THE ACCRA SCHOOL RUN has been a little intense of late. What began as a routine collection three months ago has gradually turned into something more akin to running the gauntlet.
As I enter the playground, other people’s kids spot me and someone shouts “Uncle Tim!”. They grab my arms and follow me about, a taster of what it’s like to be white in Ghana. The closest I’ll ever get to feeling famous.
My little girl’s eyes light up when she sees me but, spotting my entourage, a ripple of concern crosses her face. We all surge up the stairs to my son’s classroom and my daughter immediately embraces her big brother.
“They’re so adorable!” someone coos.
My son is more comfortable with the attention than his sister. He runs back to the playground with a little girl clasping each of his small hands. Another keeps touching his unfamiliarly silky hair. He drops his bag carelessly and races to his favourite swing, where the child already using it immediately jumps off and starts pushing my gleeful son.
I go to put my daughter on one of the swings, but when she sees another big girl lining up to push her, she squirms out of the seat and into my arms. Her wide eyes implore: “Get me out of here! These people are crazy!”
I try to explain to her eager classmates that my daughter likes them all very much but needs a little space. It seems well-received but as I carry her to the car I can hear recriminations. “YOU’RE SCARING HER!”
Noticing that I’ve reached the car, my son jumps off the swing and runs to us. “Your bag!” I cry. No need. A girl is carrying it to us with puppyish enthusiasm.
When I moved to Ghana five years ago, I expected to be the victim of a certain amount of racism. After all, the white population is tiny and, well, there’s that whole colonialism thing.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the positivity. A lot of Ghanaians I meet treat me like I’m the best thing since croutons, and I think it’s because I’m white.
There’s an expression I’ve heard a few times now: “If you see a white man on your way to Church, go back home – you’ve seen Jesus”. How do you respond to that? Admittedly, it’s a local proverb that doesn’t fully translate into English – “Be happy with what you have” – but that doesn’t make it any less disconcerting. The white man brought Christianity to Ghanaians and taught them Jesus was white, I guess. That’s the association some people make when they see people like me. But I am not Jesus.
There’s a lot of self-loathing. If ever I help a stranger by sparking their car battery or giving directions, I brace myself for a variation on the following: “Thank you! A black man wouldn’t have done what you just did. In Ghana here, the black man is evil! He will never help you!” Someone I worked with once told me his mum had advised him to always to work for white people if possible; black men were not to be trusted.
For crying out loud, I thought. Don’t these people watch the news? Don’t they read history? We are the worst: Donald Trump, slavery, global warming, everything that’s gone wrong in Africa for the past hundred years. . . I need to be told at least once a day how sick and terrible the British are (and I’m not talking about multicultural Britain, I’m really just talking about white people), or I start to get jittery. It’s like a vitamin deficiency. Being a self-loathing white man surrounded by self-loathing black men is not edifying.
My colonial guilt can also make it difficult to interact with normal non-resentful or self-hating Ghanaians. My wife, for example, does not really sympathise with my inner conflict.
“What is white guilt?” she asks.
“We feel bad about how wealthy our countries are as a result of oppressing others. And how we enslaved your ancestors.”
“Not my ancestors. That’s why my family are in Africa and not in the US or Jamaica. But anyway, it’s so long ago. I don’t care.”
“You only see it that way because you’re not woke.”
“I’m not what? My problem with what you’re saying is that it’s insincere.”
“That’s part of it. We feel guilty about still being racist!”
Unable to find anyone to jab and accuse me, I have to supplement my unease by reading even more of The Guardian than usual. I also read blogs by angry black supremacists. I’ve watched the film Get Out about seventeen times.
But it’s not enough. Nothing can quench the insatiable flames of white guilt.
As I drive the kids home I study their faces in the rearview mirror. The boy seems to welcome the extra attention as his due. At the other end of the spectrum, my daughter finds it a little bizarre. I’m not sure which reaction is healthier, but I suspect both are better than mine.
Maybe they will never feel the way I do. After all, they are only half-white. A Ghanaian might proudly tell you all about a lone European ancestor from four generations back while Western liberals often seem eager to disown the Caucasian parts of their heritage. Look at Rachel Dolezal. The ultimate case of white guilt, so unbearable to her that she chose to switch race. A hundred years ago there was a colonising scramble for Africa. Now, there is a scramble away from colonialism. Hopefully my kids can play it to their advantage either way.
Perhaps the best I can do is not guide them too much on the matter, lest I send them spiralling into depths of ancestral shame from whence there is no return.