Disclaimer: If reading a black perspective, reading about the black lives matter movement or the recent killings in America upsets you: please keep reading anyway. I think you’ll learn something. Thank you for your cooperation in advance.
Choking. Heavy heart and an even heavier head. This is what it feels like to be black and not in America.
“I cannot be myself in America.” This is the daunting universal realization that many black people experience by the tender age of 15 and sometimes much earlier. Our society attempts to define who black people are solely through channels such as social media, movies, and music and as a result, we are constantly working to disentangle these stereotypes.
I can’t tell jokes and laugh at work because I will be seen as loud and a class clown instead of someone intelligent and capable of making a difference.
I’m black so I must know how to dance, sing and play basketball.
I can’t listen to anything but rap because if I do, I’m not “black enough.” But what does that even mean?
This is something only minorities go through. Have you ever heard someone say “you’re not white enough?” I didn’t think so.
“We are each unique in our experiences, family structure, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even knowing these things to be true — and should go without saying— it seems nearly impossible to disregard stereotypes that have been so deeply embedded into our psyches. So much so, that rather than celebrating individuality and original thought, we end up policing each other’s blackness all because of the knowledge— and perhaps fear — that white people are watching. Playing into the idea being that there is one way, to sum up, the black experience. Adhering to the expectation that once we leave our homes, we no longer represent ourselves; that we must be on our “best behavior” lest we risk being an embarrassment to the race.” – BlackGirlWhiteSpace Blog
Sometimes you get lucky enough to work in a place where your diversity is understood and embraced. To be accepted as an individual and not a representative of your entire race is like a breath of fresh air.
Working in the Peace Corps is something like that. Something close but not quite. Working here makes me exist in two places. One on hand, I have experienced racism from fellow volunteers, on the other hand, my perspective is appreciated because I add diversity to my organization. I admit that I prefer being with my host family than surrounded by other volunteers because my host family embraces me as an individual. Most Nicaraguans here have never seen a black person and they like getting to know me. They don’t make me feel ostracized or succumb to the unattainable pressure to act perfectly and, at the same time, invisible. I can eat watermelon and yell how much I love fried chicken. I can listen to rap, salsa, Beethoven, and Ariana Grande without defending my taste in music.
Still, I feel like both my feet are planted in two different places. In America and in Nicaragua. I feel like I have to be ‘on’ all the time while non-people of color have the freedom to just be themselves. I also feel the need to speak up and not be afraid to say what others are thinking. I wonder if I don’t speak up, then who will?
Working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua and catching up on the genocide of African Americans via social media is a hard process. I feel like I have to be two different people: the happy volunteer serving my community and the black American crying silently while watching the injustice and inequality in my own organization and country. Although Peace Corps is working to be better, I can admit that I don’t always feel their support. I can’t help notice when the Orlando shootings are mentioned and LGBTQ volunteers are offered support, sympathy and time off but Philando Castle, Alton Sterling, and my suffering is ignored. But perhaps that is because minorities are so used to remaining silent.
I can’t deny that I go to work with invisible tape over my mouth. I don’t want to appear like the stereotypical “angry, black woman.” Finding the right words to say is often a struggle because I have to meet people where they are. I can’t know what they know.
Are they aware of the systemic assault on blacks for the past centuries?
Are they aware that there have been recent killings in America?
Who is influencing what they see on social media and how susceptible are they to it?
OR WORSE, perhaps someone told them that black lives never mattered, and they believed them.
Mourning in silence is debilitating. Some days I just want to be a regular volunteer, not a social activist educating people on the importance of inclusion and why touching my hair without permission is offensive. Some days I can’t keep my tears from spilling over. I struggle to believe my coworkers when they say, “I’m here for you.”
I know it’s hard to understand where I’m coming from. How could you? You haven’t watched people die in front of you. You don’t know what it is to be paralyzed with fear at the sight of police lights, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. Why would you understand where I am coming from? There is no way a white body would be shown on TV or left in the street. Because there is a difference in how lives are treated in America. You don’t know what it’s like to struggle every day and be judged solely based on your skin. Some volunteers get it, though. They complain to me about being an “other” here in Nicaragua, but it will never compare to how it feels to be black in America.
Please understand, I don’t have a problem with white people. I have an issue with anyone who can’t understand why black lives matter. Some of my fellow volunteers don’t get it, and they have said things that are inherently racist, but I have also been supported by volunteers in Peace Corps and offered a hand of comfort. The problem is the imbalance of power that makes racism, racism (institutional power).
I struggle every day debating on going home and being afraid for my life while standing in solidarity with my people or making a difference here and proving to host country nationals that everything they see on TV is not true. I am not violent. I am an American, even if I say African in front of it and we don’t deserve to die.
[A conversation I had after work two days ago]
Coworker: [stares at me for a few minutes then says] Por qué está triste Nae? (Why are you sad Nae?)
Me: Porque quiero salir. (Because I want to leave.)
Coworker: Por qué? (Why?)
Me: Porque mi gente están muriendo. (Because my people are dying.)
Coworker: [He immediately jumps in enthusiastically] Así! Vi eso en la tele. Deberías quedarte aquí. Nos gusta usted y nadie va a matar a ti porque eres morena. (Oh yes! I saw that on TV. You should stay here. We like you and no one will kill you because you’re black.)
Being black and not in America. That’s what it looks like.
If you want to understand what Black Lives Matter Movement really means, please watch this video.
If you want to know how it feels to be black in America right now – ask. If you want to help, listen. It starts with small acts like that. It’s hard to believe someone that doesn’t look like me could understand or sincerely wants to hear what it’s like to be me. But those people exist. Those people are beside me on the front lines for change and those people keep me going when my head is bloodied but unbowed. We need allies. Those who are willing to acknowledge what’s really going on AND speak out about in places where my voice would never be heard are welcome. Allies who are willing to cross the line and stand in the fire who are willing to experience just exactly what it is we are going through marching, educating others etc. If you want directions to being an ally, read this, this, and this.