The Funny Side of Racism

The Funny Side of Racism


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




I had to produce identification before I could enter into posh hotels

while whites and Arabs sauntered by with no questions asked.

Bisi  Adjapon                                                                                       Wli Waterfalls (Ghana)



The Funny Side of Racism

 By Bisi Adjapon


I will never forget the first time I changed a white baby’s diaper. It was my first job in America.  I put baby Christopher on the changing table and set to work. I removed the diaper and stared in shock at his naked bottom.  I had no idea that the white skin was so transparent.  There was a network of blue and purple veins everywhere. I froze.  

Christopher was no longer a baby; he was a weird creature who made me uneasy.  Not even the real possibility of him squirting urine in my eye moved me.  Then he whimpered, and I thought, poor thing, he must be getting cold.  I pushed my unease aside and changed him.  Once he was dressed, he was just another bald, white baby.  Before long, Christopher and I had a love affair going on.  I thought it cute whenever he drooled on my face as I tossed him up in the air. For him, my braids made great toys.

My first encounter with a white person occurred when I was a precocious nine-year-old in Ghana, West Africa.  My father, a high school principal, had just hired a British teacher straight from London, with skin like candle-wax. His name was Mr. White, no kidding. I took off one morning to check out this spectacle.   He looked at me and said I needed to take a bath. He was dead serious, and I didn’t know enough to be offended. His ignorance was amusing. 

He told me that my skin was dirty because I was dark, that if I washed the grime off, I would become as white as he.   In between guffaws, I tried to explain to him that my color wouldn’t come off, but he didn’t get it, so I gave up and went home laughing.  Well, this gentleman later fell in love with a Ghanaian woman and married her. We kids spent endless times spying on them and their white friends, and pretty soon, we had developed solid convictions about whites folks. Here are a few…

White people lived in cold places, and as we didn’t know anything about heating, we concluded that they had offensive body odors.  For those of us who washed ourselves outside in the delicious morning sun, it was hard to imagine a person who lived in a cold country washing himself or herself. Why, he would freeze to death!  

Traditional Ghanaian couples do not kiss on the cheeks, much less kiss on the lips in public. Therefore, to us, white women had questionable morals because they allowed themselves to be kissed in public, and what’s more, they seemed to enjoy it!   And white men were sex maniacs, always kissing. 

The European woman’s tiny waist was a source of mystery to us. When a Ghanaian woman got married, she was expected to gain a lot of weight, to show that her husband provided well for her.  Then she got pregnant right away and was fattened up for breast-feeding, and retained the weight thereafter.  European women wore clothes that hid their pregnancies, and their waistlines appeared small, so we came to the conclusion that they carried their pregnancies elsewhere other than in their bellies; like say, their thumbs.  That the thumb was not big enough to hold a baby did not trouble us; people who were capable of manufacturing airplanes where capable of anything. 

My father and I were close, so his prejudices became mine.  Fortunately, he didn’t have many. I never heard him speak ill of people in terms of their tribes or ethnic backgrounds. It wasn’t until I attended a boarding school that I discovered that people were intolerant of people from different tribes.  In Ghana, we call it tribalism.  Ewes were all thieves and desperately needed deodorant. Ga’s had no brains. Ashantis were uncouth and quarrelsome. Kwahus were avaricious, and as for the northern tribes, they were only fit for emptying those revolting Portuguese-style toilets.  We Fantis were regarded as lazy and extravagant. I befriended girls from all tribes, and my experiences proved different. I became particularly fond of northerners, who were very sweet.

In form five (twelfth grade), an exchange student arrived from America, the only white girl among 600 black girls. She was nice and seemed to get along with people in general.  People treated her with respect. The following year, another white American replaced her. She was a whiny creature who complained about everything Ghanaian, and the fact that she was white made it worse. No one wanted to be her friend, and she was the butt of silly jokes.  I wasn’t unkind to her, but I never reached out to her either. I had no idea how miserable she was until the day she had to address the school prior to her departure from Ghana. She spoke about the pain she had endured as a foreigner in our school, and I was filled with shame. In sixth form, yet another American girl arrived.  This time, I went out of my way to befriend her.  She turned out to be a lovely girl with a great sense of humor.

It was one thing to make friends with people of other races; dating them was an entirely different matter.  At the University of Ghana, my attempts to befriend an instructor from Spain caused me much embarrassment. I spied him one night on my way to the store and hurried after him. With my limited Spanish, I engaged him in a conversation.

ME: Buenas tardes, Señor.

HIM: Buenas tardes, chicaradajabayadamundo.

ME: Sí!

HIM:  Adondebanustead?

ME: ?&*?!…Sí?

HIM:  Adóndebanustead? (Adónde va usted?)

After some effort, I deduced that he wanted to know where I was going. I flapped my elbows and clucked madly, trying to explain that I was going to buy chicken until he said “Ah, pollo!” Then he lapsed into more rapid-fire Spanish, so I just said  “Sí” to everything. Without knowing it, I had invited him to dinner, and he arrived bearing flowers and a bottle of wine.  Apparently, he had asked to join me for dinner and I had said “Sí!”

Dinner was torture.  I pored over the Spanish/English dictionary, but it was not much use.  Somehow in the evening, he asked to see me again and I said “Sí” without having a clue as to what I was agreeing to. I was most amazed and embarrassed when he turned up in my dorm room the next day; a white man in my room, ay!  Only prostitutes and desperate women had relationships with white men in those days. I am ashamed to say that I treated my friend shabbily. After that incident, I was conveniently busy each time I bumped into him and had no time to chat, all because I was afraid of what people would say. It was when I attended the University of Dakar in my third year that I recognized myself for the coward I was.

