Friday, May 24, 2013

Not all White Men Are Rich:Being an Anthropologist and a Suitor in Ghana, West Africa

Identity consists of a package of signifiers including such seemingly disparate components as ethnicity, gender, class, and religion. These components interact with each other in a way that makes their individual poignancies difficult to determine (Yelvington 1995). These components, however, are not simply meaningless parts of a meaningful whole – they shift and battle for primacy in a hierarchy that is continuously molded by contexts, reflections, and moving experiences. Identity is constructed based on experiences that consist of real structures and real narratives, and in this sense it has an objective meaning based in an objective social reality. Moya and Hames-Garcia argue “a theory of identity is inadequate unless it allows a social theorist to analyze the epistemic status and political salience of any given identity and provides her with the resources to ascertain and evaluate the possibilities and limits of different identities” (Moya and Hames-Garcia 2000: 7). Identity, then, has a real epistemic status and projects a real political salience that is interpreted differently in various contexts – but this variability does not mean that identity is not real. Moya and Hames-Garcia’s point that identity is neither a static, unwavering whole nor an entirely porous, meaningless swarm of ambiguous notions allows us to reclaim identity from an argument that has had a shaky footing in meaningful discourse. Though Moya and Hames-Garcia may go a bit far in proclaiming a new theoretical movement – postpositivist realism – Mohanty’s point that “identities are theoretical constructions that enable us to read the world in specific ways” (Mohanty 1993: 43) is a profoundly liberating one. Identity should not be consumed either by the theoretical currents of postmodern theory nor the more archaic curse of essentialism. Rather, it should be reclaimed by social scientists (and individuals) as a legitimate, real, and profoundly important variable in the human experience.

As a white, male, American socio-cultural anthropologist working in West Africa, my identity consistently functions as both an obstacle and an opening to the worldviews and daily experiences of the Africans I work with. Furthermore, as a foreigner who is engaged to a Ghanaian woman, my foreign identity speaks more saliently to my interactions with my fiancé, my in-laws, and the community I work in (which is the same community that she is from). My identity - or, rather, the signifiers that my disposition consists of - in the Ghanaian context invokes more assumptions about me than I will ever be able to realize or understand. These assumptions strongly flavor the interactions I have with my informants and the ways in which Ghanaian worldviews, experiences, and needs are presented to me. In the following, I will try and tease out some of the ways my white male American identity affects my fieldwork as an applied anthropologist concerned with the processes and opportunities of development in the West African region. I will also look at the ways in which my identity affects my personal relationships with my fiancé and her family. This analysis lends much credence to Moya and Hames-Garcia’s assessment of the “epistemic status and political saliency” of identity and the intrinsic importance that identity has in social, cultural, political, and economic systems of meaning.

Reflections on Fieldwork in Ghana
In “Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco” Paul Rabinow discusses some of the frustrations he experienced when doing anthropological fieldwork in a small mountainous village in Morocco. Most dominant among these frustrations were some of the profound misunderstandings Rabinow made about his informants and other misunderstandings his informants made about him. At one point, a simple misunderstanding about an informant’s access to Rabinow’s car boiled over into a near emotional breakdown for Rabinow. How could he expect to understand life in this remote Moroccan village if he couldn’t even understand a basic expectation that one of his informants had about him? Rabinow understands fieldwork as “a process of intersubjective constructions of liminal modes of communication” (Rabinow 1977: 155). Worldviews and experiences are twice removed, interpreted, and reinterpreted in the anthropologist and informant’s minds – only to be interpreted once again in the writing process. I would argue that in the ethnographic incident that Rabinow describes, something more than just a difference in conceptual understanding is occurring. It is a difference in identifying (no pun intended) the roles and intentions of the actors based on identity. Rabinow, a white Anthropologist from the United States, is carrying on and within him a set of signifiers that are functioning to establish an identity that can be read and interpreted as a physical text in the context of his fieldwork.

