“Vazaha!” I walked down the street in a city in Madagascar pretending I hadn’t heard.
“Vazaha!” the little girl called again, trying to get my attention. I turned my head ever so slightly to see who was calling me that name which meant “white girl,” “foreigner,” “other.” There was a whole history of foreign occupation and oppression that “vazaha’s” had perpetrated on the dark-skinned Malagasy; I knew the word conjured distaste in the minds of most Malagasy, and for good reason. But to the little girl calling across the street, pointing her finger in my direction, it was just a word to describe the kind of person I am. It didn’t mean anything more to her than had she pointed her finger and called, “Hey, Lady!” to get my attention.
But I was so frustrated with the word that I walked on, ignoring her completely. I could hear the disappointment in her voice as her incessant calls of “vazaha,” were ignored by me no matter how sweetly she called out. I could hear her mother telling her to stop it and let the vazaha be, growing more angry at her daughter’s persistence as I deliberately ignored her, the scowl on my face hardening. I knew that for the mother, vazaha meant bad news. And I knew that I could have made that little girl feel so happy if only I would smile and wave to her. But I was so angry with being called that word, that I would not respond to it, and I walked on, feeling smaller with every step.
Vazaha does not have the same historical power of the word “n*gger” and it has historically been used to refer to those in a position of relative power. In that respect, the two words are significantly different. But in just the short time I’d been called vazaha, it had struck me like a thunderbolt with its power to dehumanize. Only a few days before I had learned that in the village where I lived and was conducting anthropological fieldwork, when my neighbors spoke of me rather than to me, they never said my name. They referred to me as “the vazaha.” Even my own research assistant, who helped me with interviews and translation, referred to me that way. When I heard him say that word in place of my name, three months after I’d taken up my stay in the tiny village of 200, my heart just sank. I wasn’t a person to him or to my neighbors. I was a thing. A different kind of thing. I was the V word.
Over the course of the next year and half, as I ventured into cities and unfamiliar villages throughout the region, I came to know what it felt like to be feared for the color of my skin. I saw children scream and run behind their mother’s skirts, clinging in fear at the mere sight of me. I saw strangers spit in contempt when I passed, heard people hiss and snicker. I knew what it was like for people to assume they knew all they needed to know about me, just by the color of my skin. And I knew that I was not the only shade of different.
Race, after all, was something I studied at length while living in an African village. I would hear again and again from people whose skin was as dark as chocolate, how “black people” smelled bad. How “black people” were lazy and promiscuous. How “black people” couldn’t be trusted.
“But you realize,” I asked one professional brown-skinned woman who had just told me that black people were not just a different kind of people, they were a different species altogether, “that in my country, you would be considered black?”
“Me?” She responded, appalled. “No one could ever call me black!” Her skin was very dark, her hair black and coarse, her nose broad—her face bore every stereotypical feature of African descent. She would never be classified as white outside of Madagascar. Yet she could not imagine herself in the same class as “black” because she was descended from the island’s gentry.
Similarly, my research assistant told me he would never eat a meal with the descendants of slaves, because they were too dirty. He was wearing a Michael Jackson t-shirt.
“So you wouldn’t eat dinner with Michael Jackson?” I asked him, teasingly.
“Of course I would!” He answered. “If I ever had the chance. But Michael Jackson is not descended from slaves.”
“Yes, he is,” I responded, followed by a micro-lecture on slavery in America. After some thought, my research assistant declared it would be alright to eat with Michael Jackson because American slaves were better than Malagasy slaves and besides, Michael Jackson wasn’t black anymore. He was, shall we say, transracial.
The concept of race is far more complex than any politically correct glossing can ever capture, and we have had few more revealing examples in recent months of just how socially provocative racial terms and stereotypical thinking are than in Paula Deen’s recent fall from grace after admitting to using racial slurs.
When Ms. Deen defended her use of a racial slur to refer to African Americans by saying that blacks feel the same prejudice as whites, she was again attacked for her ignorance and racism. Yet her comment, just like the comments of the Malagasy I spoke to, reflects a universal truth about humans, one which any student of anthropology learns early on—all humans view themselves as superior to other groups of humans. As humans, we classify according to any visible marker of difference, and we assign value to those differences. We fear those who look and act different from ourselves, and we teach our children to be cautious of difference. For some, that difference might be another tribe which dresses differently, for others it might be foreign-speaking invaders with beige skin. For some it might be “blacks,” for others it might be “whites.”
