Before embarking on my journey to Buenos Aires, the Black Beyond Borders Global Cities Cultural Exchange participants attended several classes, during which we were informed of Argentine history, customs, and culture. Throughout our lessons, we were reminded that upon our arrival, it would be necessary for our group to be aware of our behavior and presence while overseas, as our “American-ness” would not only reveal us as foreigners but also could potentially offend natives of the city. I immediately understood what the term “American-ness” meant; it was the privilege and arrogance associated with citizens of the U.S., the assumed belief that Americans felt a sense of entitlement when entering new spaces.
A few days into the excursion, Black Beyond Borders and the Afro-Argentine students of the non-profit group, Agrupación Xangó, were invited to attend a presentation at the Argentine’s Ambassador’s residence on the global movement for civil rights for individuals of African descent. The presenter, a Congolese man, spoke on the Afro-Argentine population and the need for social justice on an international scale. Overall, the session was informative but it was made less effective when the presenter concluded his talk with, “There is only one race, the human race” and proceeded to explain how race, in essence, does not truly exist. Although I’m sure he had good intentions behind it, this statement completely contradicted his lecture, which was based on the presence of race and racism.
I was informed in advance that as visitors of a foreign country, my job was to “observe” but during the Global Cities Cultural Exchange Program, our purpose was to engage in active conversations on race and social justice with Afro-Argentines in Buenos Aires. In this situation, we were to do more than simply observe but to also become chameleons in our environment, seek out the truth and, as the program title suggested, engage in an exchange of cultures and experiences.
I was unsure of whether or not it was my place to offer my perspective on the matter, seeing as I was not from Argentina, but then, neither was the presenter. Black women are warned not to be too “loud, aggressive, or angry”, especially when it comes to voicing our thoughts on issues that pertain to us. Although I was an invited guest, I was anxious about how I would be perceived and did not want to be viewed as a stereotype of my race. I considered not making a comment but then I thought about the Afro-Argentine youth in attendance and how their racial existence is ignored in its entirety in their home country, and how this comment may have affected them. They needed to know that their differences were to be accepted and cherished. Integration will not solve the issue of discrimination.
When the floor was opened for questions and comments, I offered an alternative opinion on what I considered a hypocritical line.
I expressed that it is possible to recognize all races and cultures without amalgamating them as a method to eradicate racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination. I understand his view that there is only one race but to say that would ignore the heritage, customs, and struggles of different groups of people. The male presenter saw my critique of his concluding statement as a challenge and tersely dismissed my response.
Although I had several attendees praise me for speaking up, this moment replayed in my mind several times after our departure. I initially saw this “shut-down” as a result of my age (nineteen) and not my gender but it was not until a friend of mine expressed his opinions on the incident that I began to see this censorship as a patriarchal display of power. At that moment, my perspective shifted from my position as a Black American to my identity as a young woman. Here was an African man (approximately fifty years of age), censoring my voice on the topic of equality in front of a multiethnic group of people. I expected some form of unity and a welcoming of diverse viewpoints from a fellow member of the African diaspora and was disappointed that this expectation was not met. It hurt to be in a space with so few people who looked like me far less than that of the United States not to receive support in a formal setting from someone of a somewhat similar background.
I eventually spoke with the presenter afterward, along with a male colleague, and still felt as if he was not entertaining nor understanding the point I was trying to make and he seemed more responsive to my male friend.
This event served as a wake-up call and caused me to question perceptions of Black American women. Following the afternoon at the Argentine Ambassador’s residence, the intersection of nationality, race, and gender served as the topic of many important conversations. I began to notice intrigued stares and received questions from Argentine citizens who were interested in knowing my nationality and ethnicity. Due to my complexion and physiognomy, I was assumed to be of Brazilian, Cuban, or Dominican descent and it came as a surprise to some that I was indeed, an African descendant in the United States.
In the United States and abroad, Black Americans often have to second-guess themselves rethink certain situations, and sometimes even stay silent for our safety or the comfort of others. As Black American women, we may sometimes forget the privilege that we have, for, despite the gender inequality that exists in the U.S., the gender gap is much wider in other cultures and societies beyond our immediate vision. With nationality, race, and gender in mind, the question of when and where to insert and assert ourselves becomes even more complex. After a discussion with the BBB cohort, we’ve found that the line between being an entitled American and an educated, outspoken individual abroad is a blurry one. I share this story because as long as respect and understanding are present, we should not be afraid to enter new and foreign spaces and conversations. My advice for the assertive Black American abroad is to speak up and out without fear of being stigmatized, just as you would in the U.S. Set an example for those who look to you for guidance and reveal yourself to those who have never had the privilege of witnessing an articulate, Black intellectual. As Black Americans abroad, we have the power to change negative perceptions of the African descendant. We do the world a disservice by staying silent.