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Notes From the Field: Americans Are Not All White?! >


As the program officer responsible for PPI deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East North Africa, I have the opportunity to meet people from many countries and help them to understand social performance management better. I also have the opportunity to help reshape their perceptions of an American. When I first began working with our West African representative based in Senegal, we had many phone calls, but he never realized that I am a woman of Caribbean descent since I have no accent. The Internet connection was rarely strong enough for video chat so he didn’t realize I have skin the hue of many people in Senegal. In fact, he came to the airport looking for a white American woman – a fact he later shared with me and we had a good laugh about. I sound American but to many Africans I could be one of them…until I open my mouth. I am perhaps a paradox – a self-identified Caribbean-American woman with no Caribbean accent working in development; I suspect there are few who could fit this description.

Today, I was told by my Ethiopian colleagues that they too had assumed I was a white American woman. They explained that they perceive Americans as white (so much for NYC being the melting pot of the US) and as I was a staff member coming from our headquarters in DC, it was reasonable to them that I was therefore white. Consequently, they arrived at the airport looking for a white woman from DC and so I was able to walk right pass them. The discovery that I was otherwise was made only when they saw the hotel shuttle taking off and flagged it down. I now understand why my name was said in such a questioning tone. As it went, the participants upon arrival to the training assumed when they saw me that they were to be trained by an Ethiopian and then I opened my mouth….and my language was not Amharic (which I’ve finally learned to pronounce) but English. When I was told this today, I started to laugh and my newfound friends smiled and said, “No, this is true!” which made me laugh even harder. I have no doubt it’s true but I love the fact that we can get to a point, in such a short timeframe, where my colleagues are comfortable admitting that I was not what was expected.

In sharing their assumptions about Americans, I’ve realized that not only am I helping to impart knowledge on social performance and the PPI, but I’m helping to reshape people’s expectations about who an American could be, and that knowledge transfer can perhaps be considered another benefit of the work we do.

Sharlene Brown is a Program Officer with the Grameen Foundation Social Performance Management Center, handling trainings for MFIs in Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle-East/North Africa. Sharlene is based out of Washington, DC.