I want to start this post off with an apology in case I offend anyone. At times it is difficult to explain my experiences without accidentally making a generalization. I am sure many people have this problem. I can’t count how many times guys have tripped over their words trying not to offend me as a woman. We’re in a weird time when we’re still learning about race, sex and gender (and other things), and how these characteristics simultaneously make us so different, and yet so similar. I hope that there will be a day when children are raised in a world that is so accepting that offenses and accidental generalizations are nearly extinct, that tolerance is so widely practiced that language does not need to be watched with caution. A day when everyone can talk about their experiences openly with one another without worry.
But we haven’t quite reached this point yet, so I begin this post slowly and cautiously, so as not to trip over my words or my thoughts.
Identity is a funny thing. I think my years at Wellesley College have caused me to self-identify primarily as a woman. When I am in Portugal, I think my identity shifts. I am more aware of my heritage as a Luso-American.
I suppose in this respect, how I identify myself is how I see myself different from others in whatever location I’m in. When I’m with a group of guys somewhere, I am aware of my femininity. When I’m with a bunch of women, perhaps its something else. Perhaps I’m the only art major in a group of biologists. Humans notice differences – it is what we are most aware of, I think.
When I am in São Tomé e Príncipe, I feel very white.
Let me say that I think São Tomé is an excellent place to build your identity. You learn to accept who you are. People point out your differences openly and verbally, but they don’t judge. It’s beautiful in this way.
Sometimes, however, people have treated me differently because of the color of my skin. I’m sure many people of color reading this are laughing right now- they are more used to this than many. But in my situation, the color of my skin was not cause for discrimination, per se. Rather, it had a different flavor.
As anyone who reads my articles already knows, I coordinate laptop programs for students in the developing world, though my work in São Tomé has and always will be volunteer. There, I work with five teachers at the São João Secondary School.
Sometimes the teachers ask the school’s director for things when I’m right beside them, and the director says a flat-out “no”. And then after he says no, I will pretty much ask the exact same thing, and he will say “ok, sure.” The first few times it happened, I figured he just thought about it for a minute and changed his mind. But after a while, it started to occur that whenever the teachers needed something, they would send me over to ask the director, because he would always say yes.
After a while, it started to irk me. I can’t help but think about São Tomé’s terrible history- a country that only gained its independence from Portugal in the mid-1970s. A country, even in the 1950s, had workers that were, bluntly put, enslaved. And I think about how I’m a 24 year-old Portuguese-American woman and here’s a 40-something year old São Tomean man and it’s starting to feel like if I ask him for anything he will say yes and it is making me more and more uncomfortable.
I bring it up to my ex-boyfriend, Kilson, who is São Tomean. I ask him what he thinks, and he laughs. “There’s a way of thinking here,” he says, quite directly. “It’s so stupid. If you’re white, it means you’re educated, you’re smarter and you know better. People listen to white people here because they think they have the answers.”
He talks about how whites are thought to be people’s escape from a country that is desperately poor. If you’re white, many assume that you have money, contacts, opportunity. When you’re in a country as poor as São Tomé, you’re on a constant hunt for opportunity.
I see Kilson network with white people often. It’s not a race thing– no one necessarily thinks anyone is better than anyone purely because of the color of their skin. But if you’re white, you most likely weren’t born in São Tomé, and there’s a pretty good chance that the other place has a bigger population, more opportunity and heftier salaries. So it’s good to be on the in with white people, according to Kilson.
Certainly this could be viewed differently from another perspective. It’s my own experience and not necessarily that of anyone else. Yet it’s frustrating to see that most opportunity lays outside of São Tomé’s borders.
Later that day, the director takes me to his office and shows me the school’s printer. It’s out of ink and he doesn’t know where to get more. He says the printer was a gift and shows me the box that the ink came in. He knows that I know where to get more ink. I know that I know where to get more ink, too.
I think about the time I watched my buddy Bill walk to the front of a horrendously long line in Haiti, because in Haiti he had preferans before everyone else (this, from what I understand, also includes Haitian-Americans, who are viewed as blan).
I think it is easy for someone to feel overwhelmed and confused when treated with more respect because their skin is a different color. Not confused on their own behalf, but for those who are not treated with an equal amount of respect. Which is better: to follow cultural norms, or to stand up for mutual respect and against racial profiling? I keep fighting for the day when this question no longer runs through my head.