Dakar was a metropolis.  It was 30% white French. Apart from the French, there were the “coopérants”: all manner of experts from America, Canada, England, Germany, and Scandinavia. There were the Lebanese with their exclusive clubs, and other Arabs from the Middle East.  There were white Africans from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. There were islanders from the Cape Verde, Comoro Islands, Madagascar, and Mauritius. There were Afro-Asians, a by-product of the Vietnam War (Senegalese soldiers fought on the side of the French in Vietnam). And finally, there were students from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

For the first time in my life, I experienced discrimination. I had to produce identification before I could enter into posh hotels while whites and Arabs sauntered by with no questions asked. The reason behind this was because there were lots of prostitutes in Dakar who had a habit of sneaking into hotels to visit their “uncles,” and I had the misfortune of looking like a Senegalese.  (A black couple in a parked car at night could be arrested for prostitution.) I discovered that for some, it was not “cool” to date blacks. A Tunisian who had set out to be charming to me at a gathering one night failed to recognize me the next day in the company of his compatriots. I understood what it felt like to be at the receiving end of racial prejudice.  Therefore, I shed off my cowardice and openly befriended people from all walks of life.

Since coming to America, I have experienced discrimination for reasons that are at times unclear to me. Sometimes, though, I have assumed that people are prejudiced before knowing it for a fact. Assuming that someone is prejudiced because of who he is, is another form of discrimination.

When I advertised my basement for rent, Matt Jacobs arrived. I was less than thrilled because he was Korean. I didn’t know that a Korean could be named Jacobs, and he had no trace of an accent when I spoke to him on the phone. I was convinced that Asians were prejudiced, and I wasn’t about to tolerate it in my home.  Matt looked around and decided to stay.  I said no thanks, but he was persistent. Finally, he put down a deposit and said: “If you don’t find anyone by August, I’ll take it.” Right.  Well, I didn’t find anyone, so I decided to let him stay, but I had every intention of kicking him out the minute I found someone else. 

Matt turned out to be the best tenant I could ever hope for.  He was a wholesome college kid who slept all day and frolicked all night. He played basketball and fiddled with his violin.  As it turned out, he was adopted and had siblings of other races, including blacks.

Of course, one is bound to have some unusual experiences when one associates with foreigners. My friend, let’s call her “Zelda,” had a unique experience when she visited a Filipino family.  The grandmother, who had pink eye, approached her and said: “I want milk.”  Zelda, who was nursing a baby, offered to go to the store and pick up a gallon for her.  The grandmother shook her head, pointed to Zelda’s bosom and repeated: “I want milk.”  It turned out that she wanted Zelda to squirt breast-milk into her eyes as treatment for her pink eye.  “Zelda” declined with delicate grace, but it gave us lots to laugh about as we imagined the possibilities. What do you know; breast milk is a cure for conjunctivitis! 

Perhaps it is impossible to be completely free of prejudice, but it is worth every effort.  My friends span the globe and my life is richer for that. When my 12th grade class graduated two years ago, one of the parents invited me to celebrate at their home.  They were from Afghanistan. I was the only black person there, an Oreo cookie in a bowl of milk.  I was shy at first, but they soon put me at ease and made me feel like part of the family.  The mother said that I had been the angel watching over her daughter throughout high school.  I had a wonderful evening and ate the best spinach chicken ever.

My Vietnamese neighbors have turned out to be invaluable friends.  Their little girl walks into my home and plops herself on my bedroom floor as though she belongs there.  She tells me all about Buddha, and I tell her all about Jesus. My friends have names like Kramer, May, Katz, Nguyen, Ricardo, Schuster, Le, Abdullah, Jong . . .

I cannot speak for any populations or religious group that has endured the savagery of slavery, holocaust, or near annihilation. During colonialism in Ghana, the British adopted the system of indirect rule, ruling the people through the traditional kings. Therefore for some people, there was not much change in their lifestyles. My parents did not suffer at the hands of a white person, so they had no horror stories to tell me.

Not having experienced the pain that can be passed down from generation to generation, I cannot tell people how to feel or act.  For me, looking at racial groups is like looking through a kaleidoscope and seeing all the different skin colors emanating from one source of life. It’s amazing, really. And beautiful.

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Bisi Adjapon is an International Affairs Specialist with the International Cooperation and Development of the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service. She was born in Nigeria to a Ghanaian politician in exile and a Nigerian woman. When the political climate in Ghana was safe, the family moved to Ghana where her father abandoned politics and became a high school principal. Bisi graduated from the University of Ghana with dual degrees in French and Spanish, and a minor in Linguistics.

While in high school, she attracted the attention of a television producer and playwright when she starred in one of his plays. Bisi continued to act in classical plays while in college and wrote an award-winning play entitled The Last Letter. Immigrating to America in 1987, she worked as an interpreter and translator at the Central African Embassy for several years before quitting to take a job as a high school teacher so that she could spend more time at home with her children. As a high school teacher in Fairfax County, she directed the school’s annual drama production and founded the “Young Shakespeare Company.” Bisi also worked as a journalist for The Connection Newspapers. She continues to publish articles as a freelance writer.

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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update 19 December 2011




Home Transitional Writings on Africa  Ashanti Chronology The African World 

Related files: Staying in Touch with Ghana   The Funny Side of Racism  Addo Table     

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