Tuesday, March 27, 2007

from the "racism" dept.

Week March 23, 2007

The question came during the morning editorial meeting -- between a big bite of bread and a swig of Tampico fruit juice.

SKYY TV reporter Christian Baidoo asked it, not so coincidentally, on the International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"Since you've arrived in Ghana, have you ever been the victim of racism?"

Me? Racism? A thousand images flashed in my brain, each a part of my broad personal definition.

Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.
Nelson Mandela, after all those years in prison, never giving up or backing down.
Martin Luther King and his dream.

Had I ever been the victim of racism? Me, a white man, from Canada, in Ghana?

"Uh, I don't think so," I answered, quickly trying to add something with a little more depth. "Everyone in Ghana has been exceptionally warm and welcoming since I've arrived."

But after considering the question a bit more, I was able to put my finger on two situations where my skin colour -- my race -- do play a role in my everyday life in Ghana.

The first is simply taking a taxi and setting a fair fare. The drill goes like this:

I stand by the side of the road and wait. Taxis in Takoradi are equipped with special radar that senses a potential tourist fare -- I know this because every single taxi that comes within 500 metres will make a beeline for me, honking like an angry goose.

I have long since stopped turning to look; in the remote chance it might be someone I know. Isn't that Steve from Vancouver? Nope.

The taxi will stop, some distance up the road. After an impromptu 50-metre dash, I'll pop my head in the passenger side and say something like "I'm going to Market Circle (Takoradi's central business district). How much?"

Most taxi drivers will ponder this for a moment, quickly trying to determine how gullible the sweaty white man in the Hawaiian shirt is, and then, nine times out of ten, quote a ridiculous fare.


Unknown to the taxi driver, I have a secret weapon: Local knowledge. As a resident of Takoradi, I know that the normal fare is about 15,000 cedis.

So I chuckle and counter with the realistic fare. Take that, hombre!

After a bit of back and forth, which occasionally turns into a serious debate, the taxi driver will fold, or at least drop down to 20,000. If I'm in a rush or if it's late at night, I'll agree. Other times I'll accept only the local fair and if not acceptable to the cabbie, I'll wave him off and repeat the process with the next hack.

Sometimes I'm surprised by a cabbie that quotes the proper fare straight away. After getting over the shock, I generally collect their phone numbers for future reference.

My local friends tell me they often go through the same bargaining process, but generally not with such outrageous starting prices.

The other time I find that my colour is a factor is, well, every day. When I walk to work. When I go shopping. When I buy beer. Even, occasionally, at work.

Obruni - "white man" in the local language. I hear it all the time.

There is a large segment of the population, especially in the Western Region, that feels the need to point out the fact that I am white -- as if I didn't know.

Of course, cultural reference points are important to consider. In my country, it would be very disrespectful to point to a stranger and say "Hey Chinese Man!" or "Hey Black Man!"
Can you imagine? You'd be dragged before a human rights tribunal before you could say "I'm not a racist!"

In Ghana, it's par for the course. Everyone says it: kids, teenagers, adults. Everyone. And not just in the local language. I hear "Hey White Man!" almost as often. In most cases it's simply a greeting and rarely is it negative.

With the children, I just laugh. Sometimes I'll look around in terror, as if some monster is about to swallow me whole. The kids laugh. I laugh and I carry on.

Usually when adults say it, it doesn't bother me -- unless I'm tired, on my way home, and have already heard it a million times.

Outwardly I smile, sometimes responding obibini (Black man!). But inside I think, "yes, yes, I know."

I am definitely part of a tiny minority, and while there aren't a lot of white people in Takoradi, a rainbow of faces fill local television screens every night. It makes me wonder why the calls of obruni haven't faded with time.

Turning back to Christian, I shrugged. It was all I could come up with and I wouldn't categorize either situation as especially racist, certainly not by my definition.

I have never been told to sit at the back of the bus. I have never been refused entry to a restaurant or club. I have never been threatened with physical harm because of my colour or my beliefs.

I was never the victim of racism in Canada. But now, living as a minority with strangers commenting daily on my skin colour, I have become a little more aware of what it must feel like.

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