I will call him Smith, my White friend. I admired him, in my days of naiveté, for once berating a waiter who attended to him, with overdone courtesies, before turning to know the junk I cared to eat. Smith was a conscious expatriate who suspended his curiosities over things he found exotic and checked his tempers in reacting to provocations just to fit into a social box and to blur the thick lines that give him away as “alien”, “privileged”, “special” and even “white”. He does not like labels especially when it’s not earned by his individual identity or reputation. He lives like a man apologising for the persecutions of the entire Black race by his ancestors. Frankly, he was oversensitive and some of his actions seemed too much like affectations, constrained to an idea of good behaviour. The relations between the white and the black in Nigeria are tragedies of inferiority complexes shown by the blacks, especially when the whites are tasked with overseeing a project in which blacks are rank-and-file members. Several cases of the white being hailed as “Master” and given special attention and treatments wherever they seek a service are depressing. It’s almost like watching slavery in its subtlest form, but with similar degradations.
My neighbourhood at Life Camp, Abuja is the headquarters of such shame of tensions around race, it’s the biggest place where you find politically insensitive Whites, mostly management staff and engineers in various construction companies, living in fear of integration, in fear of Black people, and thus fenced in separate estates that bear severe warnings: “Private estate, do not trespass.” “Keep off, defaulters will be penalised.” “Beware of electric fences.” “No entry without ID card.” These methods of exclusion are responses to awareness of their “specialness”; there can’t be any explanation for living as though your Black neighbours, who are largely members of the middle-class, are criminals, other than agreement with the unwritten ethic of racial superiority.
My worst nightmare in the neighbourhood was on the day I strolled out to see Smith. The Black maiguard, perhaps having me stereotyped as an unworthy human being, another mistake of creation, shamelessly declared that I can’t go into the estate unless I’m in the company of a white person. The unlettered Blackman and his lack of education of race politics and history, which powered him to accept his place as a social slave, is a reason the Whiteman finds the “attitudes” of the educated Blackman disturbing, and complex. Many educated blacks on the other hand also live like people seeking apology from the whites, just waiting for a faux pas; they are quick to corrections, quick to highlight a joke on black people or culture taken too far they themselves would freely indulge in and laugh over, quick to cut short anything likely several sentences down the line to become stereotypical… The educated Blackman must be somewhat responsible for Smith’s inability to be free with his words, and be loud as well. So, there is a tension.
An interesting experience of this racial tension was at the bank: a queue of about twenty waiting to carry out their transactions was almost static until a middle-aged white man walked in and went straight to the counter. There was a murmuring, but the man who spoke out not only adopted a British accent, to highlight his education, but also employed language I found very political. “My friend, we don’t do that. Go back and join the queue.” The language rightly portrays the white man as a moron who doesn’t know that jumping queue is an insult and in the use of “My friend”, the white man was humbled and pulled back to the rung of equality. Or, in over-interpreting this in regard to Nigerian context, referring to someone as “my friend” is mostly an act of condescension by a fellow too important to be one’s actual friend. The teller was displeased by what seemed an unfair treatment and was not ashamed to say, “He’s possibly in a hurry!” to which the queue reacted with unkind words, with rage, with one even joking about beating up the Whiteman if he had refused to join the queue.
My inferences from these interpretations of racism come from conversations with Blacks working with Whites, and also from a mix of the two races. The expatriates find educated Nigerians overly judgmental, which is why there are too many Smiths among them. The educated Nigerians wear their badges of racial equality so colourfully they too pass for racists. By over-interpretation. Usage of Language is often the easiest slip to be at the mercy of race police, and this was understood on the day Smith advised that I also needed to sign up at the gym he frequents. “We don’t eat junks,” I cracked with a grin. “‘We?'” He challenged, and I knew that innocent slip would cause me a lecture on race relations. Again I was a racist by over-interpretation, for thinking that gym-going whites are diet-ignoring consumers of junk. And this means I also have to be more critical of Smith’s use of language, and this means the subtle tension between us is only waiting for a slip to be interpreted unto racism. May God save us from us!
By Gimba Kakanda
Blueprint Newspapers (23/08/2013)
@gimbakakanda (On Twitter)