“I heard they’re racist down there!” Final ThoughtsBuenos Aires, Fall 2010
“I heard they’re racist down there!”
Well, they’re not – certainly not any more or less racists than people are here in the United States. That’s the conclusion I’ve ultimately come to after living in Buenos Aires for the past four months. Contrary to what some of my friends and acquaintances warned me about before my semester abroad began, the people of Buenos Aires are at most simply more aggressively and blatantly curious about people of color – if for no other reason than nearly the entire population of the city is white.
If you’ve been keeping up with my blogs about my day-to-day experiences as a black man living in Buenos Aires, you know that I went through several different stages of tolerance in regard to how I felt I was treated and perceived by the majority of the population there. In the beginning, I thought the staring and the awkward inquiries about where I was from were all hilarious. I had never lived in a city where I looked different than 98% of the population, so the attention I got was new and interesting to me. Then, as time went on, I started to become frustrated and resentful. I had several experiences that left me extremely uncomfortable and offended, and I started to question whether or not I could ever have peace of mind in a city where it felt like I was being noticed all the time wherever I went. But after I became more acclimated with their society, and tried to be more empathetic by putting myself in their shoes, I became more accepting of the fact that the citizens of Buenos Aires were just reacting naturally to something new and peculiar in their world. Furthermore, I met amazing people and built lifelong friendships during my time there – which would’ve been impossible if the myths and rumors I heard about the city were true.
In this final chapter of my “I heard they’re racist down there!” series, I want to offer some advice to future minority students who are thinking about or will be studying abroad in Buenos Aires.
1. Before you condemn, put yourself in their shoes.
The #1 problem I had early on was that I judged the actions of those around me by U.S. standards – or more specifically by the standards of major cities like the ones I live in (Atlanta, Georgia and Washington, D.C.). In Atlanta or D.C., minorities would not tolerate the stares I received from people in Buenos Aires. I can speak from personal experience in saying that on many occasions there would’ve been serious complications and consequences for the way people incessantly stared at me or asked me random questions, had it taken place in a major U.S. city. I can’t tell you how many fights I’ve seen in U.S. clubs that all started by the way someone was ‘looking at’ someone else. Often times in Buenos Aires, it took everything I had to stop myself from cursing people out in the street, on elevators, in bars or nightclubs. When you’re constantly being stared at, it’s hard to keep yourself from asking the simple question “what the f*$% are you looking at?!” every now and again. But it’s important that you keep your composure. You have to realize that these people are not U.S. citizens. They’re from Buenos Aires – a city that is virtually all white as a result of the actions and policies of its founders who always intended for it to be that way. None of this is their fault, or yours.
I have no doubt that for some of the people I met and befriended in Bs As, I was the first black person they had ever engaged on a personal level. With that kind of a homogenous society, you can’t hold people to the same standards that you would in your home country. If you do, you’ll become resentful and easily aggravated…like I was at one point. Instead, every time someone stares at you or you’re in a situation where your race brings you front and center for scrutiny, just remind yourself of whom you’re surrounded. Remind yourself of the kind of homogenous upbringing many of these people had through no fault of their own. Remind yourself that deep down, if you were in their position, you’d probably be doing the same thing. Don’t condemn. Remember, you’re the new guy/girl.
2. Find your comfort zone, then run away from it.
The whole purpose of studying abroad is to broaden your horizons and grow as a person. This is nearly impossible if you box yourself in with situations or people that don’t challenge you. Yes, it’s going to feel weird. No, you’re not going to know what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into half the time. But, you will always be growing. You will always be widening your perspective on different ways of life.
For example, before coming to Buenos Aires, I never even thought about going to a club that played electronic/techno music. Never. In fact, I don’t even go to clubs that often in the U.S. in general. They’re often times just overpriced sweatboxes where people go to look important and judge everyone else…while not dancing. This is so far from the case in Bs As. Frankly, nightlife in the states (that I’ve experienced) is nowhere near as intense as it is in Argentina. Partying until 7:30 in the morning consistently is unheard of in the U.S. Furthermore, in Bs As, the clubs are a third of the price, the women are 10x more approachable, and people actually dance! I had some amazing nights out in Bs As that I will never forget. But I never would have experienced it had I not made the decision to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.
But it’s not just about nightlife. If you’re a minority student studying abroad in Bs As, you’re already halfway out of your comfort zone by default. Why not run all the way out? This is your opportunity to try things you’d never think to try or feel free enough to try back at home. Hang out with people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Eat foods you wouldn’t normally go near. Find out who you are away from people that influence you to conform to one way of thought or another. One of the most liberating aspects of my semester abroad was that I was able to find out more about my own personality irrespective of the opinions and influences of my friends back home. No one knows who you were back home, so this is your chance to find yourself free of the chains of your past. Be who you want to be. Do whatever you want to do. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll grow.
3. Learn to live!
Once you’ve accepted your new environment, and treatment therein, it’s important not to be complacent. Again, this was an issue I had early on. Instead of trying to live happily in society, I was focused on many of the negatives and on the verge of paranoia. For a while, this had a detrimental ripple effect. I was too uneasy around large groups of people in close proximity, so I physically couldn’t tolerate the bus or the subte. Since I couldn’t ride the bus or the subte, I had to spend more money on cabs to travel long distances or I’d just stay home in my room. So, I put myself in a position where I was either spending too much money trying to avoid people, or I was completely avoiding people by shutting myself out. Once I got to a point where I could finally accept my new environment and proactively find new ways to enjoy it, I became much more comfortable in my own skin – no pun intended.
In fact, by the end of the semester, I began taking full advantage of my uniqueness in interesting (and hilarious) ways. For example, by mid-October I reached such a level of comfort that I began waving, smiling, and even blowing kisses at people who were curious enough to stare at me longer than 5 seconds. I loved seeing the look on their faces when they realized how ridiculous what they were doing was, or when they’d try to pretend like they weren’t staring. And in a complete 180-degree turn from the blog I wrote about a night where I nearly had an anxiety attack inside of a nightclub down there, by the end of October me and my closest (white) friends started pretending that I actually was a celebrity. One night they even ushered me through a crowded club pretending to be my security. I’ve been Akon, President Obama’s nephew, a running back for the Atlanta Falcons, and an actor from a Tyler Perry sitcom. Each time, my friends and I put on flawless performances that people fell for over and over. I’m not implying that you should lie about who you are just to have a good time there. But, I am saying that I strongly suggest you find a way to turn the negatives into positives or else it will distract you from enjoying everything the city has to offer. For me sometimes it was being related to President Obama. For you, it will be something else. I encourage you to figure out what that something else is.
In conclusion, don’t let anyone talk you out of studying abroad in Buenos Aires. Please. It is an amazing city and I can tell you from experience that if you go with an open mind and are willing to try new things, you will have an incredible experience that you will never forget. So the next time you tell someone you’re thinking about studying abroad in Buenos Aires and someone says “I heard they’re racist down there!” keep all this in mind.
I hope this series of blogs proves to be helpful. Please feel free to email me should you have any more questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been a pleasure sharing my experiences with you!
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