Wednesday, May 23, 2012

La Blanche

I have never been more aware of the fact that I am white and female. Certainly in an African country I am bound to be a minority, but besides Haiti, I’ve never been in a place where my minority status carries so much weight.

Roughly 10 times a day I’m am called “La Blanche,” meaning white girl (“blanche” is feminine, otherwise it would be “blanc”). It’s less frequent at HAS because people either know my name or are used to having White visitors around. When I go running though, it’s a different story (yes it’s safe to go running here, and I usually go with people anyway).

On one of my first runs here, I ran by a primary school and the children were outside having the equivalent of gym class. As I ran by the teacher said “regard la blanche et comment elle court!” (look at the white girl and how she runs!). I’m not sure if it was awe or jest, but either way I was quite a sight to behold.

Recently I tried to run on a particularly hot and humid day. It was the sort of weather where you feel as though your body has to fight its way through the thick air, or you might just choke on the feverish gulps of humidity entering your lungs. So y’know, just a typical day in Africa. I got to a point in the route and I just couldn’t do it anymore. Down for the count. As I started to walk I heard “Ah regard, elle est gazĂ©e la blanche!” (“ah look at the white girl, she is gased!”). Here I am thinking the African humidity is about ready to finish me off and now I have an audience. You never feel particularly good about yourself when you have to start walking, so it’s pretty awesome when someone can point out the fact that you look like you’re going to pass out.

Most of the time it’s children who call me la blanche. The end of my running route is along the main road and as I pass kids washing clothes in the river or playing outside their houses they yell and wave “LA BLANCHE!” I smile and wave back, and it doesn’t bother me all that much.

However, when adults employ this vernacular, I am less amused. It’s obviously not okay for me to use the same identifiers for people here, and that seems like something adults should know and respect. Men in the market yell la blanche and make kissing noises, and taxi drivers say, “bon soir les blanches.” Men will call me la blanche and ask for my phone number, and I want to ask them what exactly they are going to put as the contact name. One time at a football game (soccer) an entire section of the stadium, all males of course, starting yelling la blanche and telling me to come sit with them. It’s then that my status as La Blanche makes me uncomfortable. There is literally no hope of blending in. Something as innocuous as watching a football game becomes an event. It’s an odd feeling to have people constantly pointing out parts of your identity that you can do nothing about.

I figured this was a personal perturbation, or at least one that only bothered my fellow blaches and me. But last week on PMI the nurses and I got out of the car to buy pomplemousse (=grapefruit. One of my favorite French words!) and a guy probably around my age starting yelling la blanche and motioning for me to come over to him. The head nurse whipped around and told him he was too old and too educated to be using that word. She told him I was not the white girl, but that I had a name and if he wanted me to come over there he had better ask my name first. I was so thankful for her at that moment. It was a strange mix of female solidarity and transnational understanding that race and gender are not appropriate labels for human beings, no matter where they might find themselves.

I have a feeling this will be a point of reverse culture shock when I come back to the States.

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