many Sierra Leoneans equate Whiteness with foreignness, which means the potential influx of development aid, wealth, support, and opportunity.

Though I am the “Other” back home, I am still rich enough to take a flight to Sierra Leone, which is enough to make me a poo-mui here in Mende land.

*     *     *

The summer is ending, and it is time for me to leave Sierra Leone. I give away as many of my belongings as I can. My mattress goes to Kadiatou, who fed me many delicious dinners; the mosquito net to Fatmata, who is caring for three young children, one with a disability; a few clothes to Mariama, who took me on walking tours around town.

I hug everyone I know in the town, and I’m broken in two, racked with guilt, knowing that I can never repay the acts of kindness I have received over the past few months. I don’t mean to, but I feel like I’ve stolen too much—their images, and now, their stories. There’s very little I was able to give them in return. Continuing the legacy of the White Man, I think to myself bitterly.

This summer, I’ve been forced to dwell in the uncomfortable space between confronting my own privilege and reconciling it with my identity back home. I always knew I was privileged, but in America this somehow felt mitigated by a pervasive undercurrent of Otherness. Here in Sierra Leone, I confront my privilege multiple times a day. Here, as a poo-mui, I’m never allowed to separate myself from my privilege. Instead, I tried to make the most of it. I tried to capitalize upon it when speaking to the police, when advocating for our clients who are victims of domestic violence, in making presentations in Freetown about the problems people are encountering in this community, in campaigning for greater financial support to grassroots organizations in Sierra Leone. My privilege is not just in a vacuum; it’s a political tool. And yet, I’m no savior. As much as I want to believe I am different, the reality is that I parachuted in and out like any other aid worker. With my limited knowledge of the context, the politics, the actors, and the language, and my short time in the country, there was only so much influence I could have. All the privilege in the world doesn’t mean that change comes easy.

My friends and colleagues hold one last dance party in my honor. The radio is on, the palm wine is flowing, and we are all dancing as the sun descends beneath the horizon. For a moment, one sweet moment, I no longer feel like a White Man. Instead, I’m a Brown Woman, shaking my hips to the music, letting myself slip into the song, together with the whole town, rapt in ecstasy under the moonlight.

 

Akhila Kolisetty is an Indian-American lawyer and advocate in Brooklyn, NY, where she provides free legal representation to survivors of domestic violence in family law. Previously, she worked with human rights organizations in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone. Her poetry has been published in Rigorous Magazine, Lily Lit Review, and Sky Island Journal. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.