Excerpted from: Judy Scales-Trent, Make-believe Families and
Whiteness, 18 Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 47-54
The only way you will understand this story is if I start out by
telling you that there are six major ethnic groups in Senegal:
Wolof, Sereer, Pular, Diola, Toucouleur, and Mandingue. And you need
to know that my husband is Sereer.
This story took place one afternoon as we were taking a very long
car trip south from Dakar to Niodior, the fishing village where he
was raised and where his family still lived. After traveling for
several hours, we reached a part of the road where there were no
signs of life--no houses, no shops, no women selling fruits and
vegetables on the roadside, no flocks of sheep, no cars or buses or
horse-drawn wagons. We were alone on the road, and that's when we
saw the police car heading for us, signaling for us to pull over. My
first thought was that this was not good. All of a sudden I felt
isolated, helpless. Perhaps the policeman just wanted money. This
had happened before: a policeman sees me in the car (a person with
light skin), figures that I am a tourist, and thinks that perhaps
there is money to be made.
So we stopped the car.
The policeman walked over, looked in the car window and asked my
husband for his papers. Abdou gave him the papers, then replied,
without looking at the policeman, without any sign of a smile, "If
you are Diola, don't even speak to me."
My heart stopped! Had my husband lost his mind? Why on earth would
he pick a fight with a policeman out in the middle of nowhere? The
policeman was as startled as I.
"What did you say?" he asked.
And Abdou repeated, looking away from the policeman, looking way off
into the distance, "I said, if you are Diola, don't even speak to
My heart sank. Surely we were doomed! Would I spend the rest of my
life in a Senegalese jail? Under the jail?!
But the policeman paused for a minute, thinking.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Niodior," Abdou answered.
At that, the policeman started to laugh, and Abdou joined in. The
policeman tossed the papers back in the car, and stooped down to
look in the car window:
"Monsieur, your wife is very beautiful! Madame, your husband is very
handsome! Have a safe journey!" Then he walked back to his car,
still laughing, and was gone.
After I started breathing again, I asked Abdou what that was all
about. Why did he tell the policeman not to speak to him? He replied
that the policeman was his cousin. But I still did not understand.
"Why did you speak to him like that? What side of the family was he
from? And why didn't you introduce me to him?"
He explained that he didn't mean "cousin" in the sense that I
understood it; he didn't even know the man's name. What he meant was
that the policeman was his "cousin" because the policeman was Diola,
and the Sereer and the Diola were make-believe cousins.
"But how did he know you were Sereer?" I said.
"Because he knows that Niodior is a Sereer village."
"But how did you know that he was Diola?"
"What?! You didn't hear that accent?!"
So this was my introduction to cousinage in Senegal--a system of
make-believe families created across ethnic groups, a system
maintained by friendly joking.
* * *
Thus, through the system of cousinage, we made connections
throughout the country, wherever we went. It was usually a brief
conversation with a waiter, a cab driver, or someone we met at a
wrestling match, but it opened the door to smiling and laughing, and
it made life a little easier and a little more pleasant.
Joking about who eats too much rice or too much bread, joking about
who is whose slave--this is the system of cousinage, the creation of
make-believe families across ethnicities in order to reduce ethnic
tension. Because if you are Mandingue and your "cousins" are Diola,
you had better not get into a fight with a Diola, for they are your
I found this system so fascinating that I spent several weeks in
January conducting interviews about cousinage. And I learned a lot.
I learned that cousinage is practiced not only between ethnic
groups, but within ethnic groups. For example, there are many Sereer
groups in Senegal--Sereer Sine, Niominka, Ndoute, SafPne, None,
Palon, Baol. They live in different regions, often speaking a form
of Sereer incomprehensible to other Sereer groups. And they practice
cousinage between various Sereer groups for the same reason--to
create and maintain connections, to reduce conflict. There is also a
cousinage created by family name. Thus, since my husband is Sereer
Niominka, and since his last name is Sarr, his cousins include not
only Diola and Peul (other ethnic groups), and not only Sereer Sine
and Sereer Baol (other Sereer groups), but also anyone with the last
name of Ndiaye, Thiam or Diop. The system of make-believe families
creates a tight weave of many different groups throughout the
I also learned that there are rules of appropriate behavior when
engaging in the joking that creates and maintains cousinage. The
primary rule is that one must tease with respect: one does not have
the right to harm one's "cousin," either physically or
psychologically. The point is to create a situation where both
parties laugh. Thus, it is specifically forbidden to insult your
"cousin's" mother or father.
You have the right to give orders to your cousin and you have the
right to take all of his possessions. But you shouldn't forget that
he also has the right to give you orders and the right to take back
his possessions. You and your "cousin" are equal. You must also
remember that if you harm your "cousin," the harm will come back to
you. Thus there is a great incentive to treat one's "cousins" well.
Who is permitted to engage in this bantering? Everyone. Women may
tease men; the young may tease the old. The entire society is
entitled, and encouraged, to participate in the creation and
maintenance of these fictive families.
I heard many stories about how this concern for one's "cousins"
manifests itself. A Diola student told me that in his village, when
there were big celebrations--a marriage, a baptism--people would
ask, "Where are the Sereer?" They would be invited to eat first, and
to eat as much as they wanted. He explained that it gave his
neighbors pleasure to see the Sereer eat a lot because that
reinforced the system of cousinage. He also told me that when he was
younger, the villagers took very good care of their school teacher,
who was Sereer. A large part of the rice grown in the village was
reserved for him. And he remembers walking with his grandfather and
schoolteacher among the orange trees and hearing his grandfather say
to the teacher, "This orange tree is for you. This one is for your
wife. And this one is for your children."
