Written By Regine Miller (Howard University), Student Correspondent for CET Colombia, Spring 2020
I have left the United States many times. Probably more times than many people my age. I am familiar with the mixed feeling of excitement and nervousness as I wave goodbye to my parents, and seeing the prideful tears in their eyes as they blow their final kisses. I am familiar with readying my passport as I wait in line to check my bags, and the subsequent feeling of anticipation and excitement that builds slowly in my stomach. I am especially familiar with how this feeling culminates to its summit as I finally board the plane to make my way to a new country, a new adventure, and a new way of life.
I thought, upon boarding the plane to Cali, Colombia, that having experienced all of these things before, I would have no problem adjusting to any of the new experiences that Cali threw my way. Colombia would be my thirteenth stop on my ongoing world exploration; I’d done lots of research, I’d meditated on my travel goals, I’d packed flawlessly, and I even knew a good amount of Spanish. On top of all of this, I was going on this journey with one of my closest friends. I figured that I would definitely know what to expect. But when I finally arrived, all of my expectations crumbled when it came to one key aspect: race.
It is worth mentioning that I knew race relations in Colombia were very different. After all, CET’s educational initiative for Cali is to study both race and identity in a Colombina context, and to learn more about the experiences of Afro-Latinxs within the diaspora. Before my trip I even spent some time meditating on how it might feel to be Black in Colombia. When you look up travel articles, blogs, and tips, there is almost no mention of race or how it affects the travel experience abroad. This is mostly due to the fact that the vast majority of travel bloggers are white, financially privileged, and probably blonde: people who are from a demographic which almost never has to think about race if they don’t want to. But as a Black traveler, it is virtually inevitable to avoid thinking about what effects your race may have on the ways in which you are perceived by others; in fact, it is absolutely necessary to think about this, because these perceptions can have real-world consequences, just like they do in the US. Above all, it is important to educate oneself on what ideas their host country has about Black people well before a trip abroad.
I have experienced things such as racial discrimination abroad, especially while traveling in Europe, but I had never been to a country with such a high, unmistakably Black population. One thing I noticed (and loved) immediately was the fact that I looked like a native. Walking down the street, no one could tell whether I was American or Colombian…that is, until I opened my mouth to speak. This gave me a strange sense of community and belonging, regardless of the linguistic and cultural barriers I faced. It felt, well… normal to be Black. I realized that in the US, whenever I am outside of my HBCU or any other designated majority-Black space, I spend the majority of my time self-policing my Blackness, in order to lower the risk of being seen as intimidating, threatening, or any other stereotypical thing that could possibly be a risk to my safety. But here, I felt like I was part of some inner circle, some tacit agreement that being Black was no longer a dangerous thing.
For the first time, I was able to let go of some of the worries that have followed me for most of my life. It is very empowering to relinquish these labels, to feel as if you can just…breathe. This newfound ability to relax brought up a very interesting question: now, being in a majority Black space, what other parts of my identity stand out? Now that being Black is the norm, what other traits define my allegiances, my sentiments, and my beliefs other than race? Obviously, my Blackness was still relevant to all of these things, albeit in a new context; but what other aspects of my identity could be allotted more space now that I was free from America’s strict racial binary?
It is a question that I was glad to explore, and I have had lots of fun doing so. I have discovered new beliefs, new passions, and new parts of myself that I have never seen before. In this new freedom, however, came a new issue that I had not thought of: the fact that although I was now free from my old labels, I could also not control the new labels that others placed on me. I could not control the way others identified me: negra sometimes, morena other times, and “gringa” all the time. This specific label, gringa, bothered me more than the others. In fact, it was the only label that truly rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed as if I was almost expected to take responsibility for the imperialist sins of my “home country”, despite also being in disagreement with them myself. As a Black woman, who is also often victim to America’s crimes, it was a very strange form of cognitive dissonance that made me feel frustrated and unheard.
However, I think the most important thing I have learned about identity so far is that it is fluid. No matter what ideas I have about myself, they will always shift when viewed through the lens of another cultural context. Another thing that I learned: I’m actually ok with that.
The more I shared experiences with Afro-Colombians, the more similarities I saw between their struggles and my own. I got a deeper understanding of the diaspora as a whole, and I have since deepened my already-existent empathy and solidarity with other Afro descendants. I realized that the willingness to open oneself to the experiences of others, and to listen without judgment, is the only avenue to truly understanding the human experience. Once you know exactly who you are, intimately and wholly, this type of open cultural exchange does not threaten the ways in which you identify yourself. In fact, you might just find some new parts of your identity along the way.