Archive for the ‘race’ Tag

Are we in a post-racial age?

I ask this question because of a conversation that I had this past week. I went to observe my organization’s after school mentoring program last week for the first time. The program takes place in the rec room of an apartment complex in southwest Houston where many refugees and immigrants live. Most of the kids there were from Spanish-speaking countries, Turkey and a few African countries. The kids all knew each other fairly well and speak English pretty well. When I arrived, they were at the table talking about how much they disliked school.

After reading and an arts and crafts activity, I sat down with the kids while they were playing with blocks with a high school volunteer. As the kids started fighting over the blocks, one of the Turkish boys said that he did not like black kids and that he only liked white people. The other volunteer and I were literally speechless because the child was six. The other volunteer pointed out to him that he was playing with a Congolese boy at the moment and he also played with another black student at school. I asked him why he said that and he told me that one of the black students was mean to them so he did not like black people.

After Senator Obama began President-Elect Obama, there has been a lot of writing and talking about the post-racial age that we are in. But as the passage of anti-gay marriage bans in three states and my conversation with a six-year old about race shows, people are still supporting and at least implicitly teaching intolerance. This experience made me wonder which adults in his life taught him the stereotypes that he now believes.

Striving for a post-racial age seems to miss the mark. Ignoring our cultural backgrounds is impractical. Our cultural differences exist and impact our lives, so why should we ignore them? Shouldn’t we be striving for an age of tolerance?


Thoughts on race and life abroad

Living abroad challenges your cultural perceptions as much as the cultural perceptions of the people you meet. I have traveled to locations varied enough to both appear to be from the country that I was in and appear to be a foreigner. More often than not, reactions and comments, positive and otherwise, are spurred by race. In China, I was perceived as a oddity; families asked me to pose in their vacation photographs. In Brazil, people I met assumed that I was Brazilian and did not believe me when I told them otherwise. Policies may actually discriminate against certain nationalities or races.

Race remains an issue in social interactions; the concept of colorblindness is debatable. Political correctness is a cultural phenomenon that changes, depending on location as much as context. Part of being in a foreign country is learning to adjust your sensitivity to racially tinged comments.

1. Ask about what you hear.

In Argentina, it’s common to use the word negro or negra like a term of endearment. In most other contexts, the word is used to describe something or someone who is black. The first time I heard someone call me negra, I thought it was odd they were being so forward. Asking about it made sure there was no misunderstanding due to the language barrier. It also prevented from me being upset about something that is perceived as harmless.

2. Definitely ask if you are thinking about correcting a misconception.

During my first week here, I had lunch with the staff at a local drug rehabilitation center. After a nice lunch conversation, one of the women who worked there asked me if I could sing. I asked her why wanted to know. She told me that once she had heard a black woman sang and she really enjoyed it, therefore implying that because I am black, it is likely that I am a good singer as well. I made a joke about how I sing in the shower (poorly), but told her that I am sure that she enjoyed the performance because the woman was talented. Correcting misconceptions is usually not about lectures and angry reactions.

3. All else fails, consider the experience as a part of travel.

I meet new people, especially patients at the clinic, all the time while I am in La Plata. Not one person I have met has guessed that I am American even though there are several American students here. The perception is prevalent that Americans are white. Of course, there are some benefits to not appearing American, but it is also odd and vaguely frustrating to explain to people that I am not Brazilian or Dominican.

This does not mean that you have to spend time with people who insult you. There are ignorant people all over the world; feel free to ignore them just as you would ignorant people in the country you live in.