Stranger in the City

There are days here when I’m glad I have sunglasses to hide the tears. It’s been a while since the days of being ganged up on at school, or being humiliated by a bunch of little kids, but being in Africa has a way of bringing me full-circle. Here I am again, getting upset over being called names.

There is probably not a single day that passes without me being called, “toubako,” which simply means “foreigner” or “white person.” In and of itself, it is an innocuous term. Many Senegalese people have explained to me that it is not meant as a pejorative; it is plainly the word to call people who are outsiders. But that’s just it: in Senegal, you can call an outsider a name, and it’s not bizarre or rude. This, along with creepy men who follow me or repeatedly ask me to marry them, has to be the most grating aspect of integrating into this culture that I have experienced.

For the most part, I don’t let the “toubakos” bother me. It has happened countless times, and it’s just part of the landscape. But there are certain moments, like while I’m riding uphill on an already sweltering day, when getting jeered at by someone who is trying to be provocative just gets my blood boiling. Worse, there is the word, “toubahako.” A pejorative portmanteau of “touba,” meaning pants, “hako,” meaning leaf, “toubahako” colloquially means something you wipe your ass with. And those teenagers saying it to me, they know exactly what it means.

On an intellectual level, I completely understand why I’m called these names. For one, it’s just a cultural thing. Paradoxically, while Senegalese people have mastered the art of the euphemism (when declining an invitation somewhere, they will rarely say “no,” but instead say, “it’s too far”), they sometimes don’t hesitate in calling a spade a spade. Secondly, the obvious: my skin is white, I ride a nice bike, and I stand out. Many people, especially children, are simply surprised to see me and have never seen a real live American up close. Imagine being a little kid in the United States and seeing an exotic animal walk down the street—you would call your friends, yell, and jump up and down, too. I understand that. Given Senegal’s history of colonialism and current tourism industry (including sex tourism), I clearly represent American/European hegemony, power, and money. Even though I speak Pulaar and live with a Senegalese family, I’m not fooling anyone: I don’t belong here.

But on an emotional level, it is difficult to have people remind you repeatedly that you are different, you don’t belong, and perhaps, you are unwelcome. Frequently, while minding my own business walking through the market or riding my bike somewhere, people pop out and yell “Toubako!” in my face and hiss at me to get my attention. One time, a little kid yelled “toubab,” and hit me with a bottle so hard it left welts on my arm. After yelling at him that it hurt, he just ran away and giggled with his friends. An nearby adult did nothing to defend me. Another time, as a group of high school girls yelled “toubahako” at me, I rode over to tell them “toubako is not my name,” but they just continued with the taunting and laughing, getting louder and louder. There I was, an adult transported back to a circle of hostile, catty girls.

Some Peace Corps volunteers have joked that some Senegalese suffer from Toubab Tourette Syndrome, an uncontrollable compulsion to scream “toubab” or “toubako” at the mere sight of a white person. And sometimes this seems to be the case: there are those who don’t wish to greet me or start a conversation, instead they just spot me and without even blinking, blurt “toubako” at me. It can be strangely automatic. Other times, I receive a long up-and-down stare as I approach a group of people, only to be called “toubako” as I pass them and my back is turned. And it is not only innocent children who do this; grown adults sometimes do it too. I’ve always wondered why I can’t just be greeted with “salaam aleykoum” or “bonjour” like anyone else. And even if “toubako” truly isn’t a pejorative, why would Senegalese people think that calling a foreigner “foreigner” would make them want to talk to you?

All frustration aside, it is immensely valuable for me to be going through a period in my life where I know what it means to not belong. Aggravating and belittling as it is, I think everyone should know what it feels like to not be in the majority, to not be automatically accepted. Not only am I reminded of being an outsider every day, I have the added pressure of feeling like I have to prove myself even more. Among people in Kolda who don’t know me, the assumption is rarely that I must be part of some organization doing work. Rather, the assumption seems to be that I am just a dumb white tourist lost in hot southern Senegal. And in some senses, those who think the latter have a point—what AM I doing here?

