Most of the time when I travel I'm struck by the amount of American/western privilege that is bestowed upon me by people around the world. I've been traveling internationally for a long time and continue to make it a learning experience for me. I don't know why, then, I continue to be struck by other people's perception of Blackness.
I know. I shouldn't be. But, with all the television, the Michael Jordan posters, and hip hop spread around the world, I continue to be amazed that YOU are amazed that I am both Black AND American. What America continues to export readily around the world is our pop culture of which Blackness plays a major role. And since 'blackness' and its appropriation has been tweeted about, shown in commercials, and appeared on the boxes of Wheaties, I can not for the life of me understand the straight degradation of Black people in Panama.
That's a lie. Yes I can.
I'm a Black American. They are just Black. In Panama.
I am, by every single account a Black American. I come from people who are descendants of African slaves brought to the Americas and by virtue of my birth, my mother's birth, my grandmother's birth, I am a Black American. As a Black American, I've come to see Black people as proud people who represent the spectrum of the human experience economically, artistically, athletically, and intellectually. I'm not shocked when I see a poor child with brown skin seeking shelter in a dirty alley. I'm equally as unmoved when I see a brown woman with an Hermes bag in a Celine store waiting for her driver to pick her up to return to her million dollar condominium. We, Black folk, tend to be disproportionately poor, but I know that we, like all people, come all kinds of ways. Apparently this is partially an American school of thought.
As a Black American, I've had people assume I was lavishly rich but also run faster when I called, stayed longer when I spoke, gave me extra food, bestowed upon me discounts, and lobbied for me for no apparent reason at all. The treatment abroad at times is sometimes unreal. I've had people treat me so kind, speak to me so nicely, that I've had to wonder if they were trying to date me or steal my passport. I've come to realize that many times it is the culture to be nice and often times is custom to be nice to Americans. Of any color. Because you are, American.
I am also a Black American who is fortunate enough to have seen, met, befriended Black people who are rich, poor and middle class. In Latin America, in my experience, I've found very few instances of upwardly mobile Black people.
Fast forward to my trip to Panama. There was no real reason I wanted to visit Panama aside from the canal. I was excited at the newness of the country, as I am of most countries I visit. I was deeply disappointed upon my arrival at the sheer amounts of Black people in Colon and Panama City who were visibly poor, living in makeshift homes along feces infested rivers, children playing bare foot and begging for food, and the vast amounts of machine gun police officers pushing Black folks aimlessly on the streets. In an effort to not go Angela Davis in a country that is known for more than a few human rights' abuses, I decided to look across the street at the palm trees that lined the President's home. Yes. The President's mansion sits right across the highway from some of the most deplorable living conditions I've ever seen with my own two eyes.
What I found equally as disturbing is the amount of police presence in Panama. Armed police. This is typical in a lot of places I visit, but Panama was disturbing. The guards were everywhere. They were speaking quietly to themselves, if at all. They would turn to the brown and Black people in a way that was brutal and unkind. I was very uncomfortable by the energy and atmosphere of what appeared to be a very hostile state of affairs for the Black citizens.
And then it happened. I attempted to enter a store that sold exclusively Western goods like Lancome makeup and Dior fragrances. The security guard, a Black man by my account, stood front and center and declared I stop (in Spanish). I spoke to him in Spanish since that is how he spoke to me. The more we spoke, the worse it got. He basically accused me of being a good for nothing Negro who was sneaking her way into a high end store. I stood at the door. he wouldn't even let me pass the metal detectors with his hand on my shoulder and signaling for guards to come over.
Sir. I thought. I can buy this whole damn store and still have some change.
What disturbed me most was after I told him I was an American, presented my passport, he then preceded to let me in the store. It made me so mad that he let me in the store after he noticed an error in my Spanish and the presentation of my passport. Why was he apologizing so profusely. Because I was an American? Because I deserved some type of economic courtesy? Because I was NOT a good for nothing Negro but a good for nothing AMERICAN Negro?
I had originally thought that the perception and stereotype of poverty with Blackness was inextricably linked in America and abroad. I had originally thought that because of this perception it was important to show the varying degrees of financial 'success' of Black folk in a concerted effort to invalidate that link. But then, at the doorsteps of that store in Panama City, I thought But what if I were poor? What if I were Afro Panamanian? Do I not have the right to be in a store reserved for westerners? What if I were a citizen of this country who had saved her hard earned money to buy my mother some perfume?
There'd be no American passport to save me from my Blackness.
I think the realization that I had grown up in a family that was pretty proud to be Black and saw ourselves as defenders of the African Diaspora without knowing fully what our Black brothers and sisters go through everyday was jarring. Seeing first hand that my ability to advocate on behalf of Blackness around the world is clouded by my own privilege not only as an American but as one of means. The realization that I was different but very much the same as the people starving by the riverside made me feel solidarity and dejection.
I now realize that my swift revelation of an American passport was a shallow provocation of actually distinguishing myself from my brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. That's something I never felt I would do and certainly felt terrified at the thought of what could happen to me if I hadn't.
Though I have a great disdain for Panama City and my experience in the country as a whole, I continue to think deeply about the Black people there. I continue to be impressed by their kindness to me as a foreigner and their expressed joy in me as a Black woman. I think about their smiles. I think about the vendor selling me Afrocentric earrings at a discount because he was so happy to see me. I think about how delightful he smelled as he lifted the mirror in admiration of me. They gave me so much; I gave them nothing.
I got the opportunity to go home to America where Blacks are also profiled and have tense conditions with police officers. We also enjoy some economic mobility, increased educational opportunities, and a social welfare system that can catch us (for a while) if we fall. We are also not herded in houses made of tin and tents but live in stable conditions where running, clean water is commonplace. This is to say that I've come to see my privilege as someone who didn't think I had any. I've come to see myself as someone who can become a better advocate, a better member of the Diaspora by understanding some of the conditions of my people around the world and exposing those conditions to other Black Americans. I have to believe that as a Black American, I can somehow inspire a wider tolerance for Black people around the world not just through my pocket book. I will continue to learn from my experiences around the world and seek out better ways to align myself with my people as a proponent against racism. Wherever it occurs. And to whomever encounters it.