June 2, 2021

Balance and Equality in my Microcosm?

Nearly every culture has some remote concern for finding, achieving and maintaining a balance of sorts—a sort of equality. It’s, seemingly, at the core of my existence and it is seems to be a delicate dance. When the time comes for me to write a little something for my loved ones back home I am often overjoyed and overwhelmed by the prospects of what I will discuss. If you have yet to realize—I’ve a few things to share. I am gaining so much from my experience here thus far; so much I am sometimes fearful that over the next twenty-six months I will not be able to replenish what Cameroon has given to me in simply four. Will I be able to balance it out? So, I write.

Today I finally began reading Paul Farmer’s ‘Pathologies of Power’. I feel as if I am taking a fresh breathe. This isn’t necessarily a new breathe, by no means, but simply a reassuring crisp toke of a reinvigorating earthly fire that comes from the pursuit of social justice. Delicious, actually. Eduardo Galeano’s genius fills the first pages:

The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.

Who are no, but could be. Who don’t speak languages, but dialects. Who don’t have religions, but superstitions. Who don’t create art, but handicrafts. Who don’t have culture, but folklore. Who are not human beings, but human resources. Who do not have faces, but arms. Who do not have names, but numbers. Who do no appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper. The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them. Eduardo Galeano ‘The Nobodies’.

The Politics of Being White in Black Spaces

Firstly, let us be reminded that the constructions of what is ‘White’ and ‘Black’ drive the paradigms of this discussion—hence its need.  Also, let us remind ourselves that those who carry a paler complex, ie. ‘Whites’, are indeed the minorities worldwide. Yet, ‘White’ culture has, interestingly enough, infiltrated every facet of social hierarchy across the globe. It’s incredible, to a degree—just look at the history and it makes much more sense to me. There are so many different directions I’d like to take this idea but for now I will simply illustrate some instances in my life where this being ‘white’  in a ‘black’ space has made me smile, or infuriated, or laugh.

Politics are so incredibly interesting—I loathe them in general, but they are still intriguing and hence interesting. We all seem to have different sets of comportment based upon where we are—well, at least most of us have been trained to adapt our behavior according to our physical space. I am never ceased to be amazed at experience the interactions between ‘white folks’ in ‘black spaces’.

White Politicking in Kennedy’s Friend Chicken—Binghamton, New York

While I spent most of my formative years either inside of or close to New York City, maybe one of the most diverse places on the continent, this conversation did not find itself into my dialogue until I moved to Binghamton, New York—a small post-industrial boom town which has certainly passed it’s ‘hay day’. It is where I attended university during my undergraduate years. It is a remarkable place with so much dynamic I am not even sure I have the energy to try to substantiate it. Unjustly brief I will put it this way: imagine a place where you can find: art galleries, AK-47s, Victorian mansions on the riverside, Walmart, streets which have laws posted that if you ‘circle the block’ you will receive a fine, students, indie arts/crafts/book stores, international grocery stores, gay bars/clubs, fine-dining, hotdog stands and fire escapes made out of wood (like, seriously).

Upon moving into an ‘off-campus’ apartment on the North side of town is where I began attuning my sociological imagination to this idea of being white in a black space. We pale folks are rarely forced to do this—it is most often by shear choice. In my case, living at 5 Mather Street was a choice—one I was happy to make, actually. My family members, from both New England and New York, were alarmed to see where I lived upon visiting. My mother, in particular, was less than pleased, so say the very least. I remember somebody once asking if it was okay to park their car on my street—I think it was half jokingly but it was that serious undertone that lingered as they punctuated the question mark that led me to believe they were serious. I’ve also had plenty of friends ask me this too. Of the five apartment buildings on my immediate block, two were boarded up and bombed out. My neighbors were pleasant, overall. Some of them got by as small entrepreneurs babysitting and sell drugs, others as mechanics and building supers, some as gainlessly unemployed and us students with student loans. As rough as Mather Street appeared, and was, I, or anybody I knew, ever had any issues there. Maybe this is luck, maybe wit, maybe it speaks to how powerful white privilege actually is. That discussion is for another blog.

It was a sort of weekend ritual of my roommate, Ilya, and I to go out on weekends, enjoy ourselves and find some late night comfort food at Kennedy’s Friend Chicken just two blocks away from us. For those of you not from the New York City area, or generally familiar with rap songs from the turn of the millennium, Kennedy’s Friend Chicken is a pillar of an institution in inner-city neighborhoods. I have never seen one outside of Brooklyn until we found this gem in Binghamton. Recently it was closed down by a Binghamton city ordinance; it was cited to be ‘a public nuisance’ as a result of a long history of fights, open container violations, loitering and one drive-by shooting. Ill-regard, it was deliciously amazing and we enjoyed nearly every moment inside the Binghamton franchise owned by a depressingly overworked Iraqi Kurd named Ak.

