Not All Difference Is Created Equal

Note: This post was originally published in July on the Media in Ghana blog

“Obruni! What are you doing?”

I turn my head and wave, my peaceful lunchtime walk interrupted. This is not unusual: strangers stop me and my fellow American students on the street regularly. At worst, they might bestow an uncomfortable compliment, or ask for a visa endorsement. At best, they say “good afternoon” and ask how we are: a sign of this country’s famous hospitality.

After just two weeks in Ghana, I’m already accustomed to turning my head when I hear “obruni.” The word means “foreigner” or “white person.” It isn’t an insult, but rather a category of social fascination. When I hear it, I smile and nod. Occasionally, I’ll reply with the word obibini -- the antonym meaning “Ghanaian native.” This always gets a laugh.

I don’t mind being an obruni, but the word reflects a rather difficult reality of being here. I can never really escape the feeling of being an outsider. This is more than language struggles and basic cultural barriers: I cannot walk down the street, enter a store, or get on a tro-tro without feeling watched. With a single look, everyone around me knows that I don’t belong. In the States, I often have the privilege of passing unnoticed. My appearance (frankly, my race) is the unmarked norm.

“Now I know what it feels like to be a minority.” As a white person in Ghana, this is easy to say. I stand out. I’m asked where I’m from. I’m constantly conscious of my race, and it’s hard.

But this statement isn’t true. Especially in light of the recent horrific police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, along with the other forms of racial violence that occur in the U.S. every day, I have to acknowledge that I will never truly know how it feels to be oppressed and disenfranchised on account of my race.

As a “minority” here, I do not experience implicit bias in hiring processes, or feel that people subconsciously link me with crime and violence. I never fear for my life in the presence of police. On the contrary, there is at times an odd respect for white foreigners woven into Ghanaian hospitality. For example, I am interning at a premier radio station in the nation’s capital city. . . with no previous radio experience. My privilege is hard at work.

This is not to say that my moments of discomfort here are not valid or important. I am learning so much about the way difference affects life. But I am also learning that not all difference is created equal. Even as I navigate the challenges of life as an obruni, I do not want erase the reality of race in the United States. For me, privilege and “blending in” are only a plane ride away. People of color in the US cannot say the same.