No one, no matter how vocally they might insist otherwise, is free of prejudicial thinking about other groups of people. We can’t be, because we are evolutionarily designed to classify potential threats and to see the unknown as something to be on guard against. However, that does not mean that prejudice is a good thing, nor that it is right. What it means is that it is human.
Yet as humans, we have the ability to learn, and to pass down what we learn to other generations. That means that as technology has enabled all sorts of humans to interact and live together over the last several generations, we have been able to learn that what at one time may have been a primal fear, is no longer so primal. The unknown has become known. We have learned that the color of our skin has no correspondence with our value as a human. Skin color is a physical trait, like hair color; it is not a moral trait. But unfortunately, humans are fallible; we do not always rely on knowledge to shape our own morality. We all too often rely upon our ignorance, our fears, and our aggressive instincts to shape our morals.
That is what Paula Deen was doing when she considered hosting a slave-themed wedding, when she assumed that all jokes are about blacks and Jews and when she assumed that it was “of course” only natural for her to use a racial slur to refer to African Americans. And that is what the public is doing when it hollers for her destruction.
The vilification of Paula Deen reflects an ugliness in the public imagination that draws on the very same instincts from which human prejudice is formed. Paula Deen has been cast as “the other” in what began as an employment lawsuit. The reasonable and legitimate question of how well and how fairly she and her corporation treated its employees has been reduced to a metaphorical lynching in which Ms. Deen is stereotyped as an unforgivable racist, with every effort she makes to defend herself turned into an opportunity to humiliate her. Little effort to treat her as a human, to extend compassion and forgiveness, much less to listen to her has been made. At the same time, every effort to hurt her has been gleefully celebrated and applauded.
The comments Ms. Deen made do indeed suggest that she is in need of a wakeup call when it comes to matters of race. But in the frenzy to destroy her, we are missing an opportunity to reflect on racial divisions that persist despite all the knowledge we have before us that demonstrate how foolish and destructive racial prejudice can be. Paula Deen’s comments about race cannot be understood outside the context of the southern white culture in which she was raised, yet there is little discussion of that southern white culture that so persistently reproduces racial stereotypes.
Moreover, the alleged disparate and discriminatory treatment of people of color in her corporation—as well as the food industry overall—have not been the topic of discussion, because that discussion will not bring nearly as many page views as a headline that humiliates Paula Dean. Ironically, then, the more she is vilified, the more quickly a substantive discussion on what gave rise to the lawsuit can be deflected by malicious gossip.
When humans judge others, we feel righteous. And we tend to be proud of our aggression when we feel it is righteous—few things bring out the rage in humans as fast as telling them their aggression is uncalled for. It was because racial prejudice was sanctioned and celebrated for so long that good people thought nothing of feeling and expressing it. In this same way, when we are encouraged through tabloid-style headlines to attack celebrities because they’re vulnerable and flawed, we often do so with pride, as if it makes the one attacking feel all the more moral and enlightened.
The truth is, Paula Deen was right when she said that blacks feel prejudice, just as whites do. The history of that prejudice may differ, but the human instinct is the same. And she was right when she said that her slave-owning ancestor was shattered and driven to suicide by the ending of slavery—the experiences of slave owners are no less historically relevant just because they were oppressors—clearly they got a far better deal than slaves, but to acknowledge their experience and to try to understand it from the perspective of their time and place in society does not mean that one shares their views. It’s simply observing something from the perspective of cultural relativity. Anthropologists and historians do it all the time. And Paula Deen was right when she said that everyone has said or done something shameful in their lives.
When I refused to turn to the little girl calling me vazaha, I was acting shamefully. I was judging her use of the term based on my experience—not on hers. Her intent was not to objectify me, but to acknowledge me, but because I felt objectified, I would not acknowledge her. The V word is not the N word, but it gave me a taste of that word, and it was a bitter taste indeed. But it was one that had I swallowed it, I might have made a friend of that little girl. I might have gotten to know her if only for a moment, and in that moment, come all the more closer to knowing myself, and what we had in common.
And Paula Deen can’t possibly learn what she has in common with those casting slurs against her, because she has been shunned and vilified by those who feel their aggression is righteous, their intolerance moral. The opportunity for using her experience to discuss racial divides in our nation is fast being lost to opportunities for sensationalized intolerance. And that is a far greater shame than anything Paula Deen has ever done or said.
Dear Readers: On a more lighthearted note, for those interested in tales from the field, I have recently released a short story on Amazon, Eat the Pig, about culture, stereotypes, conflict and moonshine in the rainforests of Madagascar.