When I travel in West Africa I normally get from one place to another via local transportation. In other words, I travel by tro-tro: a type of large mini-van that is converted into what functions as an inter-city bus. Whenever I stand at the bus station or on the side of the road, the bus will pull up to me and the person sitting in the front passenger side of the vehicle will move to the back of the van and the driver will ask me to sit in the front: “Master, come and sit here, I beg you.” If I insist on sitting in the back of the bus, I will be told - with a substantial quantity of vehemence - that I am ungrateful and unfriendly. If I sit down in the front of the bus, the driver and the passengers behind me will begin asking me friendly questions and trying to get my phone number or address so that they can have “a connection” in America. Ostensibly, all of this happens for the simple reason that I am white and foreign. It appears to have little to do with my class or how much money I have – if a wealthy Ghanaian is sitting in the front with a suit, tie, and suitcase he or she will also be expected to move to the back of the van so I can sit in front.

No matter how hard I try to communicate the injustice I feel in this scenario to the people on the bus, it becomes a useless task. Many times I have tried to explain to Ghanaians the black experience in the United States and the historical moment when Rosa Parks decided to sit at the front of the bus. They look at me with a blank face and normally respond by saying something to the effect that in America, we must make things way too complicated for our own good. After some time, I feel that I have finally realized where the misunderstanding was nested. In trying to communicate this idea, I mistook my reading of skin color for their reading of skin color. In fact, the situation probably had nothing to do with skin color at all. I only perceived it that way because of my cultural and historical background. It wasn’t until just before I left Ghana that I learned that African Americans traveling in Ghana are also asked to sit at the front of the bus. Reflecting on all those moments in which I tried to lecture a vehicle of Ghanaians on the racism they were practicing, I suddenly felt horrible for the misunderstanding I had committed and produced. Not only had I spent two years projecting my understanding of identity on to Ghanaians, but also I had completely misunderstood their reason for asking me to sit at the front of the bus – I was a guest in their home.

Doing anthropological fieldwork in Ghana presents similar problems. The first time I worked in Ghana I was employed as a Peace Corps volunteer in agroforestry and environmental development. My work was focused in the Jasikan District of the Volta Region, a relatively small and impoverished region that rarely was the focus of government programs or international development efforts. Having a background in anthropology (a bachelor’s degree), I tried to incorporate anthropological ideas into the projects I collaborated with the community on. For instance, I wanted to get to the bottom of why children weren’t going to school. I had been teaching at a local Junior Secondary School for a few weeks when suddenly students stopped showing up to class. I pondered the reasons why they weren’t coming to class, and thought it must have something to do with me. I looked over my teaching plans, tweaked them, and tried to make them more applicable to the local area. The students continued to be absent, and the ones who did show up would look out the window, fumbling with their pencils and swinging their feet waiting for school to end for the day. I became frustrated and started assuming things about the dedication of the students and the views towards education in Ghanaian culture and society. One day, I was talking over my frustration with one of the other teachers when she looked at me and laughed. “Oh, Douglas. Can’t you see that it’s raining? They are at the farm! This is a village, we get our food from the farm. Who do you expect to harvest the food?” Children, I had thought, belonged in school. It was something that seemed to me to be part of a child’s identity.

The way I was perceived at local meetings with farmers was similar. My foreignness and my whiteness were seen as a resource. To me, I was someone who had come to collaborate with these local non-governmental organizations. I was going to work at the same level as the farmers and help them design projects and write proposals. They discouraged me from going to their farms and helping them weed and plant maize or cocoa. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to pick up a cutlass and go farming for a day. When I finally tried, I learned my lesson the hard way. My wrists became swollen and I broke out in a terribly uncomfortable heat rash. “You see,” my counterpart said to me, “you white people can’t do this kind of work!” At the meetings, the farmers would look at me when I spoke, becoming more and more interested as the topic focused on more specific details of the project. It wasn’t until a year or so into my service that I realized that they weren’t just focusing on the details of the project, they were anticipating the moment when I would mention the amount of money that the proposal was going to be for, and who was going to benefit from it. My perception of my role as someone who was going to be at level with the farmers and work with them through the coarse nature of the work had been all wrong. To them, I was a good friend and someone they knew well. But I wasn’t one of them, I was a resource that they had invited to play a specific type of role that was far different from what they did. My identity as a white, American, educated male was a resource that they had acquired and the assumptions about what those components meant produced a powerful buzz around me that everyone but I could sense.