But to be automatically misjudged is frustrating and to be hyper self-conscious is exhausting. When people say Peace Corps is “tough,” it’s not the shitting-in-a-hole or the 120 degree weather elements; it’s things like this that make it tough every day. And the memory of how I feel about this will stay with me my entire life.

I should say that of course, Senegal being the “land of teranga” (teranga means hospitality…I snicker silently), there are plenty of people I know who have truly upheld that characterization. Once people know my name, they do not call me “toubako,” and plenty others have agreed with me that calling someone “toubako” is unnecessary and the result of a lack of education. When I say to Senegalese friends that I don’t like being called, “toubako,” they always say, “those people, they just don’t know, they don’t understand.” However, they often say that those who say “toubako” are just trying to be friendly and do not know how to interact with me. Again, the cultural friction: in my view, any foreigner is still just a person, and there is no different rules of how to interact with them. But I guess if you have never communicated with a foreigner your entire life, that changes things.

No matter how many times I am called “toubako” in a day, once I arrive at my house and melt back into my host family, I forget about all of the petty frustrations I may have had on the ride there. But I long for the days when I can walk around in public, in a city that I consider home, and not be such a spectacle.

6 thoughts on “Stranger in the City

  1. Hi Maya,

    A few thoughts from me about what it is that is happening and issues that it may raise:

    1) Being called “toubako” and the frustration you are feeling as though you don’t belong calls into question the role of Peacecorps in places like Senegal, as well as the role of highly privileged Americans as Peacecorps members abroad.

    2) How fair/unfair is it for Senegalese people to disregard the purported “mission” of Peacecorps, and to see Peacecorps as another variation of tourism/imperialism and so forth?

    3) How fair/unfair is it for Senegalese people to view perceivably white foreigners (Americans or Europeans) as foreigners? Is it wrong for Senegalese people to presume that perceivably white people are foreigners who do not belong?

    4) How much of what bothers you about being called toubako relates to your own identity as a mixed race person?

    5) Is it wrong for Senegalese people to call white people toubako in a perjorative sense?

    6) In thinking about “home” as a space where you “belong,” what is home for you, and what makes it home? What are the conditions that make certain spaces possible for you to call those spaces home?

    7) In saying “I clearly represent American/European hegemony, power, and money,” this framing focuses on how Senegalese people see you in terms of what you represent to them. What do you represent to yourself in relation to Senegal?

    8) The way you wrote this entry focuses a lot on what Senegalese people are doing/saying to you, or about how Senegalese people see you. On the other hand, it would be nice to hear more about how your own reflection on how you are seeing/treating/understanding what is going on as well. These dynamics that you describe are interactive between you and others, so share more about how you see yourself in this process.

    You don’t have to respond to any of these questions/themes directly. Feel free to write new entries that incorporate some answers to these questions.

  2. Hey Jason,
    Thanks for your comment! I’ll respond in number form (I’m a list person), but also hope to touch on these issues more generally in later posts…

    (1) I’ve done a lot of thinking about the extent to which privileged Americans “belong” in developing countries as part of the Peace Corps, and this was something that initially made me not want to join the PC, until I reconsidered. I think on a very basic level, we realize that no, we don’t belong & we’re not fooling anyone. So on one hand, its really easy to say “rich Americans have no place thinking they can go into poorer countries and ‘change’ things.” However, on an official level, each country and community PC works in has specifically requested for a volunteer to be placed there. Further, international development work (whether you believe in it or not) has to start somewhere, and that is usually going to come along with hostility and/or misunderstanding on the part of some people.

    The interesting thing about PC as opposed to countless NGOs that do international work (including Ashton Kutcher’s malaria projects that are getting so much press– no surprise there), is that we are living full-time in remote villages, speaking the local languages, focusing on mostly close-to-home small scale projects. Most NGOs swoop in someplace for two weeks, do their high-impact eye clinic or whatever, and leave. They speak only French and have little connection with the local people or their needs, and this affects their projects’ long-term sustainability. (And I hope this sounds neither like I am disparaging the model of other NGOs, nor patting myself on the back). To achieve a deep connectedness with people who are needy in other countries, it’s going to come with tension.