It’s late, maybe around 2:30am, I am mesmerized by the seemingly endless menu of Kennedy’s Fried combo deals—all which never actually give you a deal if you do the math—I am also alone, so no sidekick to bounce any ideas off of. While gazing, and acknowledging I’m destine for a soon-to-be food coma induced haze, I am trying to stay in what is a shy semblance of a line that somehow fluidly moves inside the relatively chaotic, but calm if you ask me, store front. Bullet proof glass windows make everybody’s order known as shouts bounce from the glass to the back of the store. “Lot of action here—what to order?” I’m mulling to myself. I feel a light tap on the shoulder but I don’t want to break my focus for anything right now. I assumed it was just a waving arm—a simply mistake undeserving of an apathetic, but socially acceptable, ‘Sorry, dude.’ Well, I was wrong, it was actually somebody trying to get my attention. Before I have the chance to look back I feel a person move in towards my shoulder and say quietly, ‘Looks like we’re the only white dudes in here, huh?’ My eyes must have opened so wide it looked like I just read a sign that Ak hung in the window saying ‘Free All-U-Can-Eat Buffet Tonight.’ Only difference was, I wasn’t ecstatic, to say the least.

Now I frequent here enough to know I have never seen him here before—I say this because I see many other familiar faced late-night chicken lovers.

 I am mortified by his comment, outraged too. It seems that the demographic make-up of Kennedy’s was so novelty to him he was forced to state the obvious. I almost was about to write that he pointed out the elephant in the room; but the truth is I am not even sure if there was an elephant in the room. There certainly wasn’t an elephant in the room in my mind, and I am pretty sure not in the minds of all the other non-white people in the room scurrying to get their order in while chit-chattering about the night. I mean, does this guy even understand how delicious the Beef-Patty’s are or did he come to Kennedy’s on a bet, or for ‘the experience.’

I am not even sure how I ended up responding—probably a horrifically apathetic, ‘Yea, brah.’ I do not even remember talking with him after that—I just remember all the thoughts that raced through my mind.

Why? Why did he feel we have some sort of bond? Was it my pale complexion that led him to believe I am white? Does that make us brothers, friends, acquaintances? I am guessing he felt uncomfortable based on him comment—but why would saying that make things any better? How did that equate in his mind? Did it make him feel safer—ostracizing ourselves from the group of hunger people in line?

And, lastly, was he that surprised? The truth is him and I were not the first middle-class white university students to venture into Kennedy’s for some ridiculously good fried chicken—! It’s a white-man’s land as far as anybody is concerned, no matter how many destitute pockets of the city there are. My apartment in two blocks away!

We’re not in the remote village of Fonfuka, Cameroon. Where I would imagine a comment like that, if delivered correctly with the right group of people, could be funny. Or at least deserve a chuckle.

White Politicking in Explicitly Black Spaces– Cameroon

Here in Cameroon, or almost anywhere else on the continent (depending upon where you are), you would be a bit more hard pressed to even find somebody to say, ‘Looks like we’re the only white dudes in here, huh?’ Every day in almost every town I am the only ‘white’ person around. It’s relatively rare to see other pale skin folks—unless you count Albino people who are actually more plentiful here in Cameroon than in the USA.

First, the dynamics of behind white-on-white interactions here in Cameroon are slightly, and I mean slightly, less ridiculous. Chances are, we are far away from the place we identify as home, the social hierarchies regarding race-relations and class-relations in our immediate surroundings at the moment of the awkward, ‘Hey, where are you from?’ is quite different than when standing in Kennedy’s Fried and there may be a genuine burning curiosity as to what you are doing here. Hell, maybe you can be friends!

There seems to be two camps of reactions when white people see other white people here in Cameroon.

Flockers: The first camp could be described as flocking to those who resemble their skin complexion and/or Western features.  I have been waved to on Commercial Avenue in Bamenda by a group of white people passing me in a Toyota Range-Rover. Why? Not exactly sure other than that white-solidarity that I am not sure I feel here in Cameroon.  (Bamenda= largest city in the Northwest with plenty of Europeans and Americans living and working. Commercial Ave = epicenter of Bamenda—do the math of ridiculousness here).

Oh-No, no NO!’ers: These are folks who will do nearly everything in their powers to ignore the people who share their pale complexion and/or Western ways.

Take a guess which pack I am a apart of? –Well, actually I am a decent mix, depending upon my mood.

My favorite instances have happened in the Main Market of Bamenda. As described in my last blog post—it’s brazen. I’ll find myself in some obscure corner of the market, let’s say looking at saws or something outrageous like that. I will then spot a fellow Pale strolling by. We both see each other—that’s a common fact—but yet we do everything in our powers to make sure neither of us realize we’ve seen each other or plan on seeing each other. HA! Loves it. It becomes more intimate and awesomely awkward when you find yourself in the same store as a person sharing your complexion and you both actively ignore each other in the same manor—not even a head nod. Greatness.

My least favorites seem to involve older White folks. I’ll be in the supermarket—this is the epicenter of seeing older White ex-patriots who tend to be missionaries and tend to make all available efforts in at least greeting you and often summonsing you to some place other than where you are. The last time this occurred I was in the supermarket speaking only Pidgin to the workers, having a few laughs, shopping—you know, being a regular human being. As I pulled up to the line an older woman was finished checking out and greeted me. I cordially responded and exchanged the whole, ‘How’s it going? Where are ya from? Oh, IOWA—interestingggg.’ I suppose what I am trying to say and explain is that when I find myself in these situations I cannot help but to feel some sort of mismatched magnetic force that is trying to pull me in. Let me tell you, there are only a few instances and a few people I could ever want that magnetic feeling—and old missionary ladies are not on the list. Ashia.

If you’re still reading this, pat yourself on the back and know that I owe you a batch of brownies.

As always—miss everybody and love you all so much!