29 October 2008

Translinear MindTHIEVES: Archaic Greetings of the AFRO-Informatic Insect Tribe

We, as people of several lands and cultures, inhabit a planet of color. Through our cultures and our histories, we have been and are constantly bombarded with ideas and ways to think about color which we sometimes choose to adopt as our own or reject. Yesterday, while taking a walk into town to purchase some food items, I entered into a store in which an international radio broadcast, intended for Francophone West African listeners, was being played over large speakers. The broadcast began with some musical selections and several minutes later, the show’s host announced that he would be accepting calls from fans for the next ten minutes. A young man called into the station, saying that he was Franco-Togolese (A French citizen of Togolese descent) and shared that he was a recent university graduate. The young listener was abruptly cut off by the show host who quickly said in French “Hold on, hold on, what color are you? Are you black-skinned or brown-skinned?” The young listener gave an uncomfortable laugh and responded in French “I am chocolate.” The radio host then said, “Are you a brown chocolate or a black chocolate?” It seemed to me that the young listener was a little surprised by the question and stumbled and stuttered trying to give a response. The host then asked “Are you a chocolate brown with cream or are you a chocolate black? Here’s a better question! Are you an Ivorien shade of black or a Congolese shade of black?” The host continued this line of questioning for about two minutes, receiving only scatterbrained responses from the young listener. I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The color of this man’s skin, and of all the listeners calling in, was the only thing that mattered to this radio host. He didn’t ask for the man’s name, what part of France he was from, and when the listener mentioned that he had recently graduated from university, the radio host made no effort to interrogate the listener’s area of study. Instead, the radio show host tried to equate this man’s worth with the shade of his skin. No one else in the store appeared to be surprised or shocked by what they were hearing over the radio lines, which I also found to be astonishing. But then I soon realized that I was standing in the skin care section of the store which was inundated with skin bleaching lotions, crèmes, and soaps (labeled in English and French) all promising a “fair”, “beautiful”, and “desired” light skin complexion. In the West African countries that I have personally visited, as in America, the politics of skin color is HUGE.
When I first arrived in-country, we lived with host families near the training site closer to the country’s capital. When I was introduced to my host father, one of the very first things he said to me was that he was café au lait (Coffee with cream, in reference to his skin color). I was a little confused about why he had made the effort to tell me this. He told me that he was “café au lait” long before he had to told me anything else about himself or his family. I had initially thought this was weird, but gave it little attention. Weeks later, after I had questioned him about his family and siblings, he told me he had very many siblings, but he only wanted to talk about his younger brother who was apparently the sibling with the lightest skin color in the family. I have realized that the longer I have been in-country, the intricacies of its intra-racial (within the same race) skin politics and color complex have slowly began to emerge. An American friend, who has run a non-profit foundation in Niger for several years, told me that she had begun to notice the manner in which many of the members of the villages she worked with judged the worth of their children by their skin color. She is a very fluent speaker of Hausa, and shared with me how young children were often being compared to the color of tar. After she and I had talked for several minutes about intra-racial discrimination, one of her Nigerien counterparts told me of a mutual friend we shared. After he explained, in Hausa, how he and our mutual friend were acquainted he slowly said in English the word “Black.” Of course, he was referring to the deep black skin complexion of our mutual friend. He mentioned nothing else of him, except the shade of his skin.
Once my Hausa language skills improve, I do plan on further interrogating this question of intra-racial skin politics. I know the history of intra-racial color complexes in the black community in the United States, but I do not know if the kind of color complex that exists here in Niger shares exactly the same origins. Any ideas? I guess this is where my education comes handy... talking to people and critically engaging their beliefs.

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