At the Fulbright orientation last May, there was a strange undercurrent. There were hundreds of teachers and researchers, all of us going to one country or another in Africa. The top-note vibe was wonderful – snatches of overheard conversations all along the halls and at tables, comparing notes and projects and countries. The part of me that was raised in a largely blue-collar family (with an open contempt for academics, even from [especially from] white- collar family members) led me into those halls with my back up. I expected a group of insufferable college professors who were going to one-up each other with their projects. What I found instead was a rich diversity of people, all of whom could barely contain their genuine excitement and wonder at being chosen.
That undercurrent, though. One young man finally just cut through it at the session with representatives from the State Department (which, at the time, didn’t have an Africa Secretary, and still has only an “acting” Secretary).
“How are we supposed to handle questions about. . .you know. . .”
The room got quiet. I knew what he was asking and so did the speaker, who in truly impressive (and I’m not being sarcastic) diplomatic fashion told us that we should be honest and be ourselves but that we might remember to talk about democracy, and free and fair elections, and the peaceful transfer of power whether we like who the power is being transferred to or not.
Ok. I could buy that. And, by the end of the orientation when a member of the Fulbright Board, after an impassioned speech completely lacking in cynicism, said “Go out there and be Americans,” I was ready.
And then Charlottesville happened. And then the walking id we elected blamed both sides. And then one of my students stopped me after class and said “excuse me, ma’am. Ummm. No offense, ma’am. But does your president really think that this is ok?” And I held it together and tried to answer.
And then I went home and cried and cried. And then I thought, “fuck this shit. I will make no more excuses for this government.”
Shithole is an interesting use of words.
You can chalk it up to the general crudeness that has marked many of the utterances of the walking id, but it caught my ear. There is something else underneath it that made me sit up and take notice. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions that the first recorded use was in 1629, in England, referring to the anus. It was used in this way for another 400 or so years, until in the 20th century the term changed to refer to a “wretched location.”
Here’s where it gets interesting for me. Urban Thesaurus notes that of the five top terms cross-referenced with “shithole,” New Jersey is number two. Among the top 15 are:
Clemmons, North Carolina
North Carolina (and maybe Clarenville) is a bit of an outlier here. The others, including New Jersey, are all places in the North East and mid-Atlantic. The rest of the list has quite a few familiar places:
Dudley, Watertown, Southampton, Mendon, Merrimack Valley, North Adams, Boston, Methuen High School, Waltham.
These are all cities, towns, or places in my home state of Massachusetts. Admittedly, many of them could refer to places in England, but given the preponderance of Bay State towns on the list I’m guessing not. Dudley borders the town I grew up in. Steve went to school in Waltham.
I grew up hearing the word shithole. I’ve used it. It caught my attention because, to my ear, it is a quintessentially Massachusetts word, used not by Bay State Brahmins or long-established families, of which I knew none anyway, but by the rough-edged immigrants, Irish and Italian, who have made an art form out of scorning what they secretly love and would be loath to leave, no matter how shitty the shithole.
It’s the word we use for the places we come from – those dying mill towns where nothing is happening anymore; the town over, which has, perhaps, a slightly higher percentage of boarded up buildings on Main Street, a slightly lower family income (truly a matter of degree, in the area I was from), and a rougher set of kids in the schools and is, thus, worse than our own shitty town.
It is the word we use to show our street cred, as in “man, the town I grew up in is such a shithole. I can’t believe I got out.” We feel bad for, and slightly superior to, the kids we grew up with who are still there. If you live in Massachusetts, especially in Central Mass, you call your own town a shithole but ice out anyone (not from Mass) who would dare apply the same term in the same context.
It’s one of the words we use when we can drop our guard, when we don’t have to put on the suit and tie, when we don’t have to rein in the accent, when we can talk among ourselves.
That’s why it caught my attention. It’s one of our words, though I’m not proud to claim it. And the walking id chose it because, gold toilet aside, he’s as rough and tumble of the rest of the hustlers on the East Coast. Only the Northeast could have produced him.
He’s breaking the rules with it – he has the suit and tie on. And that is part of what is scrambling my insides. Because for the past two or three years I have heard the ugliest parts of what I grew up with, the parts that were saved for behind closed doors, resurface with such force and “fuck you” that I’m stunned. So much of what I thought I left behind or grew away from or outright rejected has been sanctioned, exposed, let into the light where it seems to revel in its ugliness. As much as I have struggled, especially since the pussy tape recording, with the national discourse, what has sent me spinning is all the personal history that is rearing its head, seemingly out of nowhere, surprising me in spite of myself because it’s been there all along. I just thought I had a better handle on it. My mental and emotional life since the pussy tape has felt like nothing so much as walking through a fun house, all warped images and walls appearing to close in and haunting music coming from a piano that plays itself.
I’ve dropped people on social media and blocked others. I’ve questioned what I took for granted in other people. I (nearly daily, certainly weekly) question the context of my upbringing and try to reconcile the casual sexism, racism, and homophobia with the place I am from and the person I am now.
Shithole is the least of it.
The week after the election, which we have come to learn was not exactly free and fair, I heard an interview with a woman who called people who voted for the id racists. The host immediately jumped in. “Well, you can’t really call them all racists,” he interjected. “Fine,” she replied. “If you want to say that, go ahead. But I’m going to tell you that at the very least they were willing to vote for an open racist.”
