A few days ago, I had an unfortunate experience with racism in a local Ghanaian grocery store. Tired of hearing stories of service discrimination against black Africans in Africa, I decided to write something. The piece below was published in print edition of The Ghanaian Observer and on the My Joy Online website on Friday, September 4, and in The Graphic on Saturday, September 5.
Growing up in the United States, I have been catcalled and demeaned with many a racial epithet. I have experienced everything from being spat at and called the n-word to having my intelligence belittled due to the color of my skin. When I moved to Ghana earlier this year, I was naïve enough to think that I would no longer be forced to endure such mortifying racial incidents. A few days ago, I was proven wrong.
As an African from the diaspora returning to the continent, I expected to feel at home in Ghana, a hub of black excellence that has birthed heavyweights like Kofi Annan, David Adjaye, Taiye Selasi, and so many more. In Ghana, I never thought my blackness would make me a target of negativity, but I was proven wrong a few days ago at Saagar Impex Supermarket, a small Indian specialty grocery store in Osu. After a long day at work, I went into the store to buy some chickpeas. When I entered the store, I was immediately followed. None of the white or Indian patrons received the same amount of attention.
“Do you want a basket?” one of the employees asked. “No,” I replied. After all, I was only going to buy a few things. My response seemed to invite further scrutiny.
I picked up three cans, browsed through the rest of the store then decided to put one can down where I had picked it up. I walked to the counter to buy the other two.
After paying for the chickpeas, I left the store to buy some vegetables at the stand outside. As I walked away, one of the employees of the store ran out to demand I come back into the store. “Madame wants to see you, “ he said.
Confused, I re-entered the store only to have the storeowner declare that she “knew I took something" and demand to see my purse. You could have heard a pin drop as everyone watched. My mind was racing. Did she really think I would bother to steal a 5 cedi can of chickpeas? As the only black patron in a store full of white and Indian customers, did my skin color make me automatically more likely to steal? Too stunned to cause a scene, I handed over my purse for inspection.
Of course, she didn't find anything inside but a few personal items and the 2 cans she had just sold me. Face flushed and embarrassed, I said, "I am no thief and I demand an apology."
Her response? "Well, I don't know" followed by a tense period of silence. I waited until I realized that was all she had to say before informing her I would never come to her store again and leaving the premises.
As I shared this humiliating story with friends and family, it became increasingly apparent that my story is not unique. There are far too many tales in Ghana and across the African continent of people of African descent experiencing service discrimination or being subjected to racially motivated speech. In 2011, an Italian-run Ghanaian seafood restaurant in Accra was under investigation for operating a “white only policy.” Earlier this year in Kenya, a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi was shut down after its “no black policy” was exposed. For years, friends and family members travelling to South Africa have re-counted numerous incidents of being treated as second class citizens, a reality underscored by the 2011 hashtag #CapeTownIsRacist. Prominent black singers, comedians and other black Cape Town tweeted their experiences with racism in Cape Town, South Africa’s most famous tourist destination. These tweets are unsurprising in light of the fact that the South African President once described Cape Town as a “racist place” with an “extremely apartheid system.”
My experience as well as the experiences of the many people who have sent me messages in the past few days has underscored the urgent need for initiatives like the International Decade for People of African Descent, one of the UN’s priority themes for the next ten years. Part of the objective of the Decade is to recognize ongoing discrimination and promote respect for people of African descent, who continue to be disrespected across the world. I never thought this discrimination would occur in Ghana, a country which is almost 97% black, but my experiences yesterday suggest that racism continues even in what would typically be deemed an unlikely place.
As black people in Africa and its diaspora advocate for policies and programs that combat discrimination worldwide, we must first begin to agitate for change at home by making it loud and clear that such all types of discrimination – including black-on-black discrimination – are unacceptable.
We also must acknowledge the sad truth that other races are not the only ones to perpetrate discrimination. Many black people further entrench cultures of disrespect by treating their own as inferior. This was underscored by the participation of Saagar’s black employees in my public humiliation as they followed me, and then idly stood by at my maltreatment by their employer. I have also seen it through the difference in the customer service I have received versus that of my white expatriate friends. I am often told to “be patient and wait” while white colleagues and friends are served more quickly and with significantly more respect.
While racism in the context of the United States is commonly understood to be a system that systematically advances and favors some while subjugating others politically, economically and socially, these dynamics also exist in Ghana, albeit sometimes less visibly. This reality is particularly tragic in Ghana, where although most of the population is black, Ghanaians still favor many Indians, Lebanese, Chinese and white expatriates over other black Ghanaians in the context of service provision.
Needless to say, no matter how much I crave naan or my favorite spices, I will never set foot in that establishment again.