“I heard they’re racist down there!” Part 3Buenos Aires, Fall 2010

“I heard they’re racist down there!” Part 3

We Don’t Have That Problem Here

One Saturday last month, I was at a bar having a conversation with a porteño I met through a friend. He asked me what I thought about the women here in Buenos Aires vs. the women in the U.S., and if I had any luck with them. I told him I thought Argentina definitely had some gorgeous women, but that I haven’t been as “lucky” here as I’ve been in the states. This has to do with a number of things – the language barrier, not having my own place, and the short amount of time I’ve been here. However, he seemed surprised, as he went on to say “I know a lot of women here who love black guys.” He then asked me if it was OK that he said the word “negro” (“black” in Spanish), because he knew “some people don’t like that term, and we don’t have that problem here.”

Without me having to ask what he meant by that, he went on to insist that Buenos Aires was a city in which there was no racism nor were there problems with discrimination against blacks and he simply did not want to offend me by saying something I would take issue with. And while I appreciated him asking me (although I could care less about being called “black”…I am black), I thought it was a very interesting proclamation to make – and he was not the only porteño that I’d heard that from. But saying there is no racial discrimination or racism against blacks in Buenos Aires is like saying there’s no racism against whites in the NBA. Even if it’s true, it comes off as oxymoronic to some degree. For one, there aren’t enough black people here to have a real “problem”, and so few that the majority wouldn’t notice or care if there was a problem. So even if he is technically right on a large scale, how would he even know some of the smaller scale issues like the kind I deal with since it probably never affects him in his daily life?

I’ve noticed that this thought, the “we don’t have that problem here” mentality, is often the reality for many others too. For example, I have white friends who are absolutely in love with this city. Some have even said that they want to move here. While I don’t share their enthusiasm, I couldn’t be happier for them. Undoubtedly one of the main reasons they are so in love with this city is because they are comfortable enough here to love it. They “don’t have that problem here” – in how they’re treated, how they interact with people, and society’s general disposition toward them. It’s just a fact – we’re more comfortable around people we can identify with. I’d probably feel a little more comfortable if I was studying abroad in a country that was 98% black. In the same situation, I can imagine some of my white friends might eventually find themselves slightly uncomfortable after a while – it would only be natural.

I wish I felt comfortable enough here to love it like some of my other friends do. I truly do. I’ve tried every trick in the book to try to ignore the stares I get or the fact that I rarely ever see a face that looks like mine. But the more time I spend here the more I miss being able to blend in and identify without trying. I miss being able to truly feel like I belong in my surroundings. The stares I get are a subtle but pervasive reminder that I don’t belong here, that I’m something peculiar.

I’m the type of person that can get along with whomever desires to be gotten along with. It’s not hard for me to make friends here – and I have, plenty of them. But at the same time, episodes like the one I wrote about in my last blog on race, as well as other isolated incidents, have left me shell shocked somewhat. Whenever I walk down the street now, even if I’m not being stared at or looking for people to stare at me, I feel like it’s happening. I feel like the center of attention no matter what, because I always stand out.

This all probably sounds silly to some of my white readers, but that’s exactly my point! If it sounds silly to you, it’s because you “don’t have that problem here”. It would be easy for you to live here because you wouldn’t be the rarity. You’ve probably never lived somewhere for an extended period of time where you were such a physical minority. You’ve never been eating at a Burger King and had a group of teenagers laugh and make ape noises at the table in front of you at your expense (yes, that happened to me here). You don’t know what it does to you over time, or how it can affect how comfortable you can or can’t be in a new place.

You may be thinking “so what if they stare or make noises? Get over it!” And you’re right. It’s not a big deal…until it happens to you. In the beginning I thought it was hilarious. I would tell people “I’m from the South, it’s going to take a lot more than staring to get under my skin.” The more time I spend here though, the more annoying it gets and the angrier it makes me. The other day on the elevator when I was coming up to class this man looked me up and down for a good twenty seconds like I was a wax statue and wouldn’t notice him, from my head to my feet. I gave him a very sharp glance displaying my anger with him and he quickly snapped into place and looked straight ahead until we reached his floor, then he nearly sprinted out.

I don’t want to make it sound like every day I’m afraid to walk out of my door or enjoy myself, or that every single person I see is staring at me and being racially insensitive. That’s not the case. I’ve hung out with porteños and had an amazing time on many different occasions. But I also don’t want to make it seem like these small cases of racism or the lack of diversity here have not bothered me. To be frank about it, I miss seeing black people – and all other people of color for that matter. I miss being able to go somewhere and not wonder if the entire room is looking at or thinking about me. I’ve mentioned this before, but I really have come to appreciate this experience for making me realize how much of those little freedoms I have been taking for granted back home. Up until this point in my life, I have always more or less blended in. I may have been the only black person in one of my classes a few times, but I have always been able to walk outside and be comfortable in my surroundings because I never truly stood out.

I think anyone who reads my blogs and thinks I’m overreacting or overanalyzing my situation should pause and consider what it would be like if he or she were in my shoes. Ignoring something so small but so pervasive is a lot easier said than done. But if you still choose to think I’m overreacting – and maybe I am – just rest in the comfort you have, in the skin that you have, that you don’t have that problem here.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    You may have felt that you “never truly stood out” because you were in America;you were at home.

    In Mexico City, a Mexican woman once spat at me and told me to go back to Africa. I am not from Africa. I found that it helped to focus on the positive experiences. You mentioned friendships with natives. I know that it is sometimes difficult, but like someone has previously commented, it is an opportunity for you to be an ambassador. I understand your anger, but when we react with anger we perpetuate the stereotype of the angry Black people. You seem like a nice guy and I think that as a result of an encounter with you there will be many Argentinians who will be able to say that they’ve only ever known one Black guy and he was (nice)_______. You can’t control how they behave, but you can influence what goes in that blank space. I know it’s not easy, but you’re getting a great lesson in life. Hang in there.

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