    Also, I believe there’s two sides to every coin: there are the overarching moral questions about the role of privileged Americans going into developing countries and how a sense of entitlement pushes these “well-meaning” young people to go and “help,” or sometimes more precisely, to have a “growth” experience & then (as one PC book put it) “leave by the time their novelty wears off.”

    The other side to that coin is, there are very important human-to-human connections that occur between two people of different cultures that I believe are incredibly valuable. These are immeasurable. The fact of teaching someone English for example, while trying to learn their language at the same time (especially when their local language may not be at all valuable in the global marketplace, but is valuable just to communicate with that person/community), is profound on a human level. To be able to have a debate with someone in rural Africa about, say, women’s rights, and have that person not be online or on a phone but in person in their home, is a real opportunity. A multitude of these human connections can foster better understanding in the world.

    So it would be wrong to dismiss PC work outright as imperialist, flawed (and perhaps immoral?) because such a view overlooks more subtle–and I would argue equally important–advantages to the program. Where would we be if we all sat back in our chairs in the US, having over-intellectualized development work, too scared to go out there and see what happens (including being cast as an outsider)?

    (2) I don’t think it’s at all “unfair” for Senegalese people to disregard the “mission” of the Peace Corps. Yes, it hurts my feelings that people have met me several times yet still think I’m some sort of tourist, but that’s my personal problem & probably my fault for not explaining myself well enough. Also, this attitude on the part of (some) Senegalese people keeps us in check. We should not be hailed as saviors; it’s more than fair that some people don’t tiptoe around us and instead challenge why we’re here.

    (3) Again, not “unfair” for Senegalese ppl to perceive white people as people who do not belong. It’s more that it is a clash with my own culture, where it’s rude to jeer at people who are different. So that’s why it registers on an emotional level for me, because it feels so hurtful to me that someone who is obviously foreign be made to feel even more foreign. Like, I get it. I’m a toubab. Let’s move on.

    (4) About me being mixed race, it’s funny because sometimes I get, “Chinois! Chinois!” I always like that twist. But it’s the same feeling. It’s not that I feel indignant about them correctly identifying my race, it’s just that I’d like to have a bike ride one day and not be jeered at constantly.

    (5) As to whether it’s “wrong” for Senegalese people to call white people “toubako” or “toubahako” (asswipe) in a pejorative sense, yes, it’s my opinion that it’s wrong to yell a pejorative at someone. No matter where you are.

    (6) I consider Kolda my home because I live & work here full-time, I have a Senegalese family who I rely on for support, safety & good times, and I left my life in the States to invest in this place. The same way I considered college my home while I was there, and Brooklyn my home while I was there. Could this be my home for the rest of my life? Probably not, because I would not be fulfilled in enough areas to sustain this the rest of my life (having my family, friends, habits around).

    (7) What do I represent to myself in relation to Senegal? This is a big question and one I have to do more thinking about….

    Thanks for your thoughts! Love, M

  3. wow, what a debate.

    maya, i feel like what jawu is getting at is: it’s less about how you write about the culture in which you are immersed now – which is foreign to you – but more what’s *behind* what you’re writing. i feel his sentiment is less about censorship and instead, really asking hard questions.

    for one, your post calls into question your relationship to senegal as someone sent from an imperialist nation, which has continued to fleece africa, which has refused to acknowledge this unbalanced relationship, which is part of a larger economic system that extracts surplus capital from the raw exports and cheap labor of the global south. i mean, the u.s. is up because everyone else is down. isn’t that how we maintain our global dominance? because we can buy cheap manufactured goods and raw imports from the rest of the world?

    secondly i think jawu’s post calls into question the moral sincerity of a program created by said imperial nation – which no doubt intends to do “good” (well, i guess even this could be unpacked) – but that does not address the real power dynamics that have created the relationship between it and that host country. i think it’s great to inspire individuals to make connections to other individuals but do those connections speak to the structural power imbalance btw the u.s. and sengal/the other third world nations where the program exists? moreover, do they change them? i don’t think so. in fact, definitely not.

    also, of course governments who host pc volunteers are asking for help – but who would turn help down (aside from a country like bolivia who last year kicked out their u.s. diplomat as part of a broader statement against u.s. imperialism, a statement they were able to make given where political will and popular sentiment towards the united states lie in latin america)–even if it means the systems that put the us at an advantage aren’t addressed?

