The Funny Side of Racism
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.
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
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
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
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.
Buenas tardes, Señor.
HIM: Buenas tardes, chicaradajabayadamundo.
(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
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
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
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
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.
* * *
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.
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.
* * *
* * * * *
Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All
By Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons knows firsthand that
wealth is rooted in much more than the
market. True wealth has more to do with
what's in your heart than what's in your
wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons
became one of America's shrewdest
entrepreneurs, achieving a level of
success that most investors only dream
about. No matter how much material gain
he accumulated, he never stopped lending
a hand to those less fortunate. In
Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare
blend of spiritual savvy and
street-smart wisdom to offer a new
definition of wealth-and share timeless
principles for developing an unshakable
sense of self that can weather any
financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy
can make you money, but money can't make
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
update 19 December