* * *
"How did cousinage start?" I asked. "How did you learn about it?" I
heard several stories, but this one is my favorite:
Three women--one Diola, one Toucouleur, and one Sereer--left the
village together to wash clothes in a nearby stream. Each had a
basket of laundry on her head and a baby strapped on her back. When
the women reached the stream, they put down the laundry, then laid
the babies under a nearby tree. After a while, as it started to grow
dark, a ferocious animal came out of the high grasses and began to
slink towards the babies. The terrified women ran towards the
babies, each one grabbing the one closest to her: the Diola woman
picked up the Toucouleur baby, the Toucouleur woman picked up the
Sereer baby, the Sereer woman picked up the Diola baby. The women
saved each other's children, and ever since, we have been cousins.
As one law student explained, "This is like a contract which our
When I was in Senegal, cousinage was an enjoyable, playful way to
interact with strangers, nothing more. But the idea that this
society self-consciously and specifically decided to create
make-believe families in order to eliminate ethnic strife is a very
powerful one. As I reflected on this system of make-believe families
in Senegal, it reminded me of the system of clans within the
Sometime between 1000 and 1400 A.D., Deganawidah, a Huron spiritual
leader, visited five tribes which had been warring with each other
for hundreds of years: the Onandaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca and the
Mohawk. He went to spread the idea of peace. Deganawidah told them
that they should create a confederacy of these five nations. The
result was the creation of the League of the Iroquois, the
Haudenosaunee. And when the tribes created this League, they also
created The Great Binding Law, Gayanashogawa.
The leaders who created this Confederacy had great foresight, for
they knew that agreeing to create a confederacy did not ensure peace
between groups that had been warring for centuries. Therefore, in
order to create a situation, which would reduce the possibility of
war, they created make-believe families-- "clans"--across tribal
lines. There were eight clans: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Turtle, Hawk,
Snipe, Deer, and Heron. Before the creation of this clan structure,
a Seneca might have had little hesitation in going to war against
the Mohawk or the Cayuga. But after the creation of this
confederacy, a Seneca in the Turtle clan now had many new
"relatives"--relatives who were Mohawk, Turtle Clan; Cayuga, Turtle
Clan; Onandaga, Turtle Clan; and Oneida, Turtle Clan. How could the
Seneca make war against the Mohawks, since they now had Mohawk
"relatives?" The hope was that war would no longer be possible.
To ensure that members of this new confederacy took their new clan
"family" seriously, the Great Binding Law stated that since members
of the same clan were now family, they were forbidden to marry. This
mandate holds sway even today. It has the effect of strengthening
the concept of make-believe families in the Iroquois Confederacy.
But it has another important effect: it forces members of one clan
to marry a member of another clan, thus weaving even more tightly
the strands linking the tribes.
I thought a lot about these two societies, Senegalese and Iroquois.
Societies separated by language, by culture, and by geography, but
societies, which made a similar political decision: the decision to
eliminate warfare between their member groups by creating
And that led me to thoughts about white America, which made a very
different political decision: the decision to create warfare between
the black and white groups by making believe that real families do
not exist. This is one way that white America maintains its dream of
racial purity; this is one way that America creates "whiteness." And
white America has used, and still uses, many techniques for
maintaining the fiction that real families created across ethnic
groups do not exist:
By enacting rules and regulations which state that a child with a
white parent and a black parent is not a member of the white family;
By shunning the child with a black parent and a white parent, to
ensure that that child stays away from the white group;
By pretending that this child does not even exist.
I am thinking of the federal guidelines, which tell the states that
a child with a black parent and a white parent should be listed
"black" on the birth certificate. I am thinking of the family of
Senator Strom Thurmond, which pretended for so many years that his
daughter--their sister, aunt, cousin, niece, grandchild--did not
exist. I am thinking of George Washington's friend, Colonel Cocke,
who left Washington's house in disgust after seeing an old slave who
looked just like him.
This is not news to you. You know this literature. And you have more
stories you could add to this list. But somehow, putting the
American story into the same picture with cousinage, looking at
America along with the very self-conscious creation of make-believe
families by the Senegalese and the Iroquois, emphasizes the meanness
of the white American spirit. For it was not only the Senegalese and
the Iroquois who had this choice. White Americans too could have
made a political choice that would have furthered the goals of
equality, brotherhood and peace. They didn't even have to create
fictive families to do it. They could have simply accepted the
creation of real families across tribal lines, and peace might well
But they didn't. Instead, white America chose the fantasy that
certain real families did not exist. They chose the disruption of
They chose war.
Now I know that when I describe cousinage to you, I am romanticizing
Senegal to some extent. Of course Senegalese hate and kill each
other like everyone else. They are human, too. The rebellion in
southern Senegal reminds us of this. Also, tension and warfare
within a country don't have to be across ethnic lines. Senegalese
may not be concerned about ethnic tension, but there are those who
fear violence between Islamic brotherhoods. Nonetheless, I have
great respect for this political effort to create a system of
make-believe families in order to forge a tradition of peace.
And I wonder: how would all our lives have been different, if this
new country, America, had decided to follow these ancient models of
I thank the many Senegalese who were kind enough explain cousinage
to me: Khady Diakhaaby, Adama Diof, Idrissa Gassama, pathe Guéye,
Bada Ngom, Mamadou Sarr, and Charles Sow. I am grateful also to
Taunya Banks and Papa Demba Fall for their helpful comments on an
earlier version of this essay. Special thanks, of course, go to
Abdourahmane Sarr, who showed me how cousinage is lived.