A Black “La Blanche” in Cameroon
I initially had reservations about serving as a Black Volunteer, especially after reading stories from Returned and current Black Volunteers. The stories were not necessarily negative, but they forewarned that Black Volunteers would be presented with distinct challenges, unlike their white counterparts.
In other words, the color of your skin would impact your service. This is not to say that I would not share similar experiences with my white peers. This is to say that often Volunteers of color, specifically Black Volunteers, are met with more scrutiny or greater expectations regarding cultural behavior.
As a Black Volunteer, I have had to navigate being referred to as “la blanche” in my community’s local language. As a Black American, I am still uncomfortable with the label that literally translates to “the white” person. In Cameroon the label does not necessarily refer to race. From my understanding, it is a general term used to describe a person who comes from the western part of the world or westernized nations like the United States. It remains, however, an unsettling feeling because an important aspect of my identity (i.e., being black) seems disregarded.
The label “la blanche” is very interesting, yet contradictory to me. Its idea is not meant to label the race of a person, but rather refer to individuals from certain countries. However, from my experiences, many Cameroonians have already formulated an idea of “la blanche”, and it is not a Black American. Many individuals are often surprised when I tell them that I am American. I receive follow-up questions such as “Okay, but where are you really from?”; “Where were your parents born"?; “Are you mixed-race?” I often cannot be Black and truly American without some reservation.
Cameroonians are black. I am black. Therefore, most people think I am Cameroonian or come from another African country—well that is, until I start speaking. Then, I have some explaining to do. I believe that I encounter less derangement than my white peers as I have the anonymity of being Cameroonian based off of first impressions. On the other hand, I sometimes do not receive the same preferential treatment or enthusiasm as my white peers because many people do not automatically assume that I am American. In some instances, I have been expected to behave like a Cameroonian or have been addressed with the assumption that I speak French fluently. I am then met with surprise or even worse, criticism, when I do not immediately greet a stranger or if I am unable to respond immediately to a question.
It is a unique experience to be a Black Volunteer serving in an African country like Cameroon. I am not the typical example of an American here. The second goal of the Peace Corps is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. My presence in Cameroon as well as other Black Volunteers make a powerful statement as it challenges the conventional narrative here that to be an American you must be white.
I am also fortunate to have a site mate who is also black and with whom I can share my experiences. It is comforting to know that other Black Volunteers often must contend with similar encounters like me. It confirms that I am not alone. I am still very early into my service. I have been at my site for just under three months and in Cameroon for about six. Although I have not been here for very long, I am currently happy with my decision to serve here. It is not easy, but I feel well integrated within my community. I feel even more connected as a black Volunteer who looks like those I serve.
I know that being black (and a female) will continue to impact my service. I expect it to be rewarding, yet highly challenging. I hope that my presence in Cameroon can be a testament to the diversity of the United States. There are many examples of what it means to be an American. I, as a Black Peace Corps Volunteer, happen to be one.