    …i’ve gone off on a tangent far from jawu’s, but felt i wanted to put in my two cents given what you’d touched on.

    so for me it’s more like overall, what larger questions of yourself (and how you fit in as an american, mixed-race woman residing in senegal as a peace corps volunteer) does being called “toubako” beg?

  4. It’s me again! Haha. I hope my comments are not a bother. I tried to write them in some sort of order, but then it kind of spilled over.

    In terms of what you wrote about PC, I see where you are coming from, and I’m not anti-PC. I think that PC has a lot to offer particularly for volunteers, and less so for the host country/community.

    For example, I think it’s good for more privileged people to interact with different people, and to have a “growth experience.” I’m all for learning/growing, so long as it makes us better people. This doesn’t, however, mean that PC is not imperialist anymore.

    Similarly, I think there are a lot of institutions that might do good things, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty of exhibiting power/dominance. For example, elite schools like Vassar that have community-based programs are doing some good, but that doesn’t mean these schools don’t also gentrify communities, or aren’t elitist anymore, right? Even if calling something imperialist, elitist etc… overlooks nuance, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. (I think you agree with this point)

    As for the intention/commitment of PC volunteers, and the program at large, I think some PC volunteers are probably more productive in their host community and “growing” more than others. There are PC volunteers who are racist/classist and come back talking a whole lot of shit about the people from their host country, you know the schpeal about how it is hot, dirty, poor, barren, racist (against whites), boring and so forth. It’s similar with JYA Vassar people, you know the one who you went to Morocco with…there’s a lot of delusional, self-entitled white people in this world, and PC is not immune from having them in the program.

    Either way (whether we are talking about the good or bad PC volunteer), part of the growth I think PC can offer is helping PC volunteers to interrogate their own privilege (race/class/US citizenship) and do something about it when they come back to the U.S.

    For whites in particular, I think PC is one of the first experiences they may ever have in any extended context where they are made to feel foreign. I am American, born and raised yet I have people treating me like a foreigner/outsider all the time, I experience racism all the time even thought I am actually NOT a foreigner. Obviously people with white privilege in the U.S. do not share my experience. Thus, part of what I actually like about PC is that it may actually destabilize the invisibility of whiteness and make white people feel uncomfortable, in a way get a sense of what is like to be treated like the Other. Does that make sense? My experiences in the U.S. and white PC volunteers are not symetrical though, because like I said I’m not a foreigner, whites in PC are. Hence, even the foreigner treatment of PC volunteers is not that bad compared to what people of color experience in the US b/c our treatment is unjustified, while the treatment of PC volunteers is arguably more justified.

    As for intention to do good and not having that be appreciated. I understand that sucks. However, I think about indigenous communities and their struggle for self-determination and sovereignty, and I think about how PC-like programs fit into this paradigm. I think about TFA programs in urban communities of color, they now have placements in Hawaii, and to an extent I feel bad for the white teachers who are treated like they do not belong, but I also understand the position of students who don’t appreciate/want these white teacher/saviors in their community, and I actually do think this is a justified position to take, especially when we think about it in terms of self-determination.

    In terms of international development and so forth, I take your point, but at the same time I think that paradigm oftentimes, if not always, ignores issues of self-determination for oppressed nations.

    As for calling white people asswipe, you say “it’s my opinion that it’s wrong to yell a pejorative at someone. No matter where you are.” I feel like we pretty explicitly made fun of white people at Vassar, including in their faces, so how do you reconcile these two situations. Also, what do you think of Native Hawaiians like Wayne calling white people haoles, including to their face? Do you think that is wrong too? I don’t. Maybe you agree with me, maybe not…

    I think part of this conversation relies on how we conceptualize various communities and their relationship to the United States, and international actors like the UN, IMF, and other international actors.

