Growing up in a society with people who look exactly like me, I never truly understood the term racism and how it was talked about in American Schools. I learned about slave ships, the civil war, and Martin Luther King Jr. And every February I listened to the quotes made by famous black women and men but I never truly understood the humiliation, the shame, and the anger, those people experienced. I am not saying I understand the horrors of slavery and the hell people went through to secure our civil rights. But, experiencing discrimination based on the color of my skin gave me a little taste of the feelings shared by minorities in times worse than today.
It was during the summer of 2012 and Fikr, Betty, and I were at the entrance of our local public library doing publicity for our up-coming presentation about Global Citizen Year. It was nerve-wracking having to swallow our pride and ask strangers to support us. Many politely stopped and listened and others simply ignored us. A couple of elderly women were amongst the ones that ignored us and hurried into the library. As embarrassed as I was, I just thought they didn’t have time to stop and listen to us. But then a woman to whom we spoke to earlier came out shortly and told us something that made me feel a type of intense anger I had never felt before.
She told us that there were two elderly women complaining about a group of girls outside soliciting for things. She laughed and for a moment we did too because in light of our intentions the idea that we were doing something illegal or even dangerous was ironic. Then the librarian came out and asked us what we were doing. We explained and we laughed at the misunderstanding.
Later that day I was in Fikr’s car when a thought crept up on me unexpectedly. To be honest I didn’t even know what those two elderly women did bothered me this much. They were white, and I realized that if we were three white girls doing exactly what we were doing, those women would not have complained. My friends agreed. And because of my lack of experience with racism, I am not one to shout “Is it ‘cause I’m black?” every time something annoying happens to me. But this time I felt their judgment in my heart and I don’t know how else to explain it. I was very upset and confused. I didn’t realize that racism could be so subtle or hurtful.
Ecuador has made me hyper-aware of how I look. In my first few days in my first host community, a girl asked me why my skin was so dirty. Pero tienes que limpiarte bien, she said to me. Granted she was three and she was sitting on my lap while she was trying to write on my skin with a pencil. Naturally it wouldn’t show up on my brown complexion and she was frustrated. But it gave me an idea of how some Ecuadorians, especially those who’ve lived all their lives in secluded indigenous communities aren’t exposed to diversity. Then my host-sister in Riobamba explained to me while swearing that her family wasn’t racist, that “Here, we call people with bad attitudes ‘negros’.” Meanwhile one of my black fellow fellows was being asked by her family if she liked being black or if she’d rather be white…that she couldn’t possibly be black like the Afro-Ecuadorians because she seems intelligent. All of this, on top of the constant staring I put up with walking down the street every day became emotionally exhausting. By the time I left for TS2 in Esmeraldas (where most Afro-Ecuadorians live) I was excited just to see people who looked like me and thus wouldn’t stare at me.
I was glad to be in a place where I saw chocolate skin and nappy and curly hair more often than not. The Esmeraldenos we talked to loved our curly, and most of the time out of control, hair: they said it was beautiful. Other Ecuadorians usually stared at my hair while pointing and whispering. They could have been saying good things or bad things but to it only made me feel self-conscious and out of place. And so we became friends with the Afro-Ecuadorians. We played soccer and joked and that is the most amount of friendship I’ve constructed so far in my time in Ecuador with any Ecuadorian.
Meanwhile, I think I started experiencing what in psychology is called cognitive dissonance. I felt relaxed with them in a way I don’t feel relaxed around Mestizos or indigenous people. But I didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted to be able to connect with anyone: regardless of the color of their skin or the structure of their features. Furthermore, I felt awkward about how almost all the African-American people of my cohort made friends with the Afro-Ecuadorians and almost none of the rest did. The idealist in me was fighting with my heart.
I am not sure if everyone in this group has experienced racism but I know that all of you have been stared and pointed at, talked about in whispers, and I know it doesn’t feel good. It always isn’t racism. But it still makes us feel out of place when all we want is to be treated like a normal person. But that isn’t always going to happen. But for me it’s ok. Now, I think I understand that even though it is not ideal, I cannot help but feel more comfortable around people who look like me….Who will not act strange or distant because I look different. For me this feeling is subject to Ecuador and other places in which there is a bigger distance between different races. I think we are all inclined to gravitate towards people who we think are similar to us. As important as it is to push or expand our comfort zones sometimes I think it’s ok to find refuge in the people who won’t expect us to be anything or anyone based on our hair, face, or color.