We learned during PST about certain experiences to expect while volunteering in the Kingdom of Swaziland. Our G10 counterparts and PC staffers prepared us for being addressed by Swazis as Umlungu–“a white person.”While volunteers and American PC employees regard Umlungu as a derogatory term, Swazis do not consider it an offensive term and believe Umlungu may be verbalized in formal settings. Interestingly, the idea of Umlungu does not differ between Americans and Swazis only. The idea of Umlungu differs among Swazis as well. Some say it is skin color or spoken language which characterizes an Umlungu. Still amongst others, it is money. Furthermore, I am a black volunteer, I have black skin, and yet Swazis refer to me as Umlungu. It is the conflicting ideas about Umlungu and the fact that a black-skinned subject may, too, be regarded as Umlungu which arouses in me an interest in learning about who exactly the Umlungu is. Finally, that I am a black-skinned Umlungu demonstrates that a single attribute alone does not determine how one is perceived racially and that racial identities are fluid and unstable categories that are defined clearly but by a varying combination of qualities.
Racial categories are not defined by only one quality or attribute. In my alma mater City College of New York, I was a black student, black violinist, or a black painter. Out in front my grandmother’s townhouse where I sold paintings and fiddled peers complained I was “acting mad white” and I was even rechristened: white niggah. My black skin is one quality and my artistic ability is another quality. Yet these two attributes have different effects on how I am perceived racially. In the first instance I am simply a violinist–or student or painter–who is black. I am a black violinist because I have black skin and I play the violin. Simple. However, in the second instance, I am a white niggah–or a black person trying to act white–because I play the violin. Here, as in the first instance, both qualities (my black skin and my ability to fiddle) are recognized. But, unlike the first instance, my ability to fiddle is used as a marker of whiteness and therefore I am a black person who’s trying to be–or is behaving as–white. Perhaps white niggah might be considered a separate racial category–why not?
Racial identities are social categories to which social subjects are assigned based on perceived or constructed attributes for the purpose of social differentiation. As a black violinist, the implication–intended or not–is that I am somehow separated from the regular violinist. I’ve never heard of a white violinist. As a white niggah, the peers cannot identify with me because according to their idea of blackness or whiteness, perhaps, I just ain’t black enough!
White skin is not a requirement for being considered Umlungu. White skin simply determines how quickly one is considered an Umlungu. A white-skinned person walking by a Swazi, is immediately viewed as Umlungu. Not much effort is needed. If I pass a Swazi, I am just a Swazi passing by. Also, not much effort is needed. But, once I open my mouth, a marker goes off–and I always laugh at the moment–and the alert is expressed by a loud gasping, “Haouw! I think that you are Swazi!?” In that moment of nearly-but-not-yet-complete-revelation, I am either a Swazi who speaks fluent English or I really am indeed from the outside and am struggling with the SiSwati tongue. Thus, a bit more effort is needed, questions are thrust upon me. And it usually takes minutes of siSwanglish dialogue before the Swazi is convinced that I really am who I say I am. My white-skinned co-volunteers, as I gather, are harassed for money and are offered marriage proposals immediately after stepping out of their huts. I merely have to stay silent to pass the day as a pure Swazi without having to manage the harassment and headache that accompany the Umlungu (particularly, the Umlungu living in a needy community). I joke about living in Swaziland, but honestly, that for as long as my mouth is shut: It finally feels good to be black!
Yet, although skin color most definitely plays a role when one is being considered an Umlungu, a white-skinned Swazi, for the most part, is not an Umlungu. She must be a foreigner. “The Umlungu comes from outside Swaziland and Africa,” a Swazi cleaner explains. This is a residue from the old days, perhaps. “The English and Dutch colonists and missionaries came and we called them Umlungu. Today, you come from somewhere else, you’re Umlungu.” The Umlungu does not have to come from the United States or England as I once believed. A Swazi waitress claimed that the Umlungu may come from China and Mexico-especially if she has money, she’s Umlungu. “If you are in Swaziland, and you come from outside, then we think-ah!-she has money. We just call you Umlungu.” So long as a subject is not a Swazi, she is or has a chance of being an Umlungu. Ironically, Swazis can be considered Umlungu. Once, a light-brown skin Swazi business man on the television who spoke fluent siSwati was compared to me: “He’s like you, Umlungu.” Furthermore, a Swazi friend pointed to a female Swazi sharing my skin complexion: “Ey! Look your Umlungu wife to take back to eMelika.” These statements, of course, were made in the spirit of wit. Officially, a Swazi as Umlungu does not seem to be a real concept among the Swazis. Umlungu is a foreigner.
Skin intonation can lessen the chances of or disqualify one from being considered Umlungu. In our cohort of roughly thirty volunteers, three of us are not white-skinned. We are all three black-skinned volunteers. Yet, I find it interesting that while the darkest of us says she has never been called an Umlungu–irrespective of her clear fluency in the English language and the fact that she does come from the United States (outside Africa)- the two of us who are lighter have been called an Umlungu at least once. I am called Umlungu everyday. In fact, I was called once “the black Umlungu.” Nevertheless, my dark skin can very well disqualify me as Umlungu. One member from the Chief’s inner council said “I thought our volunteer was Umlungu,” which seems to imply that to him neither the English I spoke nor the fact that I came from the United States qualified me in his framework as Umlungu. My Site Support Agent explained while rubbing her index finger along her opposite arm what the council member meant: “He expects to see emavoluntiya who is white.” Thus relational or occupational expectations on the part of the Swazi subject may determine whether a foreigner–even a foreigner!–is indeed Umlungu. Do consider that black-skinned volunteers (from America, anyway) have been nearly non-existent in the African continent. Volunteers in Swaziland, it does seem, are mainly white-skinned. The Chief’s council member had somehow evidently grown to expect PC volunteers to be white – and also Umlungu; he had heard a new one was in the community, and came to realize that this time the Peace Corps had sent one who was not in fact Umlungu.