Monday, December 31, 2012

Stranger in the Village: Thoughts on Racism Abroad

The sentence above is my favorite one in James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, and I could barely contain my excitement and surprise when I found an illustration of it online. Had it actually moved someone else as much as it did me? It's from the chapter/essay "Stranger in the Village," in which Baldwin contrasted the way Americans of the time (the 1950s) regarded black people with the way he, as a black man, was viewed by the locals in the tiny Swiss village of Leukerbad, where black people were rare and regarded with a sort of innocent curiosity.

The citizens of that tiny Swiss community -- into which no black man had probably previously wandered -- reacted to Baldwin as though he were a "living wonder." Having now spent nearly six and a half years being a living wonder on continents where black people are scarce, I understand Baldwin's experience in Leukerbad a lot better than I did when I first read about them. "American white men," Baldwin wrote just a few sentences before the one that so affected me, "still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist."

My friend Rodrigo is no James Baldwin (and really, who is?), but that didn't stop him from offering his own pearl of non-race-related wisdom in an email to me last night: At the end of the day what we lack the most in this world is honesty. I mean, especially when what you're saying is something nice, we should have troubles to say things like "HEY I HATE YOU DUDE" but not to say beautiful things like I STILL LIKE YOU or I JUST LIKE YOU A LOT.

As I read what Rodrigo wrote, I thought, What a nice sentiment on which to end 2012! Years ago, my friend Dave offered a similar idea aimed at people who receive such compliments: Never make someone feel bad for liking you -- or something to that effect.

How, then, should one handle rejection? The best examples I can come up with of how not to do it are from two guys I met in Buenos Aires: Marcelo, who grabbed my drink, threw it on the floor of KM Zero and called me a nigger after I refused to kiss him, and Alvaro, whose rejection by me inspired him to wax poetic and also utter the dreaded, dreadful N word.

"sos un negro de mierda que se cree que eres muy importante para hacerte el dificil, tendrias que estar recolectando algodon en Alabama, imbecil! Go home fucking yanke nigger!"

Even if you don't understand Spanish, that well-placed "nigger" should tell you all you need to know. But those brutal expressions of lust and racism aren't the complete story when it comes to Argentines and black people.

For all of the historical and deeply entrenched racism in Argentina (and I'll spare you the history lesson, but look it up, if you don't believe me), in some ways, as a black man, I had it better there than my ex-boyfriend Leandro, an Argentine whose light-brown skin tone created for him its own set of social conditions. (And let me state here that although I write in broad general terms, from this point on, my conclusions are based on my own personal experiences and opinions and not on any perceived universal laws or rules without exceptions.) The paucity of black people in Argentina meant there was no need to organize any unofficial movement against them. There weren't enough of us to bother. And whatever Argentines considered to be my social status, on a sexual level, I'd never been more desirable. Black men were seen as exotic and erotic, a must-do before you die.

When Argentines basked in their own superiority, hoisting themselves up on a self-constructed pedestal, they usually seemed to be looking down on their darker fellow countrymen and on the more ethnic-looking citizens of other South American countries like Bolivia and Peru. As the South American country with the largest European-descended populace, Argentina had a significant number of natural blondes and people with blue and green eyes. A visiting friend once commented that if she were walking down the street in Buenos Aires and had no idea where she was, she easily could make the mistake of thinking she was somewhere in Europe, or even the U.S.

The more European-looking Argentines used their whiteness to their advantage, creating a sort of caste system based on skin tone, much like the one instituted on U.S. plantations during the slavery era and still in place within the U.S. black community. This hyper-awareness of skin tone was even built into their language, with negro (Spanish for "black") being used interchangeably with morocho, as an adjective and a verb, to refer to both black people like me and dark-skinned Argentines.

Leandro, though good-looking and highly desirable by any standards outside of Argentina, was a morocho who'd spent most of his childhood in his pale big brother's white shadow. Family, friends and strangers saw to it that he entered adulthood with a solid inferiority complex for being a few shades too dark. The same people who treated him like a lesser person because he was off-white treated me like a black superstar, though for reasons that were mostly sexual.

Light vs. dark has been a recurring theme on every continent I've called home since leaving the U.S. in 2006. In Australia, it took the more familiar (from a lifetime spent living in the U.S.) form of white vs. black, with the lighter ruling class saving most of its discrimination for its own "black" people, indigenous Australian Aborigines, as well as Asians, people from the Middle East and Westerners with swarthy skin.

I was shocked every time I read another front-page news story about some white Australian footy star making a racial slur against a fellow player, not because of what was said, but because the epithets always seemed to be leveled at someone whom most Americans might call "white." As an American black man, I didn't have to worry about being called names or being the butt of racist jokes. I was an exotic stud, superior, in a sense, to white Americans, whom many Australians I've encountered consider to have no redeeming qualities. At least I must be good in bed!

The light vs. dark hang-ups of Thais are similar to those of the porte├▒os in Buenos Aires, with darker skin seen by many as being inferior to lighter. I see women on the streets of Bangkok dolled up in Kabuki-style cosmetic masks, and in Boots pharmacies and local supermarkets and beauty stores, you can buy whitening creams and face cleansers because if you're Asian, the products seemed to say, you can never be too light-skinned. The locals in Southeast Asia often have complimented me on the color of my skin, but for many, black is beautiful doesn't seem to apply to their own kind. The more European (i.e., white) your skin tone, the better.

The majority of overt racism I've encountered in Asia, from locals as well as Western tourists, has been anti-Asian, not anti-black. Gay Thai men as well as Asian and Western tourists are surprisingly comfortable specifying "No Asians" in their Grindr and Manhunt profiles. "Whites only" is tantamount to "No Asians," judging from the number of guys with "Whites only" in their profiles who have come on to me, online and in real life.

In my 16 months in Southeast Asia (and in all my time living outside of the U.S.), I never came across one guy with the guts to put "No blacks" or "Not into black guys" in his dating profile. I'm not sure if this is because there are too few of us to bother doing so, or if it is because the U.S. is the only place where gay white men are comfortable being so casually and publicly racist against gay black men.

I'm sure Thai people harbor their share of racist attitudes against black people, but as in Argentina, it is neither systematic nor organized, and its sexual undercurrents are much stronger than the social ones. I've never gotten the sense that Thai people think of me as being inferior because I'm black. Aside from the novelty factor, I've never gotten the sense that Thai people think about me much at all. Though darker than everyone around me, I am, for the most part, merely the size of my penis here, and to some, preferable among black men because I'm American and not African.

Yes, it's complicated, but the subtler forms of white-on-black (as in African-descended) racism I've noticed abroad have resulted in my feeling more comfortable in my own skin tone than I ever did in the U.S., where people are far more likely to wear bigotry on their sleeves. It's also the reason why I found Alvaro's outburst so shocking. I thanked him for his honesty, for revealing his true colors, for perking up what had been, up to that point, a pretty uneventful day, and I meant it. In his rejection-fueled racist rage, he'd given me writing material for years to come.
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