If you sit down for beers with a group of expats living in Ghana, race and culture will come up sooner or later. We ironically call ourselves Salimingas. We ironically call each other out for chewing our fufu. And we ironically sing and dance to the “African Man” song, professing our need for “ a strong, black man to handle my love…”
Most white people in America have the luxury of not thinking about race if they don’t want to. And let’s be honest—most don’t want to. (If you are white, test yourself: when was the last time you thought of yourself as white? Do you feel uncomfortable calling yourself white?) White people in Ghana don’t have that luxury. The way people see you and treat you reminds you that you are the “other”. In Ghana, this isn’t at all subtle. I’m pretty comfortable saying I’m white in part because small children tell me I am every day.
Race is a much more present topic for white Americans in Ghana not only because we suddenly find ourselves the minority, but also because skin color and race are often talked about in frank and open ways that would be startling in the states. The other day I was at the bank with a surveyor, and he told our place in the queue of Ghanaians was “just behind that colored guy.” My first impression was to think he meant the one guy wearing bright orange robes, but the ostentatiously dressed man was nowhere near where he pointed. My next thoughts were a) wow, “colored” is an antiquated term, and b) …um aren’t all those guys colored?, which I immediately felt racist for thinking. My surveyor clarified that, like the term “fair”, “colored” referred to people with slightly lighter skin. (Side note—as in the states, skin tone among Ghanaians is not completely neutral. Use of skin lightening crèmes is extremely widespread among Ghanaian women.)
Is this bad? In the states, “hipster racism”—making stereotypical statements about race with the implication that it’s okay because you aren’t actually racist—has been roundly condemned in the blogosphere. The logical fallacy here is one that might be ascribed to hispterism in general: you may be drinking PBR ironically, but you are still drinking PBR. You may be saying racist things ironically, but you are still saying racist things. Either way, you are contributing to the proliferation of the object of your irony. PBR won’t go off the market just because you were being ironic when you drank it, and stereotypes won’t go away just because you are being ironic when you voice them. Hipster racism naively—and wrongly—assumes that racial stereotypes no longer have the power to harm.
This doesn’t mean that all racially- or culturally-based humor need be taboo. Such humor can be effective at addressing problems that otherwise might be difficult to talk about. And let’s be honest—when the Ghanaian dancers at AllianceFrancais dress up in white face and chase women with comically inflated butts, it’s actually kind of funny.
In determining what humor is harmful, here are some things I think should be considered:
1. Whether the humor perpetuates the stereotype or challenges it. Humor can be a powerful tool for bringing up stereotypes and revealing their absurdity. Teasing a child about touching you, or calling someone “black man”, can humanize you and make the person think about what he or she just said or did.
2. The connotations of the stereotype. Somehow I doubt white people in Ghana will suffer much if they have a reputation for chewing their fufu. Stereotypes about groups being lazy, or uneducated, or mean, etc., have a lot more potential to harm.
3. Whether the group targeted disadvantaged. The truth that a lot of white Americans may not realize, or may be uncomfortable with, is that power matters. Racial stereotypes have a lot more power to damage when they come from a privileged majority than an underprivileged minority. That is not to say that minorities get a free pass—I have been personally hurt by racism directed at me by members of a minority race in America—but the stereotypes held by these groups have never prevented me from getting a good education or good job, or having access to goods and services. The power of negative stereotypes rings hollow for groups that have the advantage of power and privilege. Members of privileged majorities have a greater responsibility not to be nonchalant about the impact of the stereotypes they throw around.
4. Whether the group targeted is you. Laughing at yourself is generally braver, more therapeutic, and less likely to cause harm than laughing at others. Targeting your own demographic isn’t a blanket pass, though. You should be aware that your comments reflect on others of your group. I was once horribly disgusted by some comments a black American made to me about his race. I later wish I had asked him if he would be comfortable with someone referring to his mother, or sister that way. That’s a good rule: if you wouldn’t find the joke harmless and funny if directed at someone you care about, it’s not funny if directed at yourself. Next, you should be aware of what a statement about your own group might imply about other groups. For example, if I say that if Americans who had to wait two hours in line at GCB would riot, I am also making a statement about Ghanaian’s willingness to do the same.
In general, I think that race and racism should be talked about a lot more everywhere. But an important corollary is that when it comes to those issues, people need to listen and think a lot more too. I’ve heard Ghanaians insist with absolute certainty that white people aren’t charged higher prices in Ghana. Similarly, I bet there are a lot of people who aren’t aware of the extent to which racism affects minorities in America on a daily basis. For instance, there are still plenty of businesses where black patrons aren’t welcome.
I once posited that it is harder to be black in America than white in Ghana. A friend of mine (also white) thought the opposite. The point is, racism is hard on everyone. Humor related to racism should be a tool to ease that burden, not increase it.