Black as me

I grew up in what is probably one of the least racially diverse places on this planet. Until I graduated from high school, I never had a white classmate. In fact, I did not know I was white for a good period of my childhood, despite the unmistakable fact that my family stood in stark contrast to the world around me.

My mother is part Iranian and part Iraqi, and my father is a good ol’ white boy from Baltimore, Maryland. As all good stories go, my parents met at an obscure conference in Cameroon during the late 1970’s, fell madly in love, and decided to spend the rest of their lives in a country they knew nothing about.

Growing up, I was called many things that helped shape my identity as a young adult. I was very young when the neighborhood children started calling me white man, which I found stupid since I was still a boy at the time. What made it even more unbearable was the song that accompanied the name calling – white man, white, white man. White man with your long nose. Since my motha born me, I’ve neva seen a white man. I imagine that there would be something amusing, even cinematic about a little white boy being escorted by a dozen or so black children chanting that song in unison. I would sometimes turn around abruptly without warning, and they would all scatter away like pollen on a windy day.

It’s a mystery where that song originated, but it was sung in every neighborhood and quartier I set foot in. It must have belonged to that class of communal art forms that took multiple generations to perfect through intermittent interactions with those poor white souls who provided the right amount of ammunition and inspiration for its continual evolution. It didn’t matter if one’s heritage was Indian, Chinese, Persian or Iraqi, one was considered white by reason of not being black. It was a simple, and maybe even more accurate way of categorizing the world.

In their awe, children also called me sarra. They would see me coming in the distance, and call out, “na sarra! na sarra!” and more children would start emerging from behind the trees and houses along the roadside. Very soon, a large contingency of children would form around me, and a few courageous ones would reach out to touch my hair or run their fingers down the sides of my arms. I was theirs to keep, and I usually gave in to their curiosity for a short while before scaring them away with my sudden movements.

As an adult, I can’t disparage any of the gross attention I received, and even as a child, despite my own angst towards it, I recognized that there was an innocence to that sort of attention that transcended racism, and even alienation. After all, I was an anomaly for most people, not only because of my skin color, but because I was born in Cameroon. I was delivered in the same dilapidated government hospital as many of my friends, went to the same schools, ate the same food, drank the same unfiltered and over-chlorinated water, used the same latrines, and shared in the same awe whenever encountering one of my fellow whities. I, too, felt a similar degree of foreignness that many of my friends experienced with me whenever I encountered other white children who had come to Cameroon as “expats” with their parents. Despite our non-blackness there was little we had in common, and I had a hard time understanding why they would sometimes speak in condescending undertones about the people I considered to be my friends. It’s clear now that my own identity was rooted in the very people who saw me as an anomaly.

I hadn’t always seen myself as being white. In fact, it took a few years for that consciousness to be planted in my mind. I remember coming home one day after school, and staring at myself in the mirror of my parents’ bathroom. I must have been around six at the time. It was the middle of the dry season, and my entire body was covered in dust. I would get so dirty that time of year that my bath water would literally turn brown. My mother entered the room at that moment, and I think she must have been perplexed as to why I was looking so intently at myself. She asked if I was feeling okay. When I didn’t respond, she asked again, and in a voice that failed to conceal my great disappointment, I said, “They are right. I am different.”

I can’t remember exactly how that moment changed the way I related to the world around me, but I know that it did. As a child, I navigated multiple cultural realities with ease, not caring so much whether I fit in or not. However, as I grew older, I craved for that elusive sense of belonging. Many of my closest childhood friends were other anomalies like me, children of Indian, American, Persian, German, and multi-racial descent, but, nonetheless, we were all Cameroonian to varying degrees – one foot in, one foot out; half foot in, one and a half foot out. As my teenage years crept by, my identity became increasingly rooted in an awareness that I never truly belonged anywhere.

As a child, my parents and I would spend our summers in Baltimore with my grandparents, who were originally from the south. In America, I was also an anomaly, but in a different, more subtle way. In America, children didn’t notice me like they did back home, but when they heard me speak, they would immediately ask me where I was from. They would ask if lions roamed the streets, and if people lived on trees. I’d tell them about the lions I’d seen at the Baltimore zoo, and that from the top of my tree, I could see for miles and miles, and all the faces were as black as mine.

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43 comments

  1. I remember that song–must have been common in Yaounde as well. I think my red hair was a special attraction. . .thanks for bringing back memories. I appreciate your perspective and love the detail of your recollections.

