A new shipment of toubabs is here from France.
Not only does this mean I may get to crash their dance classes (Sabar AND djembe! Waaaaaaw waaaw! For a fee, of course), but it means that I am no longer the only etrangere chez Yaye. This means that I can blend into the background a bit. There is freedom (financial freedom, especially) in anonymity.
The last toubab to come was here several weeks ago, and she was an idiot. Not because she spoke no Wolof or French, but because she’d flown across the world to see a man who spoke Wolof and French exclusively and though they’d never had a single full conversation in the course of their 3 year “relationship”, dude had still managed convinced her that even though she was a guest in his house for the first time ever, she should be making him breakfast. Because Islam says so, he said.
That’s cray, I said, trying to shake off the strong smell of foolishness and f***ery that threatened to overwhelm me, while I was pretending to accurately translate for them. “Don’t get caught up in any foolishness, you hear?” I pleaded in English. “You are not the first American woman to come to this house, and you will not be the last. Don’t be a dummy. Don’t let these people play you–they are lovely, but if you are a mess, they will play you and toss you out with yesterday’s garbage. Do you hear what I’m saying to you?!”
The man she’d come to see looked confused. He’d only asked me to translate one sentence.
She wasn’t hearing it. “He’s gonna give me 10 babies,” she told me, smiling and shrugging, with her New York accent. Oh, she’s one of them, I realized. Desperate to the point of foolishness. Reads the CNN articles about how hard it is for black women to find mates, realizes that while she has a great, great job that allows her world travel, she’s getting up there in age (ie, older than 26), and that she needs to breed with someone, anyone. He’s not like the other ones. He doesn’t want a green card; he loves his job here. And you know what they say about them African brothas, wink wink.
Yes, yes, I do know what they say about them. And I know what they say about you. You are a fool. Please go home.
The new batch is different. They have a rapport with the family. They are mostly men. So that means no sexual politics, which always complicates matters. They are white. I honestly don’t know what that means. I guess it depends on the situation, but one thing is sure–they will always be toubabs–which is a positive or negative, again depending on the situation. They have taken Senegalese names (only the Lord knows why), which has led people to ask me why I haven’t taken one, which leads me to snap my neck around in angryblackgirl fashion and tell them that I am NOT Senegalese, and that I’m proud of my own cultures sodontbetryingtolumpmeinwiththesecrazyselfhatingtouriststhatcomeherelookingforanidentitybecauseyouarescratchingupthewrongtreethanks, which leads them to laugh and say “no, you are Senegalese,” which leads me to either try to convince myself that they think they’re complimenting me by taking away my identity and supplanting it with theirs, or to purse my lips and bite my tongue before shutting down the conversation and walking away. It’s bad enough that my name sounds a lot like my sister-in-law-to-be’s name, so many people assume that my actual name is actually a Senegalese name I took on. NO! My mama named me. My name–Marissa Annette Lydia Jackson–represents my family’s personal zeitgeist, our religion, our socioeconomic status, my parents’ aspirations for my character and my life. And stop adding le fiance’s last name to the end of it because I am not his chattel! Do we HAVE to have a discussion about the integrity of female personhood today, really? Or, can you just let me be great? Or even mediocre, but still just me? Please?
When you are a white guy from France, visiting a country your country colonized and still economically rapes, you can afford to submit to certain orders and structures here because you are privileged. You can change your name because your skin is still that rosy pink that so many Senegalese women want so badly that they burn off their skin with cancer-causing steroid creams. You can afford to take off work and just hang out with a Senegalese family; you get paid vacations, probably. You’ve boarded a plane. Like me, you didn’t even need a visa to come here. You don’t have to curtsy when you greet other men. You can pick up a new religion if you want, because you were probably raised with none and becoming spiritual will make you seem more awesome to your friends.
If a French guy learns Wolof, it’s super cute and impressive. If or when I really learn Wolof, I’ll just be doing my duty. I don’t want to be on duty. I want a break. If I don’t curtsy, I’m demonstrating the rudeness, the looseness expected of Black Americans. I must curtsy before elders, especially men. Why? Because I’m a young woman. And not only that, but I’m black, and so I’m expected to understand Senegalese ways of life just because. When I curtsy, then, I’m doing it on behalf of an entire race, and a gender. Changing my religion? No thanks. Not just because that’s not how faith works, but because I need everyone to understand that being a Christian does NOT have to mean being a Colonizing Catholic from the 19th century who wants to strip folks of their land, freedom and African-ness, that being a black Christian is a legitimate choice, and a real culture. My nationality? A demonstration of endurance, a mark of pride at being a member of several disrespected minority groups. By refusing to let folks appropriate me, they have to deal with the fact that not all Jamaicans are weedheads, that not all Black Americans and Blacks in America are gangbanging prostitute cretin, that many of us read, travel, work, save, speak several languages (AND codeswitch), we are proud of our natural skin color and our natural hair. That we are real, decent people, worthy of respect on our own terms, even in their sovereign nation. That many of us respect them and their respective hustles, stories, histories, and that while we’re happy to be here with them, we’re not trying to be them–stealing and appropriating customs and traditions we don’t understand because of our Westocentrism, nor exploit them, nor corrupt them, nor control them.
How then, should I interact with these newcomers? So far, my answer has been not at all, aside from the standard greetings. People have continually tried to introduce us, assuming that we have something in common. We have nothing in common except that we’re not Senegalese. I don’t even want to speak my screwed-up “highly proficient” French around them, because experience has taught me that the French don’t like hearing their language abused, even if their English sucks. If they were Americans, we could joke about being able to finally speak English again, but they’re not, so we can’t. Instead they ask me what my Senegalese name is, and I force a smile and say “Je n’en ai pas.” I am nice because I know I want to join them for one or two of their classes, just to remind everyone that I, too, am different, and don’t know anything, and shouldn’t be expected to carry the cultural weight of all of my histories on my shoulders all the time. Sometimes, a girl just wants to dance. But I don’t want to overdo it with the “Dou ma senegalaise* temper tantrum”, because as hard as it is to be (sort of) on the inside, being on the outside without the benefit of white privilege is much worse.
*dou ma senegalaise = Wolof for “I’m not Senegalese”