Not long ago, I received a text message from a young woman, a minor acquaintance I'd only met a couple of times:
Hi Barb its something personal bt I think u sud help me out plis… if posible plis I really want 2 make frend wit one of whom u knw who is interested with PNG girls plis im intrested. sicret u and me.
Though she didn't spell it out, the type of person she wanted to make “friends” with was, I knew, a white man. This wasn't the first time a young Papua New Guinean had asked me to help them find a white boyfriend or husband. On my first visit to the country in 2008, I found myself being asked to take carefully posed photos of 15 and 16 year old girls in their smartest, most fashionable clothes, which they subsequently directed me to show to my “brothers and friends back home.” Since then I've had many young women inquire about whether or not my male friends in America would be interested in being matched up with Papua New Guineans. As with my text messaging acquaintance, these requests were supposed to be “secret you and me”—these young women didn't want their families or other people to know that they hoped to “befriend” foreigners. Another companion even snuck a look at my phone while I was sleeping, and started sending flirtatious text messages to one of my contacts, whom she knew to be white, male, and single. (I found out about this much later, when he informed me, amused, of the messages he had been receiving late at night.) These girls are hardly “gold diggers” or loose women; most are churchgoing “good girls” with dreams of upward mobility and international travel that are tragically inaccessible to most Papua New Guineans.
These requests are always awkward for me. I find it hard to explain that dating works differently where I'm from, and that few American men in their twenties and thirties would be interested in, or even aware of, the possibility of striking up a long distance relationship with a Papua New Guinean girl. The fantasy combines a very Papua New Guinean approach to courtship, in which an intermediary establishes contact between two people with the hope of making a match, with a series of assumptions about how romance, sexuality, and love work in “the white countries”. Most of these assumptions are simply the inverse of racist stereotypes about Papua New Guinean men (which both men and women have internalized to an often upsetting degree). Unlike PNG men, girls tell me, white men are uniformly kind, monogamous, non-violent, non-jealous, sober, and financially responsible. They never hit their wives and don't cheat with other women. They don't drink, or if they do, they “know how to drink well and don't get drunk.” Even when they leave their wives, they do it better than Papua New Guineans do: “white people know how to divorce properly,” a woman in her fifties once informed me. (Needless to say, women who've actually lived overseas or spent time in expat enclaves often have a very different perspective on white men's fidelity and sobriety.) I've lost track of the number of times I've heard young women, and even a few older married ones, declare with exasperation that they're finished with PNG men and want to find a white husband. Many ask me about immigration opportunities, fantasizing out loud about, for example, going to pick fruit in Australia and nabbing a man at the same time, or going on a tourist visa to America and “just staying forever”.
I should emphasize here that most of these fantasies are just that: a way of expressing frustration with male behavior and marital restrictions on PNG women, as well as the unfair limitations on international migration and travel that Papua New Guineans face. The politics of migration in the Pacific are defined and policed by Australian authorities—for most Papua New Guineans, “overseas” means Australia, their former colonial overseer, and Australian media regularly expresses terror at the thought of masses of Papua New Guinean “boat people” crossing the Torres Strait. In these accounts, Papua New Guineans are often depicted as vectors for infectious diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, threatening Australian public health and the solvency of the Australian health care system. Public service announcements targeting the state of Queensland (where most of the migration traffic between PNG and Australia occurs) warn Australian men working in the mining industry of the health risks of sex with Papua New Guineans. In reality, while many PNG women would jump at the chance of overseas travel—something that is accessible to only a tiny minority of the population, usually through educational exchange and, yes, marriage to foreigners—most are deeply attached to their home and relations, and understand that life in other countries might be isolating and difficult. Moreover, many of them have met women who have been married to or otherwise involved with white men, and their life stories are not always fairytale romances. In many cases, desire for “white men” is actually desire for an imaginary life of leisure and plenty known primarily through TV, movies, magazines, and observations of the lavish lifestyles of tourists and other expatriates.
When I interview informants, they often take the opportunity to ask me personal questions about sexuality, romance, and racial difference. After an hour-long interview with two twenty-year-old men, one of them politely inquired if I would ever consider marrying a black man. At first, embarrassed, I wondered if he was hitting on me, but I quickly realized that he was actually asking a broader, political question about race relations: Why, he continued, did white people in PNG “keep to themselves” so much? Why did they seem unwilling to establish long-term relationships with blacks? Did the thought of intimacy with Papua New Guineans disgust them? Why did they come to the country if they had no interest in a lasting connection with its inhabitants?
In this young man's account, interracial marriage was a sign of commitment to the country's well-being and a willingness to participate in reciprocity with its people—a metonym of more equal relations between nations. The desire for connection with whites has parallels with the populist analyses of regional political economy, in which the commodities readily available in Papua New Guinea are derided as “rubbish from China,” and Australian, European, or American goods are imagined to be of superior quality. Papua New Guineans know they are exploited as both a resource-rich site for extractive industries and as a dumping ground for cheap, poorly made goods. Girls often compliment my athletic sandals not in terms of their being attractive or fashionable (which, in my opinion, they are not), but as being “strong.” They link this “strength” to their overseas origin, and often complain in the same breath that “we Papua New Guineans wear rubbish sandals that break quickly, because they're made in China.” They request gifts—usually phones and shoes—“from America”, apparently assuming that goods on the American market are not made in China. These analyses uncover an acute awareness of PNG's position in the global economy. What is highly disturbing to me is when this populist hatred of Chinese “exploitation” and derision of Papua New Guinean lifestyles combines with retro-colonial nostalgia for white supremacy. Decades of failed development, government corruption and manipulation by (largely invisible) global neoliberal forces have convinced many that black men are incapable of governing themselves or taking care of their dependents. When this political cynicism is transferred into the realm of romantic relationships, you get the false notion that white men are the answer to women's disempowerment and poverty.
I describe these political and economic analyses in the same breath as young women's romantic aspirations because I have come to see them as intimately connected. Race in Papua New Guinea, as Ira Bashkow has so elegantly shown in The Meaning of Whitemen (2006), is often understood through an idiom of consumption, and white people are known and appreciated through the goods they possess. People slip easily between discussing the qualities of commodities and the nature of the persons who use them—sometimes arguing, for example, that Papua New Guineans are poor because they spend all their money on “Chinese rubbish” and thus have trouble saving up to improve their lives. These analyses are upsetting to me because they misconstrue the effect of poverty as its cause,and continue the cycle of self-blame and self-hatred engendered by colonialism.
So what do I do when my informants ask me to help them find a “white man”? In the case mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I replied (truthfully) that I didn't know many white men in the town where I am conducting fieldwork, and that those I did know were taken. But for some reason I couldn't bring myself to criticize her desires—what would be the use, after all, of telling her that she should be satisfied with the romantic and economic opportunities already available to her? She shouldn't be. Her picture of a life of luxury and ease with a caring white husband might be an illusion, but it is predicated on a lived experience of dispossession that I would be wrong to dispute.
Barbara Andersen is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at New York University. At the time of writing she was conducting research on nursing education and changing gender relations in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.