Living While Black

By Amanda JJC Carrington

My Colombian host family and I after climbing La Popa

My Colombian host family and I after climbing La Popa.

There is something incredibly comforting about anonymity. To be able to walk down the street without a second glance is a blessing. I’ve found that the ability to blend in relies heavily on your racial identity. Despite US cultural insistence on “color-blindness” (which is problematic as it dismisses an integral aspect of identity), it is impossible to ignore racially distinguishing characteristics. As history has shown, these seemingly insignificant differences can easily cause conflict. Living in the US, and traveling around the world, has provided me a snapshot of these racial relations.

It is no secret that Connecticut is an extremely white state. I imagine that, for many, Connecticut evokes images of Ralph Lauren models and elite country clubs. However, I come from a very different Connecticut. For most of my young life, I felt the comfort of living in a community where almost everyone looked like me. I never had to question my identity. I didn’t truly experience the harsh realities of racial differences until I was older. From seventh to twelfth grade I was one of four Black girls in my private school. I knew I looked different to my classmates, and at times they also made me feel different. I was told I looked “scary,” asked if I was from “the hood,” and pinned as the “stereotypical black girl.” While they weren’t always explicitly racist, the intent of these micro-aggressions was clear. As I acquired the freedom that comes with post-adolescence I continued to encounter issues. I became hyper-aware of my blackness in white spaces. It is an unnerving realization that can easily cause anxiety and self-consciousness.

To escape this reality I decided to go to Spelman College. As an HBCU, Spelman was home to students from everywhere in the African Diaspora. When hearing of my college choice many argued that an HBCU couldn’t truly be diverse. However, college was the place where I encountered the most diversity. We might have been alike racially, but we were also culturally, ethnically, and socioeconomically different. Being in Atlanta was like living in a very comfortable bubble. I could move freely around the city without feeling like I was an exhibit at the zoo. At Spelman I was surrounded by likeminded peers who could relate to my experiences with race. Spelman provided me with a safe space to mature into the confident woman that I am today. But that bubble quickly popped with every flight back home.

Me and my Rwandan host family at a party for all host families in the program

Me and my Rwandan host family at a party for all host families in the program.

I chose to study abroad in Kigali partly because I longed for the Motherland. I naively assumed that being black in Africa would allow me to relate to Rwandans. While being black did allow me fewer stares than my muzungu (White person) friends, I was still a conundrum. Explaining that I was born in the US, ethnically Trinidadian, and ancestrally West African, became a necessary introduction.

I’ve found living in coastal Colombia to be a much simpler matter. My complexion allows me to blend into the myriad of brown and black faces. I’m usually assumed to be Colombian which ensures me fewer typically gringa encounters. In la costa, I’ve yet to feel the hyper awareness of Connecticut. In turn, I find it intriguing to hear white PCVs share their first experiences with the “fish bowl.” But Colombia is no utopia. A simple bus ride in Cartagena can reveal shocking income disparities. It appears that socioeconomics is intrinsically tied to race and ethnicity. Living in Colombia is a learning experience.

I’ve enjoyed my past travels and the experiences they produced. As I continue traveling, I hope to develop a comprehensive racial lens.

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3 responses to “Living While Black

  1. I really like this article because it entails the reality that many PCVs are experiencing… We either are the “goldfish” and/or the person, who blends in, and often times has to present themselves with an introduction: 1. Place of birth 2. Place of heritage and 3. Purpose of visit/travel/service… Lastly, it has been my experience that racial background is usually associated to social class…

    Like

  2. I very much can relate to your experiences and enjoyed your fluid writing style. Muy bien hecho! When you integrate even further into Colombian culture, I would love to hear more about the black experience in Colombia. I’m currently a PCV in Benin and I’m preparing to apply for a Response position in Colombia. Wish me luck!

    Like

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