It Follows (or, What to Expect as a Young Black Woman in Ecuador. If you identify with either or both, this blog post is for you)

Toluwani Roberts - Ecuador


March 7, 2018

Throughout the year, I’ve talked a lot about my personal experience in Ecuador; about my growth and experiences as Toluwani. However, my identity goes beyond my individuality, for lack of a better word. It’s important for me to illustrate my experience as a black young woman in Ecuador. The people in my Ecuador are kind, bright, full of love, and hospitable, but as expected, prejudice and discrimination still follow me.

In Quito, I am invisible.

At school, I am wary.

At family gatherings, I am annoyed.

At discotecas (clubs), I am alert.

On the bus, I am faux ignorant.

I stand in the doorway of a beauty shop in Quito for over 5 minutes saying “Disculpe” every now and then before a worker rudely asks what I need.

So many empty taxis in Quito, in the heat of noon, pass me by.

Some of my students sneakily or boldly pet my hair when it is out in an afro, or reach out to feel up my faux dreadlocks that I had installed.

I eye my shoulder whenever I pass any of my students to swat away hands reaching for my hair.

During larger family gatherings, an older male relative always asks if I have a boyfriend.

He (the “he” changes or is the same, depending on the occasion) always attempts to set me up with any man older than 18.

On one occasion, when I’d denied every male “offering” from an uncle, he

asks if I am a feminista. (Is that code for gay?) As if that’s a bad thing…

I am surprised and frustrated that all the women at the table continue to

laugh at his jokes and comments.

My host father lightly tells my uncle to leave me alone. I am grateful to have

an ally.

A relative continues his pursuit and interrogation, although my face and body language clearly show that I am uncomfortable.

At the dinner table, during a family gathering, someone asks, “What do people eat in Nigeria? Mono? Monkey?” I don’t know if it’s a joke or not. It doesn’t matter. I answer with a straight face, “No.”

I’m dancing with a guy when his friend approaches us with a bottle and a cup with a shot sized amount of alcohol. He drinks, and offers me a cup. I say “no”. Then they offer again. And again. And again. And again.

It is their tiredness, not their respect for my abstinence, that causes them to retire the bottle.

I hop on the bus and look for a window seat so that I can stare out the window in case the man who may occupy my neighboring seat chooses to speak to me out of something other than curiosity and friendliness. On these occasions, headphones or a book or pretending not to speak Spanish don’t always help. Shocking.

It all follows.

And unfortunately (read that with sarcasm, if you like), I cannot be polite. Not in response to racism. Not in response to sexism.

(I can’t be too honest either. I’m often tempted to interrupt some shitty flirting or drunken ramble to say “Soy lesbiana”. I can only imagine their reactions… but I won’t do that either. They aren’t worthy of knowing that part of me when my immediate host family doesn’t even know. I’ve chosen not to come out because my sexuality shouldn’t and doesn’t always affect my experience here).

I must be stern in my inevitable problematic interactions with people, whether they be sexist or racist. I must be strong in myself. Each annoying, suffocating, irating interaction and experience I have reminds me that my comfort is more important than the comfort of my molestador*. When I am honest with myself – when I respond to prejudice and disrespect in my desired manner – I not only retain my dignity, but either teach my molestador a lesson or give them a big, nice ‘fuck you’ that hopefully uproots their audacity and lowers their ego. (Usually, I do the former with young’uns and the latter with adults, who have probably had the opportunity and experiences to hear and learn how to be less problematic; who have at least developed the discretion to sense discomfort and know what’s offensive). My comfort and dignity lie in my identity as a woman, as a black woman, as a Nigerian, as a black US citizen, and as Toluwani. I demand respect towards all my selves.

Reflection:

When the inspiration for this blog post came, I was reminded of a facilitated conversation between fellows during one of our earlier retreats. We were discussing how to, pretty much, “stay in our place” as foreigners trying to immerse ourselves in our own branches of Ecuadorian culture. I sat in silence as the conversation progressed, increasingly fuming. The frustration overtook me, and I may have interrupted someone when I said something along the lines of, “Look, I understand we’re not here to impose our way or anything. Yes, we should respect Ecuadorian culture. But no one should come into this country and lose parts of themselves to immerse and fit in. When someone is violating your comfort and your space, tell them to get the fuck out of your face. That’s not disrespectful. That’s your way of respecting yourself.”

Being in a new country, in a different culture, should not make you hesitant about your values. It should not cause you to violate your dignity or spiritual pride or self confidence. Be open minded and say yes to new things, but to the things that stimulate growth, not shame.  

I was reluctant to write this blog post because it seemed too negative. I didn’t want to replace a single story with another single story, I wanted to expand it. Nor did I want to negate my privilege as an American in this country (which is another blog post in itself). Yet, it would be false to make these aspects of my experience invisible. My growth in Ecuador has not just been a spiritual and mental journey. It’s been a journey in growing more confident in my social identity in more diverse settings and more confident in how I portray it to those who are willingly and unwillingly ignorant of it. Please keep in mind that I am not a victim, nor are the moments that I’ve illustrated daily occurrences. I only wish to add more nuances to my experience in Ecuador, as a minority from the US also living as a minority here.

Lastly, It’s important for me to mention that Black Panther (!!!!!!!!!!) inspired this blog post. I’ve been away from my black community, both in the States and in Ecuador, during this year, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it. The movie reminded me of the struggle and beauty of being black, and of being a black woman. I was immediately moved to write about my experience in Ecuador as it relates to my social identity. Just as the movie makes Black American and African people, cultures, and issues more visible, I hope that in this blog post I’ve successfully made (parts of) my black female fellow experience more visible.

P.S. Ecuador for me ends in less than a month, but Wakanda forever!

*Not a real word, btw. English and Spanish didn’t have the word I wanted (molester is definitely not it) so I figured, why not make one up? Molestar means to annoy in Spanish, so I turned it into my own noun.


Toluwani Roberts