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about racism, after years of wrangling my own ignorance through difficult conversations with people. Here’s why I have precisely zero patience for the argument that “kindness will get us through.” Here’s where that crashes up against the “go out there and be Americans” exhortation: it is the latter statement that carries the weight when you’re living abroad. I’m plenty nice. People think I’m nice. Believe me, you’re nothing if not nice if you’ve been raised as a woman, told as we are that that is the trait that should most define us, that we should most embody.
But when I stand in front of a group, especially one I don’t know, they don’t immediately think about nice. They don’t immediately think about me as an individual. They think about me as an American. I am here representing my (it hurts to write that, more than I can express) country. That’s the point of the Fulbright. People will get to know me, but before they do they will see someone who comes from the place where the person in power thinks that the space which I currently occupy is a shithole. Even when they do know me they will ask about it. I’ve already answered one text from a friend. He wasn’t blaming me or thinking that I suddenly wasn’t nice, but he did express wonder and sadness.
Before we traveled here two years ago I asked Steve if he thought about what it means, being a white person in Africa given the long history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and plunder on this continent. “I think about it,” he said. “I just want to go there and be me. I just don’t want to be an asshole.”
We may behave in the least assholery way possible. But being kind, and nice, and not an asshole will only get you so far.
I now live in a shithole country.
This so-called shithole has one of the most stable and longest standing democracies on the continent.
It has a literacy rate of around 89%.
The first thing it did upon independence in 1966 was to send ten people over the border to become trained as teachers, understanding that education would be the key to future success.
The government sponsors tertiary education for citizens. See point above.
It accepts refugees.
Library services were founded in 1967 – immediately after independence.
It has one of the highest GDPs in Africa, bringing itself from one of the poorest countries in Africa to Middle Income status in 50 years.
It has banned all hunting, making it a leader in conservation, including of threatened and endangered species.
It has its problems, to be sure. HIV/AIDS infection rates in the country are around 22%. Overgrazing, drought, and desertification are major problems, the economy badly needs to diversify beyond diamonds, and too high a percentage of the population lives below the poverty line. But that makes it no different from any other country – including my own.
The countries I just came back from, Namibia and South Africa, are, apparently, also shitholes. Namibia has one of the best constitutions in the world, a model for emerging democracies. South Africa gave us Nelson Mandela, who played his part in overturning a system that was explicitly modeled on U.S. slavery and Hitler’s Germany (surprise!).
Botswana, my dear Botswana, is a place where people have welcomed me and made me feel at home. People here have fed me, taught me, encouraged me, corrected me, kept me safe, and made friends with me.
I know many people who believe that Botswana is not a shithole, and I know people who are thankful that Batswana are looking after me, that I’m safe and, for the first time in many years, happy, but who brush this comment off as no big deal or more of the same from the id. This is difficult to bear.
I know everyone’s sick of politics (ah, the luxury of privilege. I’m guilty too. Hell, I took every opportunity I could to get out). I secretly harbor suspicions (hopes? delusions?) that people who voted for Trump have realized that they made a mistake and just can’t admit it. But condemning this language isn’t a political statement. It’s a personal statement. It’s a human statement.
A friend pointed out that the United States was built on the backs of people from shithole countries in Africa. Another pointed out that the walking id has harped on and on about wanting high skilled immigrants, but that “being Norwegian is not a skill.”
So, let’s go ahead and call this what it is. Racism.
In two weeks, I will stand again before classrooms full of young Africans from Botswana and beyond. They will look at me, an unknown quantity, a lekgoa in the front of the room, and know nothing about me other than what they know about America. I will ask them for their best and most of them will give it. I will have to work extra hard, conscious that not only am I responsible for helping them learn, but that I am responsible for helping them learn that the best of America is not sitting in the Oval Office. They will refrain from judgement off the bat, to be sure, but they will also know more about what is going on in my country than many of my fellow citizens. And they will, at least initially, wonder what I represent.
Let’s pretend, just for a second, that this actually is about skilled immigrants and not racism.
Here are some of the skills my students have:
They’re IT specialists.
They’re business owners.
They’re award winning coders.
That’s just the start. As I’ve said before, I have had the honor of learning with many exceptionally bright students. I’ve encouraged them to continue their educations. To say yes to the opportunities in front of them. To lean on me if they want a connection in the U.S. or a letter of recommendation.
I don’t have to defend them. I feel stupid doing it here, though I do feel a moral responsibility to do so. They are showing me, showing the world, what they are made of, what they can dream and do and create and achieve. Africa is rising, despite centuries’ worth of the worst instincts and efforts of the global North and its own complicated history and politics. I don’t have to defend them. I have to defend my country. And I can’t, not right now. Not at this moment in history.
“Come to the U.S.,” I told one. “You are very welcome there.”
She looked at me and immediately brought me down to size. “Your country doesn’t want us,” she said calmly. There was no blame, no animus. Just simple, matter-of-fact recognition that my offer to have her as my guest didn’t stack up against what I represented as an American.
That was two months ago. What do I tell her now?
This post contains my own opinions and does not represent the opinions of the Fulbright program or the Department of State.