It took me almost two years to realize the extent to which my identity flavored my interactions with Ghanaians. My background as a white American has enculturated in me an ideology that claims that differences should not be noticed and that assumptions should not be made about people based on components of their identities. Even though race, ethnicity, gender, and class define social relations in the United States, we still hold an ideal of equality that strives to be “blind” to such differences. In this sense, the difference of my body in Ghana was something I took for granted. I was seen as a person who was a resource with political potential and opportunity. Doors were opened for me, but at the same time I was told what people expected me to want to hear. I felt completely free, yet there were dissembling obstacles of expectation everywhere I went. In many cases, I wasn’t told what was really going on until the tediousness of the conversation exhausted the listener – such as the teacher at the school. As an anthropologist, this poses an especially deep and exceptionally strong problem for my fieldwork. If I don’t explicate my intentions and purposes to my informants and the people I work with, I will probably be presented with an entirely different story than the one I really want to get. But then again, even if I do explicate my intentions, how am I to know that my identity won’t betray me, or their identity them?

Learning to Laugh in an International, Interracial Relationship
My fiancé, Ama Kwakyewa Juliet Amankwah, is just about the funniest person I have ever met. Her sense of humor shines through any ambiguity we face in our relationship, and indeed her sense of humor is what allows our relationship to function in a healthy way. One day, we were having a minor argument about when we should have children. I told her that I thought we needed to wait – I would be moving back to the United States and she would remain in Ghana while we waited for her visa. She became upset because, according to her, in Ghana a woman without a child was viewed as a serious burden to her husband and a drain on his resources. I told her that I didn’t feel that way. Nevertheless, she explained to me, that is how the situation would be perceived, and she would be the one to have to bear the brunt of the attack. A father, I replied, could not have a child and then move away simply with the expectation to return. Many Ghanaian fathers travel for substantial portions of time to work on different seasonal jobs such as the cocoa harvest, coffee harvest, or on fishing boats. According to my perspective, a child needs to have a father figure and to be raised under both their father and mother’s care. “No, no, no, Douglas. I know the real reason you don’t want to have a child in Africa. You want to wait to have the child in America because if it is born there it will be white, if it is born here it will be black.” I told her that she was being absurd, that being born in Africa doesn’t make you black. I started ranting and raving about how skin color was something that was passed down genetically. “Ah!” she said, clearly frustrated and suddenly laughing, “I’m not talking about skin color!”

She wasn’t talking about skin color. Calling someone white simply means that they are from somewhere else. Ironically, even a newborn baby in Ghana is called “obruni” which literally translates to “someone who has come from across the horizon.” When a foreigner walks through the streets of Ghana, they are also called “obruni”. It literally means that you are fresh from some place else and that you can’t be expected to understand and follow all of the norms. I had misunderstood her point, and we both had a good laugh about it. Though the situation was never totally resolved (she still wants to have children before she moves to the United States) we learned to laugh about the intricacies of the misunderstanding. In our relationship, these kinds of situations emerge all of the time, and our strategy of learning how to deal with them is through laughter. Just as multiracial comedians explain that “the best way to come up with original material is to draw upon personal experiences or observations” (Li Po Price 2000: 184) so do Juliet and I draw upon our personal experiences and misunderstandings to create a healthy, intersubjective, and humorous understanding of each others’ identities.

