NegraBy Resha Swanson | 03/20/2017 8:57pm
I feel overwhelmingly and uncomfortably black. Not like, “oh, it’s pitch black in here” or, “wow her hair is black”. No. I am talking about black as Grace Jones next to a white background, black as Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” to a crowd of white men, Black as Barack Obama in the White House B-L-A-C-K Black. Even thousands of miles from America, I feel my blackness like a shroud around me – like a wall that stands between my peers and I. Studying abroad is turning out to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life; I have had the opportunity to interact with people from different parts of the world, gain cultural empathy, speak another language, and even chased a few waterfalls here and there. But the thing I find most foreign are not the Ticos that surround me, but my fellow American students.
What makes me feel truly uncomfortable, like my skin color is preceding my personality, is when my fellow American classmates make an awkward joke about those “Black people”. What makes me feel like I am an outsider is when people carelessly sing-along to a song and “accidentally” say the n-word, all the while throwing me an uncomfortable glance over the shoulder to see if I approved. When my fellow classmates begin talking about how “they don’t even see race” and how “we should all just ignore race because it’s not even a real thing”, these are the moments when I feel my color, my history, my heritage boiling inside my veins. I often find myself in situations, contemplating the consequences of speaking-out or being that “angry Black woman”. Although these microaggressions may not be said to intentionally hurt others, the effect are clear – isolation.
It is true that the shouts from the streets faze me, just a little. The catcalls of “¡Oye negrita, que guapa!” and “Hola morenita, ¿cómo estás?” cause my insides to turn just a little bit. After all, my name is Resha and not negrita and no woman wants or deserves to be catcalled in the middle of the calle. However, I know that terms morenita and negrita are not said with malice, but rather are words that exist with a connotation of affection. And so, I simply take the name-calling with a grain of salt and a smile – knowing that, with the exception of the catcalls, these words are intended as a friendly greeting. Although Costa Rica has its own interesting history of slavery and labor exploitation of people of African descent and of course, the stereotypes that emerge from such oppression, these words exist in a culture that does not have a history of Jim Crow Laws, red-lining neighborhoods and school districts, and oppressive tactics used in the United States. For Costa Rica, their history of slavery has evolved into a discrimination based more on color than the inherent qualities of a single “race”. For them, there is no “race” other than Latino.
No matter where we are, our prejudices and biases seem to transcend our native homelands and follow us to wherever country we land on. In this case, the subtle microagressions that may go unnoticed in the United States because they fall under the pretext of normality or everyday conversation become hyper-visible to people of color when placed in different cultural environments. Even more, the hyper-visibility our own culture becomes exaggerated when we are thrown into an ocean of homogeneity–with no raft boat of cultural empathy or understanding to rescue us. I crave for my usual cultural outlets of my fellow African-American friends, my work with different multicultural organizations, and most importantly, my daily dose of Black Twitter. Some may say that I am being “too sensitive”, playing on the theme that African Americans are being coddled by all those post Jim Crow rights. Some may say that I need to understand that my peers come from all parts of the United States and may not have been exposed to “other cultures”. But seeing as my rights are still pending and the only culture I know is American culture, my patience is running thin. I am not in the business of soothing the consciences of others at the expense of my own heritage and values. And so, as I continue my journey in Costa Rica, searching for culture and a way not become the angry Black women we all stereotype and love to hate, I guess I will go find a wall to stand next to that will make me seem a little less Black.