Home » Series 1: DMW » On Being a White Oyibo

On Being a White Oyibo

21 December 2006 (late night, my flat in Ugbowo)

More than once in the past few weeks, people have referred to me as “white”…unequivocally, categorically “white.” Now, I’m used to being hyper-visible when I’m here, and I grew up being called Oyibo whenever we were out in public as a child here. The term Oyibo carries sufficient ambiguity, because the term is applied to a whole range of folk. Aside from a white person, Oyibo could apply to any foreigner/immigrant to Nigeria (i.e. Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, etc.) or multiracial people. Mixed-race people occupy a place – albeit a privileged place – in the structure of this society, and have been a part of its fabric for hundreds of years. So, I am hardly an anomaly. Since Oyibo was a term I heard regularly growing up, I didn’t cultivate any hostility toward it. The term “half-caste” does rub me the wrong way, however; and perhaps it is because it has a darker, heavy colonial history than does the locally derived term Oyibo. Still, during this visit, I have noticed that Oyibo is not the term being applied to me. I am “white.” It jars me every time it touches my ears.

At one point I asked Efe if it was that people mistook me for a real white person, that perhaps they hadn’t gotten a good look at me. Efe assured me this wasn’t so; that I don’t even look like a regular “half-caste”. What did he mean, that I didn’t look like a “regular” half-caste? According to Efe, my skin and eyes are too light to be considered an “ordinary half-caste” and I don’t sound like one either. In fact, I should be considered a “one-and-a-half-caste” (someone who has more white than black blood). I am baffled. I now find myself in conversations where it is imperative for someone (usually someone who knows me) to clarify that I am not a full Oyibo, that I am Nigerian…just a very fair-skinned Nigerian. I have never been confronted with this extreme notion of whiteness here before. Perhaps it is yet another sign that my Americanness has really settled in on me.

How crazy, almost twilight-zonish: in the U.S., I am “black” and here, I am “white.” I used to take refuge in the term Oyibo because of its elasticity. It accommodated my social place in-between white and black, native and foreigner. I used to have a place here. Does being “white” mean that I am no longer at least partly an insider, that I am now a full-fledged stranger? It is amazing how fluid race and racial categories are on a global scale, not just across space, but also over time. I was just an Oyibo here before, in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Now, in 2006, I am a white person. It cuts me.

Not for the first time in my life, I am caught up in other people’s gazes, being seen but not recognized as belonging here. I am hyper-visible…out of place…out of the ordinary. It is here as it was coming of age in all-white Minnesota. How does this lack of recognition map to my earlier rumination on home? It doesn’t diminish my personal sense of belonging (I have cherished memories, my earliest ones were made here). Being seen is an external process, albeit one that has an internal effect. I have no choice but to move along, contradictions in tow. By now, I have become quite comfortable with this state of being, at least in the United States. I suppose this place, or any other place for that matter, holds no exception in this regard. I am a part of and outside of here at once. Nigerian society has its own rules and paradoxes. I have to re-learn them; this time as an adult who has become white, whose blood never the less carries this place in her veins.

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