“whi wom…whi wom…” they followed me for a ways down the path., as much a greeting as a declaration. To the throng of excited children assembled, I am a “whi wom” – white woman. Some Liberians have explained it as my foreignness, white woman as a catchall for not being Liberian; others, that I am white by Liberian standards…light, bright, in their eyes white.

Just this morning Fox explained that his brother was “very black”. I stared at him for a moment contemplating his dark complexion and then asked, “are you very black?”

“no, I’m black,” he answered matter-of-factly.

That lead to a question of what everyone else was.

“BushDiva is light and you are bright,” he smiled. BushDiva laughed quietly. she is decidedly brown, the color of a pecan shell more than a pecan. Still unsure of what “very black” looks like, we at least had part of the spectrum of dark to reference.

More than a curiosity of complexion, my american-ness takes color beyond a simple reflection and refraction of light. I also see color through the lens of power and privilege. These last few weeks I have felt it more acutely than in my other travels. I am privileged here. And I wonder if this is what white privilege in the US feels like-silent and unasked for.

In South Africa I straddled some color-conscious line. Children in villages screamed “Lekogwa” – foreigner – at me as I passed. Maybe it is a quirk of language that made lekogwa more tolerable than “whi wom” – the sharp sting of a familiar phrase that is only foreign in its application to me. But that was the rural children; adults assumed that I belonged in South Africa in some capacity, Xhosa, colored…something. And I was treated accordingly – until I opened my mouth. on the side of the road trying to catch a lift, in a store trying to buy something, or at a hotel once where the attendant refused to accept the money from my hand – insisted instead that I put it on the counter- my privilege was tempered.

But here…here I am acutely aware of people in trainings submitting to my opinion and special treatment that is not simply deference to a guest. here I easily navigate a world of transportation and access to people and events, not because of the work I’ve done, instead, it is the connections I have. My network. My little blue passport. My “birthright”.

The privilege is the larger paycheck that I’d get (if I weren’t a volunteer), it is being ushered to the front of the lunch line, the expectation that I can/should demonstrate a training not in my area of expertise and with no preparation-simply by virtue of my birthing geography.

And how can I deal with that? How do I dismantle a…system…more…an idea…a norm of behavior that anticipates and even expects that my treatment will be better, my pay higher, my access greater.

There are subtle differences that make white and ex-pat privilege irreconcilable for comparison. I am visitor not fellow citizen and my privilege, for the most part, exists in a parallel universe to that of everyday life…but even as I list those I know at their core they are the same. When I am riding in hospital transport, or the university’s…when I am granted access to books without being a student at the university or the opportunity to meet with high ranking officials…it is not so much my skills or abilities that make those things possible, instead it is the privilege of my birth, my little blue book that grants me that extra boost.

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1 Comment on white woman

  1. Kyla says:

    That is so true. I experienced that in the DR too, but in a slightly different way than in Liberia. My whiteness in the DR was very closely associated with beauty and people definitely expected me to be an expert on everything. In Liberia I felt more of the privelige thing happening, and I associated it more with the extremely large numbers of ex-pats and NGOs working there. I was expected to be like them…short-term, removed from regular life, bags of cash…rather than a volunteer who wanted to form relationships and learn about the community. I don’t know…

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