  2. Thx for sharing your story. I have experienced the feeling of being different as well, based on race, as i do my heart’s work in Africa-American neighborhoods. Fortunately love transcends these “barriers”& I actually feel more at home with my friends of color than some of my own blood brothers.

  3. Oh my, what memories this brought to me. Thanks for sharing. In a way, I have to acknowledge that all those experiences have a lot to do with who I am today. I don’t know if you feel the same but there are many things I wouldn’t change from those years. BTW why am I not on that picture :)? I remember that blue like it was yesterday!

  4. Your story brings back memories of my childhood; I use to sing that song too. It also reminds me of my second year in Secondary School. We had a white British man as Principal. I remember the look on his face one afternoon when he heard us singing “We were one, and the white man came with his big sense, and divided Cameroon. They came in numbers, in numbers, the Portuguese, the Germans, the English, and the French…” Thanks Ramin, for bringing back those nice and innocent memories of my childhood.

  5. I actually learned of this story on Facebook, shared by my cousin, who posted it with this caption: “many of us can relate…on so many levels to this story …” ** She is one of my Liberian cousins, and as a child of a Liberian mother & a french father, I commented on her posting as such: ” hmmm …. as a peekin’ in Li-B-raw, I actually develop a ‘complex’ being teased by Liberians for having a ‘muff like a chimp’ !??! ”
    In some ways, I can identify with your sense of “non-belonging … anywhere,” whereby I feel like Albert Camus’ “L’étranger” oftentimes !! … THANKS for sharing your interesting perspective on being a real “minority” in a “Black world;” paradoxically the opposite of My experience here in “AmeriKKKa” !!??! : (

  6. I’ve really appreciated reading this essay. It’s beautifully crafted, Ramin. And it’s absolutely meaningful to me. ❤ Thanks for sharing your words in this way.

  7. Hi Ramin, I found your story very touching and your style deeply powerful. You don’t write “too much” but the words are meaningful. Your story brings back memories of an Iranian family I knew in the 80’s in Kumbo. I remember Martha and her brother, whose name evades me, their parents and their grandmother. I guess your story could have been theirs in different ways. They were different, but to me not necessarily because of their skin color, but because of the things they did differently: when we visited, we had to take off our shoes before entering their house and they drank beverages we’d never heard of 🙂
    But even my family was different in this rural part of Cameroon, having otherwise lived in the city. It was an experience which broadened my horizon and I’m grateful for it.

    1. Atingwa: I think racial ideas permeate the discourses that we humans have…our discourses around difference (racial or cultural or other) are informed by racial ideologies…how do kids, so young, learn to call out “white”? How do they learn that song? Where and how does this learning happen? Do adults do it too? Do adults and peers pass it on? That’s something I am curious about.

      1. I share your curiosity about the origin, history and possibly future of these differences. when I think back keenly on my memories of such experiences, I think it starts from the older generation. These kids pick up these songs from adults, from whom I can remember having heard this song. I curiously do not remember singing this song but remember hearing my class mates sing it on some occasions. Probably because my understanding of the world around me and childhood was initiated in an international setting (In Ibadan adn Jos where my parents interacted with persons from various races (From various African nationalities, to American, Indian, etc.). They showed respect for these persons and I don’t remember them uttering any negative connotations towards these people who looked different from us (though that meant very little to me at that time). I was rather awed by this different and curious (asking my Indian friend what the dots on their foreheads meant, what they were made from, etc.)

        But coming back to Cameroon, I was surprised by this song – White man….! Thinking about how it went, I want to believe these kids sang in innocence, awed by a difference they were trying to understand (and maybe even respected), yet not provided the best approach of learning more about it. They will sing yet not “insult” in the real African sense of the word insult. Why I say this is because, eventually, when we see the way the Caucasians are treated in Cameroon, you will realize they are placed at some higher level in the minds and hearts of Cameroonians, and given a certain respect (which you may sometimes think is not relevant for all, considering the way it was and still is abused by some – who end up with this colonial approach, thought and action towards Cameroonians/ towards blacks in general)

        But thinking of some of the experiences the other way round, when I (black) was faced with being “black” in a while world. The approach was more direct, more targeted. Someone walks up to you, looks you in the eyes, asks you where you’re from, and when you’re going back! Point blanc! get out of our country! Or you get nasty notes, stinkers, on your car, at your door step, referring to you and your kids. This didn’t feel strange because I was already old enough to know what to expect from the racial difference. But it felt rather scary quite often as you never knew what the border line will be. Will you be the next victim of a racial crime. But then when you meet those with a different mind set, open minded, travelers with a wealth of experience, you don’t even realize you’re different. I worked in an office for years, the only black there, and it took me over a year to realize that. Everyone treated you like one of them, open, honest, friendly, and you don’t even realize you’re different.

