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I am not a Colonial Frenchman

I have a friend who journeyed to Cameroon recently. Good on her. When she returned to Maine I huddle around to hear what stories I could hear. I am always up for listening to a good travel yarn. . . . and her yarn was pretty good, but the peaks and valleys of it were [...]

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I have a friend who journeyed to Cameroon recently. Good on her. When she returned to Maine I huddle around to hear what stories I could hear.

I am always up for listening to a good travel yarn.

. . . and her yarn was pretty good, but the peaks and valleys of it were perpetually intermixed with statements such as:

We messed these people up so much.”

We destroyed their indigenous society”

We ruined their tradition medical systems and gave them our own.”

We did all sorts of horrible things to these people.”

By “we” I am assuming that she meant 19th century colonial Frenchmen, as they were the ones who enacted many of the above stated misdeeds.

I struggled with myself over this rampant use of a pronoun that I could only find horridly misused.

I am quite sure that I am not a colonial Frenchman, and I have very strong suspicions that the teller of this tale was neither from the 19th century nor was she from France.

How could “we” have had anything to do with the colonial history of Cameroon?

Perhaps I am a little dense about such things, but I just did not get it.

Though I knew that I was dealing with a matter-of-fact example of White Man’s Guilt in practice.

Societies — tribes — have ways of programing themselves into philosophical uniformity. Lines are drawn in the sand: “good” is placed on one side, and “bad” on the other. . . and the distinctions between the two are beyond contention. My friend took it for granted that I would not question the use of “we” to mean French colonials — we were both white skinned people — and she took it for granted that I could not contend the fact that modern white Americans are somehow to blame for the post-colonial ills of Africa.

This seems to be a normal perspective of liberal America.

This stuck in my craw.

I asked Chaya about this the following morning.

Chaya answered intelligently, “She meant that “we” come from a similar cultural tradition as the colonists in Cameroon.”

Fair enough, but Chaya is a Jew, and I am a quarter stock Native American whose antecedents emigrated to the Americas long before any white folk stepped foot in that part of Africa.

We obviously had no historic connection to colonial Africa other than our pelts appear to be similar to that of the White colonists.

Is this to say that “we” means all White people regardless of true national origin? Is this to say that all white people are the same?

Didn’t grade school teach us that it is not prudent to judge people based on the color of their . . .

The misuse of pronouns

I cannot help but to find it profoundly weird for people to think that they are somehow responsible for historic events that were perpetrated hundreds of years before their birth, just because they were done by people of a similar hue of skin.

“We” cannot be used to draw a line of moral responsibility between present people and past actions.


It is my impression that it would be a very unpopular position to blame the people of Ghana for the genocide in Rwanda.

— all people who appear similar to each other are not necessarily from the same cultural group.

It is also my impression that it would be equally unpopular to blame the modern decedents of the Iroquois for their prehistoric massacre of the Erie

— modern people cannot be blamed for past people’s misdeeds.

I find it profoundly weird that white skinned people in the USA can somehow take if for granted that they are somehow morally responsible for the actions of all white skinned people throughout history.

I cannot help but to find it odd that “we” in 21st century America had anything to do with the ills of African colonialism, and I find it sourly pretentious to hear people speak as if it is their responsibility to rectify these ills.

White Man’s Burden all over again.

I have a groggy memory of an ethnographic anecdote that I once read a long time ago about an Ethiopian tribe who had a considerably strong reaction against the passing of gas in public. This reaction was said to be so strong that one member of this community was actually named, “The Man Whose Grandfather Farted.” It seemed ridiculous to me to think that this man should be blamed for his antecedent’s unchecked noxious release.

My feelings are the same for those who ascribe to a White Man’s Guilt world view, as you are essentially blaming yourself for the farts of your grandparents.

We” are not colonial Frenchmen.

On White Man’s Guilt
Tourist Guilt and Helping the Poor
Donate Money to Africa
Tourist Charity and Street Children
Can Culture be Wrong Debate

I am not a colonial Frenchman


Filed under: Africa, Culture and Society, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

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  • Will January 2, 2011, 3:06 pm

    We living to day don’t bare direct responsibility for the misdeeds of those hundreds of years ago. But we living in the first world today do benefit from the colonization and slave labor of yesterday, just as those in the third world have suffered from it. We need not feel guilty for the actions of anyone’s ancestors. We need not generalize nor assume what others mean by we. We can look at history, those suffering and who have suffered and see the humanity in all of this. In doing that we can be more careful than to reduce and degrade the complexities and significance of human empathy and post-colonialism to grammar, farts and skin color.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 2, 2011, 3:54 pm

      It is my impression that droning on about the past and excuse mongering is what keeps many people marginalized.

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