The reality of race: fieldwork experiences from Ghana

Millicent, one of the staff members of the hostel where I stayed, and I.

By Marije Maliepaard     Recently my Colombian friend and I were talking about being white in a country like Ghana. I told him I had never been aware of my ‘whiteness’ until I got to Ghana. In reply he said “of course you weren’t aware, you are part of the majority in your country”.

We silently continued our walk along the main road in Accra as I pondered his comment. I broke the silence and said, “It’s not only me being part of the majority but I just don’t see it. I don’t recognize people as being black or white.” He firmly said: “That can’t be true, no one is colorblind! Do you see those people approaching us? You see they are a woman and a man, you also see if someone is black or white.” I thought about it and said: “I don’t register it all the time, when I see people I don’t consciously think that is a man or a woman, or that person is black or white.” He finally saw my point which made me happy because I was starting to think that maybe my views on this differ from the view of others.

My view, or ‘unconscious approach’, on this changed in Ghana. I am part of the minority now and everyone notices. When people want my attention, which happens probably every minute, they call me ‘obruni’ which means white / foreigner. When I buy something in the street they (usually) overcharge me and I’ve been proposed to countless times. Yes, even by the pharmacist when buying medicine. I am treated very differently from the locals which has made me highly aware of my skin color. My Ghanaian friend told me about the word ‘obibini’, which means black person, so when people call me obruni I’ve started to sometimes call them obibini. This creates smiles on all of our faces and in that moment we realize we are just one people, with the same smile and the same laugh.

At the same time, I have noticed that Ghanaian people are also very aware of being black, despite being the majority in their country. They often mention it or put it on social media. For example, photos of a Ghanaian friend of mine are often captioned with some sort of reference to being black, like #blackgirl #africanbabe #skinnyblackgirl. It’s a subject me and another Ghanaian friend of mine talk about a lot. Sometimes we talk about the sadness that this difference in color arouses in us and about how we want to live in a world where color doesn’t matter. We also laugh about it a lot, though. Once we were in a bar with an equal mix of black and white people and my friend pointed someone out in the crowd by saying, “Look, there, that black guy.” As he said it we both started to laugh. How can you point out someone based on skin color when half of the people there have that same color?!

Before I went to the field I was of course aware I was going to live in a country where the majority has another color than I have. I tried to prepare myself for being treated differently, positively or negatively, but I actually didn’t know how. Reading about it helped but I figured I just needed to see for myself. The extent of the emphasis put on color, as I just described, was something I never expected. I found it weird that people treated me differently while, being an anthropologist, I learned and also believe that race is a social construct and has nothing to do with my personality or my capabilities. At the same time, anthropologists also try to see the world from other people’s perspective, which I tried but turned out to be challenging. Race, may it be real or not, is such a complex matter that I could not fully understand the ideas, perceptions and attitudes that have been shaped by it and which makes, in this case the Ghanaians, react to me in this way.

After three months it still keeps both my mind and my friends’ minds occupied. Something I never consciously thought about has now, for me personally, become a thing. I can’t help but wonder if the difference in color will ever become unnoticed. And people simply become people.

Marije Maliepaard is a masters’ student of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU.

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