In the calm, air-conditioned lobby of my first home in Dakar, Senegal, the Good Rade Hotel, the directors of my study abroad program taught us the most basic of basic tips for survival in the bustling city. One: always, always bargain before buying anything or getting into a taxi. Two: drink plenty of water. Three: watch your pockets in the crowds. Four: be prepared to be rushed in the markets by vendors beckoning you to buy something. “They will, in fact, call you ‘toubab.’ It’s just a name for a white person.” As the only African-American student in my study abroad group, I observed as pedestrians, vendors, and sometimes our school staff referenced the glaring presence of our group with the word toubab.
I escaped the sting of toubab. Not a derogatory word, but being openly singled out by race is… jarring, embarrassing, and sometimes angering for Americans. But I blended in, especially with my braids and wax print clothes. I was not an observed minority for a change, and I savored the feeling.
About a month into my program during a village visit to Thies, I was leaving a tiny shop when the owner called out, “Come back here toubab!” The proverbial record scratched and I looked around to see who he was talking to. I retorted in Wolof, “No! I am not a toubab!” And the man replied back to me undeterred by my brown skin and Wolof skills, “Yes, toubab. You are a toubab.”
He shook up my understanding.
I indignantly recounted my story to friends in Dakar to elicit their enthusiastic defense, but most of them agreed! That’s when I realized my relationship to Senegal was more complicated than I thought.
In 2009, I was an Anthropology and International Studies student, so a chance to explore the complicated concepts of identity, belonging, race, and legitimacy excited me. I developed and administered a survey, conducted interviews, and even held a focus group with Senegalese citizens to help demystify toubab. I also conducted extensive research on language ideology, identity formation, race, and colonization and turned the village incident into a thesis. I unearthed an interesting historical context and functionality of my subject.
I found a 1917 study performed by a committee conducting historic and scientific research in colonial French West Africa that determined that the Senegalese borrowed toubab from Arabic after asking the Maures about the origins of the white strangers on their shores. The committee concluded that Senegalese dubbed them thawab (which morphed into thuwab), meaning “clothing merchant,” because European traders often offered clothing and fabric in exchange for food, water, or information.
The committee put forth several other possibilities, like tubib meaning “doctor” and tubadji meaning “artilleryman,” that revolved around naming the French by possible social roles and behavior.
Words Do Things
I observed toubab being used in 4 different cases: to reference white people publicly or privately, to reference French presence or language (ie. Speaking toubab), between a Senegalese and a non-white Westerner (like me), and (surprisingly) between two Senegalese.
The word draws a boundary between what is Senegalese and not based on race, origin, or behavior. Whiteness is the first condition because of its visibility, though not a necessary one. Western origin is the second, and both of these necessarily coincide with behavioral expectations. Toubab behavior is considered the opposite of Senegalese behavior. It includes being private, closed-off, direct, and money-chasing. Senegalese behavior is founded on several “national principles” including hospitality, tactfulness, and discretion. The word toubab calls out a person’s deviation (real or expected) from Senegalese behavior. Some individuals can move in and out of the classification based on their behavior.
This research was important to me for two reasons. Even during the domination, dehumanization, and identity stripping of colonialism, Senegalese people drew and maintained boundaries between themselves and those in power. They defined legitimacy for themselves and their way of life that remains active and relevant today. Secondly, I always knew the word was about drawing boundaries, though I did not have the fancy terms and research to describe it. I wanted to belong, but our cultures created social distance—the in and out crowds. Recognizing that distance in 2009, I felt rejection. But today I feel more resolve in being that too-honest, carefree, loves-alone-time toubab cousin. My openness, curiosity, and generosity of time allowed me to share space with the “in crowd” and be accepted even as my Senegalese friends believed in fundamental differences between us. Does it still sting a bit when they call me a toubab? Yes. But I am more grateful that they always appreciate our commonalities while accepting our differences.