How to write about white people

From the dreadlocked guy from New York who went to India to fight ‘cannibalism’, to the Dutch development workers who asked African reporters ‘if they were Aids-aware’ (after the reporters had just lost three colleagues to Aids), to the German who came to teach West African political editors about West African politics, to the Canadian feminist who scolded a brown man for asking a black woman if she had an iron (after misunderstanding the conversation), I am looking for stories about privileged ‘saviours’ of people in the developing world. We all know them, the do-gooders filled with assumptions about other people’s ignorance and helplessness, who get an emotional high out of lecturing, teaching, dishing out stuff, and despairing when the target group gets it wrong once again, so they have to start all over…
Then again, there are those who, instead of ‘saving’ anybody, want to be ‘saved’ by the noble primitive and his/her ‘pure culture. “Oh, in your beautiful culture you eat people? That’s a wonderful form of population control. Our culture has a lot to learn from you here”, as someone jested in a Facebook comment.
Or here is one that actually happened: a Dutch woman had an affair with an African musician. (She did not know that the man had a wife and three children back home. But that’s not the only thing. It isn’t even the main thing.) During their time in Amsterdam, she either came home to her appartment and found the bloke harrassing her 15-year old daughter, or her daughter told her about it, I don’t know which. It became a bit of a thing in African music’ circles in Amsterdam, and eventually the mother was asked to comment on it on radio. Did she say that she terminated the relationship, never wanted to see the guy again, was trying to work through this with her daughter, or was even getting the police involved? Nothing like that. She said ‘we must understand the culture’ the man comes from…
The question  I am stuck with is: are the ‘exotic culture lovers’ the same people as the ‘awareness raisers’, or are they two different types of white people? Do they work together in the same organisations? How do each of these relate to the old ‘missionary’ type? Are they all aspects of the same type, and do the personae take turns?
I remember I was once affected, too, at age 23, going to Mexico, trying to be useful, and feeling slightly disappointed when I found people eating in the streets, watching soccer and not needing me. But I can’t recall now how that felt, or if I would have gone as far as actually giving a workshop.
I need to make sense of my own people. Please send in stories for an anthology about us and our behaviour in your countries. It would be a great help, and probably a rollicking read.

1 thought on “How to write about white people”

  1. In Mozambique I stayed at Fatima’s Guest House. The day after I arrived I was going to an event with a Mozambiquan friend where we could not wear casual clothes but only collared shirts. In broken Portugese and sign language I asked one of the women who worked at the guest house if she could give me an iron so I could iron my shirt. As I was struggling with Portugese and making this motion of ironing with my hand and this Mozambiquan woman was laughing, one of the Canadian guests intervened. This Canadian damsel – blonde braided hair, jewelery from god-knows-where – who had told me how much she wanted to save the children in Mozambique, lashed out at me thinking that I was asking this woman to iron my shirt. For a minute I was surprised why she was shouting at me about “making black women do your ironing, do it yourself!!!”. It was a weird misunderstanding, but I was amused / offended. Her first reaction was to think that I, the dark guy who had clearly told her the night before that I was studying literautre and politics (with a focus on Africa), did not know the race, class or gender politics and that I, of all people, was the obnoxious patriarch she was gonna fix.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top