SometimesLast week (or was it the week before?) I ‘shadowed’ one of the company salesmen on his afternoon round of construction sites, as part of my research into the preparation of a marketing plan. Because the salesguy (Ronald) hadn’t called ahead, we only saw one actual customer, a man building a small retail complex. This customer, however, was seemingly quite impressed with my presence, and basically the sale was clinched on behalf of me standing there in all of my glorious whiteness.
Ronald was obviously pleased with this turn of events, and understood quite clearly that he had gotten a big sale due to my skin colour. His appreciation of this fact, however, did not translate into any greater appreciation of race relations, or indeed of my status as an actual human being. This was first displayed later that same afternoon, when he agreed with our taxi driver’s assertion that I wasn’t going to receive my change for our fares (both of which I’d paid for myself) because I am a muzungu. (Generally, when I’m out and about with a Ugandan, I’m substantially less vigilant about protecting myself from getting ripped off by other Ugandans, figuring that the person I am with will be a sufficient guard against being ripped off. Ronald proved to provide an exception to this hypothesis of behaviour.) I was pretty angry with Ronald, and let him know, and although I tried my best to explain why what he’d done wasn’t right, I could tell he didn’t really ‘get it’.
(Due to some more complex issues with the way the school system and unofficial caste system here works, subordinates will tend to just apologize and genuflect regardless of what is being said. So when you are speaking to someone (whether providing instructions, commendations, criticism or questions) over whom you have a bit of authority – as I did – there is really no way of knowing if your point has gotten through, because you will always get the same response - either ‘yes’ or ‘sorry’ – not matter what.)
About half an hour later, he asked if I could join him on some sales visits the following morning, since The Whiteness would be sure to continue to impress. I explained for the second time that the purpose of me shadowing him was to observe the sales process as naturally as possible, and not to influence it by pretending to be a corporate general manager or managing director, providing a fake authority and influence, as he’d fairly bluntly requested. I explained, fairly explicitly, that this was not appropriate. It also didn’t seem to dawn on him that the fact that he had authorized someone to rip me off only half an hour before might influence my decision.
This morning I received a phone call from Ronald while he was out in the field, again asking me to accompany him on sales calls. I asked him why I would do this, as it isn’t my job in any way shape or form to do sales calls or to authorize discounts and deals, the main reasons why a more senior manager would go to project site.
He replied that if I came it would really impress them, and he would get the sales. I explained that this wasn’t appropriate, that it wasn’t my job, that I had other things to do, etc. He explained again that seeing ‘a white’ would really be great, such a help, he would get the sale. He just wanted me to come and stand there being white to impress people. I could tell he had absolutely no idea there would be any reason why I’d say no to this, and he thought I just didn’t understand his request. Finally, after attempting to explain to him that it wasn’t fair to ask me to do this, that I wasn’t just some white-skinned toy or tool or puppet to be used, and that, besides, I have my own job to do, I told him to not ask me that again.
He still has no idea why, I could tell.
Sometimes, but just sometimes, I hate it here.