    Generally, third world/developing countries are not talked about in the same way as recognized indigenous communities are in the US territories (like Indian tribes, or Chammoro people in Guam), yet I think they are very similar.

    For example, people see Hawaii as a tourist destination and not an indigenous land with indigenous people, hence white people get all indignant when they are treated like foreigners/colonizers, when frankly that’s what they are.

    I think the same is true of African countries being seen as available for international intervention to propagate capitalism and facilitate resource extraction, rather than seeing the importance of self-determination and independence from US/European/Western dominated systems. I’m not per se against interventions, it depends on what kind of interventions we are talking about. The problem is even “good” or well-intentioned interventions somehow turn into bad ones.

    As for the notion of “home.” I get what you are saying, but even what we call home is fraught. I actually think it is problematic for you, and many others, to call Brooklyn home given the extreme gentrification and displacement of low-income people of color. I don’t exempt myself from this problem, I am gentrifying my Los Angeles neighborhood as well. I think the whole situation is fraught to talk about “home” and feel ownership over a space where you have displaced other communities, including indigenous communities . In some ways I do consider Los Angeles my “home” but if an indigenous community told me to get off their land and that LA is not my home, I would completely understand that position and agree with that position. It both is my home in a provisional sense, but at the same time it really isn’t.

    I don’t mean to suggest that PC is all bad so don’t do it or you shouldn’t do it, so I hope it doesn’t come across that way. I think it’s great you are in PC, and I think you are the kind of person that would “grow” and really try to contribute to the community you are placed in. Ultimately though, I think you as a person are getting much more out of this experience than the community you are situated in, that’s just the reality of it all. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to seek out experiences where you can grow.

    My point is really about reconciling the good intentions/commitments/contributions with the negative, I think the two can and do co-exist.

    The program and the presence of white people/Americans is not isolated to individual volunteers. It is also tied to histories of colonialism and exploitation, as well as the current global maldistribution of wealth. I know you know all of this, my point is that PC/PC volunteers are part of a larger system, not all of which is in your individual control. We are both individuals and pieces of something bigger at the same time, so there’s a tension there, but the tension is real and the critique of the individual as part of the aggregate retains legitimacy.

    I also don’t think it’s a bad thing for PC volunteers to be treated like outsiders. I hope that being called white/outsider destabilizes the white privilege and normalization of whiteness that most volunteers come in having.

    I also think that the native community is entitled to call outsiders precisely what they are, outsiders, and the perjorative may have inflections of resentment, which sucks on an individualized level, but I really do see it as being part of a larger critique that is wholly justified.

    The point about international development and not just sitting on one’s ass is well-taken, but I do think we can imagine alternatives to international development as well. In other words, the options are not PC/international development or sitting on one’s ass, right? The problem is oftentimes these are the easiest/most accessible options.

    In terms of the question of “home,” I’m curious to get your thoughts on indigeneity and self-determination and how that might factor into all of this.

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for taking an interest in my blog & these topics. 🙂

      Ok, where to begin…

      I don’t think any thinking, aware person will deny that PC is inherently imperialist. As you mentioned, Vassar, where we both attended, is elitist & problematic, yet we both profited from it in major ways. For me, going to the east coast, being taught to read more critically, being trained in how to think, being exposed to more sophisticated thinking & people (and by sophisticated thinking I especially mean the type that asks the hardest questions, like those about whiteness)–all these things changed my life, and the course of my life. Through it all was a self-critique of the ways the institution (and we ourselves) were problematic. In the end, though, I’d probably still pick Vassar again. Thus in looking at my involvement in the PC, sure, it’s flawed. I don’t expect every aspect of my life to align perfectly with my politics. In fact, to think that every aspect of our lives can align perfectly with our politics is naive. The friction is what makes life interesting.

