To celebrate Black History Month and the diversity of the Peace Corps Volunteer community, we asked PCVs of color to write about their personal experiences as Volunteers in Jamaica. The following piece was written by Group 87 Volunteer Dan Mueller.
Though no one who’s known me since my younger years would argue I’ve always had a rather developed vocabulary, it’s only in recent years I’ve developed the language to effectively communicate about race. I wanna start by saying I deeply love and dearly miss the small farm town I grew up in, and it’s not just because the midwest boasts the most beautiful & breathtaking autumnal season. The people, the folks who helped make me who I am today, are equally responsible for the gravitational pull I feel to return again someday (hopefully in the near future). But growing up as a mixed race child in a predominantly white setting had its drawbacks. Though I was incredibly well-loved (this is an understatement—I could dedicate an entire post just to trying to describe this alone), the actions of a select few made deep implications for my life I wouldn’t be able to fully understand until I had removed myself from the context altogether.
“You’re white.” I can’t tell you how many times, despite the varying shades of black my complexion emits, I’ve heard that. Despite not knowing who my father was, my skin tone (and mother’s dating preference), more than hinted I was also black even though that line of thought was excluded from most conversations surrounding my identity at the time. I didn’t talk black. I didn’t walk black. I didn’t dress, think or act black. Because I was eloquent and intelligent and because my friends & family so viewed me as no different from themselves, I was perceived as white and because I didn’t know the difference, I claimed this. I claimed whiteness so assuredly, I was confused when a couple of third grade girls beat me up for being “that brown girl,” perplexed by the hair-pulling and name-calling by some of my peers, and immersed so much so in whiteness, I disliked and feared black people myself.
That’s called internalized oppression. Because I was surrounded by so many messages, both overt and subliminal, that black was bad, I had come to view those within my own race as incapable, unintelligent and worst of all, dangerous. It wasn’t until college that I would break free of this mindset and learn to not only embrace my identity as a mixed race woman but also to love black and blackness. Having only been taught white American history, I was unaware of the rich contributions the black man and woman had made to the very society in which I was raised, and my black university professors ensured that I not only recognize but that I better not forget it. Our country’s racial tensions coming back to a boil in recent years only propelled me further down the road of exploring and getting to know my blackness.
A fellow Peace Corps volunteer very vulnerably shared a story with a similar moral during a training session last fall. She hesitantly laughed as she gracefully moved through a clunky narrative I was all too familiar with, and that sentiment was echoed throughout the room with other nervous laughs and snaps of support. I’ve always thought anyone in grassroots community development who didn’t hold cultural exchange at the heart of their work was in it for the wrong reasons. The context of this person’s share reminded me of that, and I felt particularly compelled to piggy back off this example to add that our work creates so many opportunities to share joy and love with the people of Jamaica. But like in many countries of color, whiteness is also revered here. Capability and greatness are also accredited to whiteness here. Jamaicans bleach their skin to mimic whiteness here. I confessed to an entire room full of my administration, leaders, and fellow peers, most of them white, that shame be on them if they didn’t not seize every opportunity to remind Jamaicans that black is beautiful. Black is capable. Black is dynamic. I also took that time to share my frustration with sometimes being called “white girl” some of my students, and the ongoing conversations I was initiating to expand that way of thinking to acknowledge the rich diversity in blackness; it seems no matter where I go, I will always be an outlier, perhaps not fitting in anywhere completely other than my own skin (ironically too, don’t you think?).
As a “yes” girl, who’s generally up for anything and carries little to no expectation with her along the journey of life, I had the most pleasant of surprises pop up in a PTA meeting last semester. I had just finished about a 45-minute long presentation introducing myself to new parents and detailing my ideas on school improvement when my supervisor got up to say a few words in support. She said they wouldn’t believe my grandparents were blood relation if they saw me standing right next to them because they are pale, pale white, and that I was full of good ideas she could hear me frantically typing away on in the library most afternoons. “Those ideas, those visions she has for us and [our school] and our community—that’s the black coming out of her.” For the first time in my life, in the middle of rural Jamaica, a woman I owe everything to and respect immensely, attributed my capability and greatness to my blackness. As the parents applauded her “big up,” I choked back tears and as astonishingly as the moment passed, it pressed itself into my mind as the single most validating experience of my life.
During a meditation workshop a couple years ago, our guru said she couldn’t change the world, that those tools weren’t in her box, that she would do what she could and find contentedness in that. She went on to say if you do have that store of energy, that relentless, driving life force within you, then you must let it lead you to your calling. It was during this session, the first time I had ever “met” my spirit guide, that an entirely foreign notion occurred to me: I know I can only heal others insofar as I heal myself. When I heal myself, I know I am healing my ancestors. In that moment, Mrs. Wallace healed me with an innocence so powerful and tactful, I felt my young self exhale the sweetest sigh of relief that her future self would one day be completely seen and understood. If you’d asked me a year ago what I thought my Peace Corps service in Jamaica would be like, I’m not sure healing would’ve made the list of adjectives. But it is certainly the centerpiece of my experience thus far and just as I am grateful to those around me (past, present & future) for their love and support, I am thanking myself for owning the experiences, feelings and identities that aren’t always the easiest to swallow but that have made this life one helluva tasty treat.