These misunderstandings are almost all anchored in identity. What it means to be white, black, or colored is something that is particularly significant in an interracial relationship. Across different cultures - United Statesian and Ghanaian, for example - this becomes something even more nuanced. For Juliet and I, mutual understandings of our different cultural identities haven’t been fully constructed, and at this point what it means to have a white or black identity is almost entirely subsumed by what it means to be United Statesian or Ghanaian. As evidenced above, my understanding of what it means to be white in the United States is obviously very different from what it means to be white in Ghana. Her understanding of what it means to be black in Ghana is also radically different from what it will be like for her to be a black woman in the United States (a challenge that we will have to face in the near future). As a woman, Juliet understands her identity much different than how a woman in the United States would understand it. Many of her views on gender identity would probably disappoint or enrage white, western feminists – why should a woman be expected to have a child at all? But for Juliet, a woman has a particular role and a man has a particular role. Any talk of liberation from such systems of domination would cause Juliet to roll her eyes. “Douglas, things are already confusing. Why make them more confusing?”

Whiteness being a resource in a village meeting also translates to whiteness being a resource to my in-laws. In a traditional Ghanaian marriage, a man will visit his partner’s family and inform them that he plans on marrying their daughter. He will prostrate himself before the father and set down two bottles of expensive liquor, normally European Schnapps or imported rum. He will then open one of the bottles and take a drink for himself, proving to the father and mother that he has not come to poison them. After asking the father and mother for their daughter’s hand in marriage, they will send a list around to their relatives in various towns or regions of the country (or, at times, to other countries) and inform them that this young man has come to ask for their daughter’s hand. Normally, the family will request things such as cloth for sewing, suitcases, shoes, hats, or other utilitarian items. When I proposed to my fiancé, however, an entirely different kind of list came back to me. Her grandfather, for example, informed me that I would have to commit a car to him in order for him to allow his granddaughter to marry me. One of her uncles wrote that I should furnish his internet café with six brand-new computers. When I returned to her family’s house and informed them that I would never be able to meet their demands, they looked at the list and laughed. “Douglas, as for us, we know you. We know that you aren’t a very rich man, and that not all white men are rich. Don’t worry, we will inform your in-laws that you are just like them, and then they will ask you for things that they know any one of them could give your family if they wanted to marry your sister.”

As a cultural anthropologist, it would be convenient to be able to sweep aside arguments about the tainting effects of identity on ethnographic inquiries. But to claim that identity is an ephemeral and forbidden unit of analysis pushes peoples’ worlds and meanings into the realm of the nonsensical and insignificant – a quite paradoxical stance for any anthropologist to take. Similarly, the process of essentializing identities fixes them in over determined and uncreative, non-adaptive categories that function to dissemble an individual identity’s components and place people into groups they may find unmeaningful or oppressive. To reclaim identity is to recognize its reality, poignancy, and role in determining the way that we experience life.

In the above, I have demonstrated some of the ways that my white, American, male identity has functioned in my work as an anthropologist and Peace Corps Volunteer as well as they way it has functioned in my relationship to my Ghanaian fiancé and her family. In all of these contexts, my identity has guided me in understanding my experiences in a foreign culture and society – rightly and wrongly. It has also been a text that my informants and my extended family have read both to understand me and to know what to expect from me. For example, my cultural background prescribed what I considered to be fundamental requirements of an identity of male fatherhood to me. This prescription was at odds with what my fiancé expected of me as a good husband – to understand her need as a woman to have children regardless of my continual presence. Identity is not just an abstract concept with a history rooted in over-generalized essentialisms. Nor is it just a base and ethnocentric concept that post-modern theory has carte blanche privilege to attack. Identity represents a convergence of traits that inform us about our experiences in the world. It also acts as a text in which the world looks to understand us.

Douglas La Rose


Li Po Price, Darby. 2000. “Mixed Laughter.” In We Are a People: Narrative and Multipicity in Constructing Ethnic Identity, Eds. Paul Spickard and W. Jeffrey Burroughs, 2000,Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mohanty, Satya P. 1993. “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition.” In Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postodernism, Eds. Moya and Hames-Garcia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 29-67.

Moya, Paula M., and Michael R. Hames-Garcia. 2000. Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rabinow, Paul. 1977. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yelvington, Kevin A. 1995. Producing Power: Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in a Caribbean Workplace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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