      As for what the PC has to offer for the host countries, it’s a little troubling to say that you’re not anti-PC because at least it makes better people out of the volunteers (while not necessarily benefiting the host country nationals). This makes me think of Achebe’s critique of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” in which Achebe says, “…there is a perverse kind of arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind.” In the PC case, we might say, “Africa as mere backdrop for the growth of one petty American mind.” If we think of PC’s benefits as being primarily a growing experience for (mostly) privileged American white kids, how is even that OK? Even, as you say, for “PC volunteers to interrogate their own privilege (race/class/US citizenship) and do something about it when they come back to the U.S.,” this still means that the African factor (the people, the culture, the environment) is being utilized merely to further educate an American mind. I’d assume you would agree that this smacks of the same problematic nature as the overarching issue of US imperialism.

      Which brings me to the fact that we can’t ignore nuance, that maybe in the nuance is where the meaning, the good can be found. And I know maybe that sounds airy-fairy and lacks punch, but there are certain experiences that you must actually experience to understand. To use the Vassar example again, it would be easy to say, “oh you just went to some hoity-toity school where all you did is sit in your expensive classrooms and talk about art history & post-modernism, while paying your service staff low wages and sitting on the pretty lawn while people struggle in surrounding Poughkeepsie,” when really, there is SO much more that went on than that (the people, the connections, the revelations, the place you went on from there) that actually make the institution as a whole worthwhile. As for PC, I’ve already said in an earlier comment that the human connection factor is important. On more concrete levels, the investment of time & work made by a volunteer is small, but can kick start certain programs (small businesses, trash management & sanitation projects, access to clean water) that can be then fully sustained by local people once the volunteers leave and can have long-term benefits. I’m all for small-impact development, not large-scale development projects.

      We have to see some benefit of the PC as not being just to make privileged Americans more sensitive and aware. Otherwise, it sort of compromises the agency and subjectivity of the (in this case) African people involved.

      What about self-determination? I agree that the overall paradigm of international development dangerously glosses over questions of Western dominance. Surely it is the hope that every country in the developing world pulled itself up from its bootstraps and succeeded in the global marketplace on its own without outside intervention. But how long does that process take? Ten, fifty, a hundred years? How many kids are going to die from malaria during that time? In order for a country to be completely independent of outside intervention & find ways to resist exploitative foreign policies, you need an empowered electorate and an educated class (and also a political system not completely infected with corruption). For people to have education, they have to have money for school fees. To have money for school fees, you have to have enough to eat, because if you don’t, you’re going to use whatever money you do have to buy rice or seeds. And to even go to school in the first place, you have to have people who live past the age of 5, 10, 15… who don’t die from easily treatable ailments like diarrhea. In short, many communities in the developing world do need outside boosts in the realms of food & education, because otherwise not enough of those people will be able to go on to college or have enough power to change things in their own countries.

      So, I think we need to have a balanced view. There is a place for harsh critique of US/Western interventions, and indeed it’s our responsibility as educated people to criticize the policies and institutions that screw over people in other parts of the world, and that perpetuate systems of dependence. There is also a place for real, on-the-ground humanitarian considerations, and it’s my belief that we have to consider the amount of people who will die if development agencies withdraw their support. Of course, the fact that people are even indirectly dependent on development agencies in the first place is the problem. But, they are often dependent on dev. agencies because there is a total lack of social support systems (911, ambulances, insurance, unemployment) within their own countries, and this fact is not simply due to general Western dependence problems, but more complex issues of corruption within their governments (which again can be argued as linked to the residue of colonialism, etc etc, but let’s try to stick to the original issues we were talking about).

      You make a good point that PC is a golden opportunity for white Americans to experience “otherness.” I can’t agree with you more, and it was one of the driving forces behind why I wrote my blog post. I think everyone should have this type of destabilizing, identity-questioning period in their lives. You paint this picture of PC as boot camp for white kids, as if you could look and say, “Look, see what it’s like to feel like an outsider? So there!” Which on one hand is really funny, but are you also are separating yourself from possibly having a similar cathartic experience from something like PC? With all the privileges you have (and may not even realize you have) from being an American, from the simple evidence of your passport and the enormous first-class global status it brings you (along w/ the fact that you were raised with access to schools, clean water, hand washing, knowledge about nutrition & so many other things), PC is something that enhances the worldview of each volunteer in different ways, and frankly isn’t something you can understand until you’ve experienced it yourself, no matter how much you have been made to feel like an outsider in the US (I’m not saying you’re pretending to understand what the PC experience is like, I just wanted to make the point about how broad its scope can be).