        Then, thinking of my experience in a typical Francophone city, in Cameroon, where Anglophones seemingly were a new phenomenon, we would have crowds of Francophone kids chasing us after school, calling us “les Anglo, les Anglofools!”. They will go as far as throwing stones at us, and raining insults, some of which I only understood much later in life (as French Language was still new to my ears) – e.g. “Ta mère pont et ton père ramasse…..”. Yet nasty and I apologize for writing this but the memories still sound like I heard this yesterday.. This felt like a bigger blow than any song the was sung to the other race – even worse coming from someone with the same skin color like you and from the same country. Till date, it still awes me how much patience and tolerance the “Anglofools” have mustered and still manage to keep. I will say we rise above this and still respect and love our francophone brothers and sisters. A lot has changed and a lot more will change in Cameroon in this regard. People are learning with each passing day. I hope and pray that the racial difference will equally change for the better, more and more over time. The colors will never change but maybe our mindsets will eventually mutate 🙂

        I won’t go into the tribal bit of it in Cameroon as I almost never know where my friends are from, I never ask them as that is of no interest to me. A friend is simply a God-sent sister/brother and I don’t need to know where you come from, except that you’re a God-sent! Thank God for all my friends!

        I am not poetic at all and just never write. But it feels good sharing these experiences and thoughts.

        Cheers,
        Eva

  8. Kids are like robots and will do things without questioning.Our Parents never really talked to us about Colonial masters bc it was not the norm to talk about it but stories we read in novels like THE OLD MAN AND THE MEDAL,VILLE CRUELLE BY EZA BOTO taught us about the ills of Colonial masters.Growing up i was curious to talk to white people but never saw them any different bc my Parents worked and had white friends.Pen pals and all that stuff made me understand people are all the same although different physically

  9. i remember that song … Children sang that to me too … Which in hindsight is funny at the same times as it is sad since I am not white… But then again what did children know?!

  10. The picture alone tells your story. Its captivating.. the muddy worn shoes and uniforms that could never stay clean in dry season dust or rainy season mud. It’s a wonder using a washing machine to clean clothes is called ‘doing laundry’. Hand washing these uniforms is the real deal. You write beautifully.

  11. nobody was born a racist…. it is all i can say. Wel that was an interesting story…unlike many other stories Ramin. exprience is what really makes life on earth. the french called it “le vecu”…… For me love was there despites the differences…yet love was pronnounced in your child-hood trip though you were till at home.

  12. Thanks for your short write up.
    Damn, I did you end writing? I did not want the story to end. We used to sing that song, white man, white man, white man with a long nose. Memories of childhood and innocence. Hope you enjoyed Cameroon despite its short comings.

  13. Hi Ramin!

    What an amazing story! I’m giddy at the memories you’ve shared with us because I definitely see myself in one of those children who would run out singing and thoroughly indulge in that song innocently. There was 1 white kid in primary school with us, and that’s where I picked up the song and sang along with the other kids. You know, in hindsight, he was probably half cameroonian and half white. Didn’t matter much to us then.

    To the greater point of identity, I think there’s a great deal to be explored there and you’ve touched on something that hits home to me. My family moved from Yaounde to Atlanta at the age of 10. Although our stories differ, they are very similar. I too became ‘black’ when I moved to the U.S. but yet I was naive to what being black meant. I had left all my friends and the only world I knew behind in Cameroon. Although the school I attended here in the U.S. was racially diverse, I soon realized that I was not like my black classmates. I too received bizzare questions about whether I had pet lions and monkeys and all that jazz… There was an alienating feeling of not being who everyone thought I was because of my skin color. In my teenage years I learned to adapt and one of my greatest take-aways from all of that was simply learning to appreciate everyone’s unique story and what makes them different.

