In case you missed it, I’m a Black American woman.
(I don’t take issue with the term African-American, I just wanted to use Black for this conversation.) I wouldn’t have passed anyone’s (except Bessie Smith’s) paper bag test, and I certainly wouldn’t find myself in pink in green had I pledged before 1950*. You get my point.
So last week in Brazil, I got this funny feeling that I’ve been trying to come to understand. And I finally figured it out. Or at least I sort of did. I felt White Privilege. Well, American privilege is more accurate. But it was this general feeling of ickyness. Feeling like I was able to do things and be places and receive a level of service not afforded to others.
So to preface the situation, I have been on very stringent restrictions about how much I can talk. I had microlaryngoscopy and upon arrival to Brazil was only allowed to talk for 5 minutes out of every half hour. Add to that my entire grasp of the Portugese language can be summed up in one word, obrigada.
So on day one, most of my interactions went something like this: I enter a store to silence and side eyes. Finally someone says to me, “sybbuinvetjknbcdyjb ssjijvgchbjohfer tsryunojdfg fsgvhinnnfd” to which i respond, “I’m so sorry, I don’t speak Portugese.” And as soon as those magical words escape my lips, the side eyes turned to smiles and impatience is replaced by pity.
Now to be fair, I don’t know the shopping culture in São Paulo or Rio and I can’t begin to assume I know everyone intentions. And most certainly, everyone didn’t have the same attitude. But I had a hunch so I needed to perform a scientific exercise to test my hypothesis. I needed to get out of the stores (mostly for my wallet’s sake) and into the street.
For days I compared how many people genuinely smiled back at me on the street when I did or didn’t say hello. Two stinking syllables and all of a sudden I’m no longer a less-than Afro-Brazillian, now I’m an American with a great tan visiting your lovely country. I wish I could say it didn’t make a difference. But it did. And that made me laugh at first! Ha! I figured it out! But then I got really sad.
I didn’t like that feeling. I didn’t like being seated first even though I came in last. I didn’t like people needing to warn me over and over about places because it wasn’t safe for “someone like me” only to arrive and find a multicultural area or just a bunch of brown people. I didn’t like seeing people who looked like me being literally kicked in the streets and no one doing anything. I just didn’t like it.
And to think, should these same people visit the U.S., the Trumps of the world would hear them speak and instead of, “you’re a visitor in my country,” they’d get “I’m sure you’re an illegal in my country.” That’s some crazy stuff. (Now the whole topic of the travel privileges afforded to Americans that are withheld for other world citizens is just too much for this post, but I have a lot to say on that too!! 😉
So I think I would visit Brazil again, but I have a different perception now. While the whole of me isn’t my skin, the soul of me shares the color and history with those in my skin. I still don’t think I’ve totally come to the word or phrase for what I felt. But if this is what privilege feels like, I don’t think I like it. And I guess I’m glad I get to give mine back.
*absolutely no shade intended to those mentioned. My step mom is a proud soror as are many family and friends.