      As for calling people pejoratives to their faces, I think it’s petty and mean to treat another human being that way. I’m not going to deny that I took part in our collective bashing of dumb white people at Vassar, but the actual name calling was probably more a galvanizing force among us, than it was an educational or productive experience for the person being called a name. There is a certain humor and irony in hating on white people, but it’s also just as immature and hurtful as the racism we’re all working to eliminate. So, what is it really doing? Again, there’s two sides to the coin: people are what they represent, but at the same time, they are still people deserving compassion. As I grow older and try to see the world from other people’s points of views, I’m trying to be more careful about words & actions I make that shut down doors and make other people think horrible things about me and that I’m a huge bitch. I’ve had enough people in my life just pass me off as a bitch. Haha!

      About the concept of “home.” I guess I think of my “home home” as where I grew up, but I as I move around in life I have a more fluid concept of home, meaning that it could be anywhere I am at a certain point in time (“it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where ya at”). Maybe that sounds entitled of me, but just hear me out. I think we can get into really slippery-slope authenticity arguments about whose land was originally whose, and as far back in herstory as we know, all of the US was originally Native American territory, so get off their property, bitch. And then, would that mean you have no home? Is your home where your ancestors are from? I would argue that you’re American, and the US is your home. It’s 2010. Instead of getting caught up in arguments about who is more authentically or historically allowed to live in which places than others, let’s talk about gentrification, how to slow it down, how to be conscious of it, and how it is cutting off resources to certain people (and how to work to get those resources back). As the phenomenon of gentrification shows, “home” is a shifting thing for many people, and it’s what we make of our communities that affects if people are getting screwed over or not; there isn’t always a “promised land” where people “belong” and should “stay.” To me, those types of views of the world are rigid and antiquated. At the same time, this doesn’t mean we should just brazenly move into any community whatsoever with the excuse that we’ll try to be sensitive to the issues our presence there raises after we’ve already displaced families and raised the rents of our neighbors. I agree with you that there is a certain worrisome sense of “ownership” that comes from calling someplace home and that it’s problematic for recent white Brooklynites to think that BK is “theirs.” It’s not theirs. If anything, it belongs more to the communities (often low-income POC) who have been there for many generations and given it the character that it has. BUT, we are in a constantly shifting world and it’s how we interact with the future of our locations that’s important.

      I’m reminded of a time when I wrote something to Kiese Laymon when I was in his James Baldwin class, and the class was talking about jazz, and I said something like, “I know in the end this music isn’t my music and isn’t made for me, it’s someone else’s cultural property.” He wrote me back saying something to the effect of, “Maya, this is your class, this is your music, and this is for you, for you to interact with and think about. Don’t distance yourself from it just because it was originated by someone with a different background than yours that you feel cautious of co-opting.” And it really opened my eyes to seeing things more in the present, that if something is in my world, it’s more about how I interact with it than worrying about who “it belongs to.” And yet through it all, to be conscious of the ways I’m an actor in the negative co-optations or bastardizations of whatever “thing” we’re talking about. I guess that conversation I had with him has informed our discussion of home.

      It was exactly what I was trying to touch on in my original post that being made to feel an outsider is this incredibly valuable experience for me in terms of, as you say, “destabliz[ing] the invisibility of whiteness.” At the same time, I’m trying to merge my writing with the personal, the emotional (after all, this “growth” experience sinks in precisely BECAUSE it is so emotional — plus, writing without mentioning emotional vulnerability is not very interesting). So instead of sounding like I’m whining about being called “toubako,” I’m trying to relate that while there are these huge interesting theoretical questions this all begs, it can also suck on a daily bodily (and emotional/irrational) basis, and that’s where the tension lies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s