    It would be 15 years before I returned to Cameroon. As an adult who had spent much of his formative years in the U.S, I felt different… I was different. I was no longer then same kid who had 15 years earlier. Although I remembered many places and still felt very much Cameroonian, I knew it would never be the same. I could not undo who I had become and I knew those I spoke to and interacted with saw me as more American than Cameroonian. So like you, I belong in the middle world of not being able to be fully one thing. Identity is just as much as about what you identify with as it is what people identify you to be. The trick seems to be in being able to reconcile the differences…

  14. Came across your blog on Facebook… As a 1st gen American of Cameroonian ancestry who went to college in Baltimore and spent my childhood in CAR as the kid of a dip … I’m thrilled and look forward to reading about your experiences!

  15. Great post! Brought back many memories of how strange it was having a “white” man around when we were growing up in Cameroon. I sort of had that realization of being different when I first moved to the U.S. In 2002, the first time I identified myself as a Black woman and also as an African woman. Then did I start to realize how different I was from those around me based on my race.

  16. I saw someone post a link to this on Facebook and I clicked on it out if pure curiosity. I’m glad I did because. I feel like you and I are two sides of a coin. I had quite the opposite experience. I was born in Cameroon…in Yaounde. I came to the states when I was 9 and all through middle school I was the only black kid in my small catholic school in Washington State. I faced a lot of the same odd curiosity and angst towards being different. I knew I stood out. In my little uniform and braids. Anyway I just felt compelled to write you and let you know that this made me smile. It was very interesting to read about a fellow Cameroonian 🙂 and hear about your experiences growing up in a nation I left as a child. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Your essay has brought up primary school memories.I sang the song many times.Not on seeing a white.Even among us Africans if you travel to another country which has cultural differences from where you come from you will feel different.

  18. Greetings! I read your writeup I felt so touched.Am a Cameroonian,you wouldn’t blame kid anywhere. Myself growing up never met with a whiteman.my first encounter was when we had an American Peace Corp Volunteer,whom we still communicate till this day.Mr.Steve Loschi from Norfolk,Virginia

  19. Hi,
    Your story brings back so many childhood memories. I remember the song being sung to tease white kids but in Limbe it was mostly just for fun. A lot of my class mates and friends were whites, lebanese, Indian etc so for us it really wasn’t an issue. People were just people. Only when I got to the states and had fellow blacks call me a sell out because I didn’t treat white people different: didn’t draw the invincible line in the sand. I’ve learnt that belonging anywhere is constantly changing and adapting to any new environment.
    I just discovered your blog and will be back. It’s awesome.

  20. Great blog Ramon.
    I always wondered where that song came from myself. My mom hated it and used to tell me that wasn’t very kind but we were kids. U r very much camerounian as I am..I miss those innocent child hood days.

  21. Hi Ramin
    I came across this via Facebook. This post resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect. I was born in America to Ethiopian immigrants. The only Ethiopians I knew were my family and their friends. I went to a predominantly black school, so I felt like I was black too. After all when I looked in the mirror that’s what I saw!! Still, there was a part of me that always knew I was different; and my black peers did too! Just as my peers reminded me I was different, my family would tell me I was American not Ethiopian. I didn’t speak their language and I didn’t understand their culture. So that left me straddling two worlds, “in the middle”. Never black enough, never Ethiopian enough. Thanks for sharing!!!

  22. I feel totally related to every single thing you talked about.
    I’m from panama (spanish descendant) my family moved to Cameroon when i was 4 years and I grew up there till i was 17. The songs, the kids looking at you, being the only white, the school morning gathering. Great memories just know you’re not alone awesome story it felt like reading my own story

  23. Thanks for your story. I sang those songs unfortunately. ‘white man white man…..”we were one’. Mr Hof was the first white man I met in my life. we followed him singing the song whenever we saw him. His daughter became my friend and classmate in secondary school. And a mix race guy was also going to be my first boyfriend but I refused because of his color, lol! Today, I wish I did not sing that song, I worked in an organisation with abt 1500 employees in one campus and i was one of 2 blacks. Although I never think of my colour, I came to know that was the first thing other people noticed when they met me. On a lighter not, I met Mr hof again last year after abt 20yrs. His daughter threw a big party and it was so pleasant to talk to him about what he was doing and how it relates to my present career. And of course the menu was puffpuff and beans, ibo soup etc. And the language was pidgin.

  24. Nice Blog Ramin….Sarra is from Nassara the Hausa/ Foulbe word for White man. Don’t know if you were into football back in Cameroon, if so you would know Union Sportif of Douala also called Les Nassara by many of their fans who were from Northern Cameroon because they always wore White jerseys, shorts and Socks.

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