“Is that your real hair, or are they extensions? I have a friend from Uganda that often wears braids with fake hair?”
“Kenya? Nigeria? South Africa? Where are you from madam? I can’t place your accent. I can tell you are a native English speaker.”
“I spent some time in Nigeria and have some really good friends there. Do you have family there? You look a lot like my friend. Do you speak Yoruba or Igbo?“
Person points to my hair and says, “Bob Marley! Bob Marley!”
These are snippets of conversations I have everyday. From walking down the street in my village, to going to a restaurant in Ranchi, to being introduced to friends of friends. On the outside, they may seem invasive, but to me, they make me smile. These questions are so specific, so right on and accurate that I was shocked in the beginning. How do they know about hair weave and extensions, all the way here in India, when I have friends back home in the U.S. that constantly ask me how my hair grows so quickly when I get my hair done in braids? How can they tell that my ancestors are West African, when at home many of my non-black neighbors have no clue that most slaves were from western African and honestly can’t tell me apart from my Indo-Carribean friend with her long straight hair or my Somali friend with her long neck, tall build and wavy soft hair? We all look so different based on the imperialist past of our countries, but those distinctions seem to be lost on the people we have grown up next to for generations. How can a random waiter in India identify that my hair is in locks immediately, while I still get my hair pulled and patted like a dog one a weekly basis from elderly non-black women at home. These women usually follow me, touch and pull at my hair without permissions, and ask rude questions like “what are those things”? I haven’t been touched without my permission here at all. Most people that have enough courage ask questions – are they my own hair, how long have I had them, how do I get my hair to look like this – but my personal space has always been respected and if I decide to disengage, no one follows me as if they are entitled to my time, space, or energy.
Most American tourists are surprised by the stares when they come to India. I had a coworker tell me this is the first time in her life that she has felt like zoo animal on display. For me, I’m surprised by how much people here know about me and my culture. I was expecting more ignorance or to have to explain things more often, but a lot of people I’ve encountered here show they know so much based on the very specific and informed questions they ask. I now also realize that most of the American tourists I’ve heard this from are white.
What Does it Mean to Be American?
It is a question I’ve asked myself often and the amount has increased tenfold since I’ve arrived in India. In our Fellowship Orientation, people made comments about how American culture and Indian culture differ, yet their description of the U.S. rarely included or left any space for someone like me.
I remember growing up my parents would often say there are two Pittsburgh’s (my hometown in Pennsylvania): one white and one black. My city has often been characterized as one of America’s Most Livable, while we have had some of the highest infant mortality rates of any black community in the country. I think this duality also applies to the U.S. as a whole. There is the image we export globally and the daily reality for most people that I see around me. Those images are not the same and often do not match at all.
For me, coming to India is the first time I’ve lived in a place where I can be in a room full of brown faces. Based on the Bollywood movies I’ve seen, I was surprised to see so many people my complexion and darker. I now realize how much Bollywood is like Hollywood, they only export a certain image of India and that image does not truly represent the diverse population that walks around every day.
As I stated before I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the whitest metropolitan areas in the United States (Statistica, 2018). My youth was full of criminalization based on my dark features and often androgynous or masculine clothes. My hometown is known for arresting black youth more than non-blacks for the crimes they committed at the same rate. This is the city where black arrests for marijuana possession actually increased after decriminalization (Vaughn, 2018). Not only would non-black people touch me all the time, I’ve been followed in my own neighborhood for looking suspicious and kicked out of stores for refusing to leave my bag in the front (when all the other patrons that did not look like me were not requested to put their bags anywhere). I got used to people assuming I would steal or was a “bad kid” based on the hue of my complexion. I tried to hide the pain in my face when strangers were so surprised that I went to a “good” college and got a Master’s degree from an Ivy League school. I learned to ignore every time someone told me I was “so lucky” those programs accepted me, as if I hadn’t worked hard and had an entire community work hard to support me making my dreams come true. I learned to let it go when they would make comments about Affirmative Action or admissions standards becoming too lax after hearing I have a graduate degree from Columbia University.
Though Columbia University’s School of Social Work is in Harlem, the expensive and selective nature of the school, coupled with the rampant gentrification taking place uptown which is pushing out Harlem’s native residents, meant that I was still usually the darkest face in most crowds. I was a minority at school in a historically Black neighborhood, I was a minority in my building as a gentrifying students, and I was a minority walking down the streets of refurbished brownstones often bought by the wealthy and non-black.
Most of my time abroad has been spent in Europe, both east and west where I was always seen as an anomaly. “So you are black AND American”? Most people would question as if they were somehow contradictory, like they didn’t understand that my ancestors were kidnapped and brought to the U.S. as property generations ago. Like the couldn’t understand that my Black Americanness is just as valid and almost as old as someone being Black and Haitian or Black and Jamaican, how we were all brought to the Western Hemisphere by slaves ships.
What does it mean to have American privilege as a person with dark skin abroad, when so many communities have issues with colorist and pigment based class structures?
Do I even look American to the average person outside of my country? Is my identity as a Black American seen as valid or real?
In Spain, I was spat at because I had the nerve to be offended by someone assuming I was a sex worker. I have been singled out on a metro in Portugal with all the other black people, only to receive an apology after I showed my American passport. I’ve been kicked off of a train going from France to Spain based on racial discrimination. I have been followed in Germany based on the assumption that black people traffic drugs. When I was in Kazakhstan, people would point and laugh as I walked through the mall. While I understand that these incidents were embedded in a larger historical context of immigration, labor migration, human trafficking, and ethnic tension in Europe and Central Asia, they had an impact on me as an individual. The hostility and tension were so palpable it was almost suffocating.
Being in India is a breath of fresh air. I am rarely the darkest person in the room, rarely looked at with disgusted and questioned about why I am in a certain space, rarely looked at as a criminal. I’m not sure if it is a combination of my dark skin, obvious native English speech, accent, or that good old-fashioned American privilege, but I feel far less policed than I ever have in my whole life. No one is watching me, expecting me to mess up or fail. People look at me like I don’t belong because I don’t and treat me as an interesting person, instead of person of interest whom they assume is responsible for all the bad that is happening. There is no malice or hostility, just curiosity, and I’m honestly happy to continue to be open and answer any questions because I can feel the curiosity and positive intent behind each word (which is new for me). I’m still trying to get used to the kind stares and well informed questions. No one prepared me for this part. I am pleasantly surprised every day.
Vaughn, J. “After Pittsburgh Decriminalizes Pot, Black People Are Still Disproportionately Charged with Possession.” The Appeal, 3 Oct. 2018.
Statistica. (2018). “Top 25 Metropolitan Areas with the Highest Percentage of White Population in the United States in 2016.” Statistica, 2018.