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.
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 poem was written by Group 86 PCV Aboubakar (Abu) Bodi.
America is a melting pot
Don’t be caught
In what is called bigotry
That still exist in that country
There are differences in people
There is no surprise to find mixed couple
We differ in character and color
And we serve our country with honor
Peace Corps reflects that diversity
All volunteers have attended university
Many people have accent
That’s what happened to me in recent
I was sent to Jamaica as a volunteer
I nearly broke into tears
They used to see only whites faces over the years
I know I have to change things right here
I may have accent, but I am American
My accent leads to my origin as African
My partners were expecting to see a white man
They were surprised to see a black man
Our first encounter their first surprise
Where is the Peace Corps?
That touched my bones to the core
But my hope did not meet its tragic demise
Out of fear some people run away
As they see me as CIA agent coming their way
Some have forgotten who sent me to Jamaica
They always see me as coming from Africa
The “African” has become my name
Nobody is to blame
Patience is the game
Being Black is not a shame
I have no gold
My heart was bold
To have moved hearts away from cold
People have changed from what they’ve been told
My origin has paved my way into the hearts
Some have not forgotten the hurts
When their great great parents were enslaved
We have to change minds so we can be saved
St. Mary, Jamaica, 2/5/2017
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 Stephen Crimarco.
While racism in America still persists, Jamaica struggles with “complexionism.” Complexionism and racism are two different issues, but with similar roots. Complexionism tends to be between people of a similar race. It can be described as a bias or prejudice from an individual against another person of a similar race, but is darker in complexion. Complexionism places the value of beauty, self-worth, and power based on skin tone. Social class also influences attitudes about complexionism. Historically, Jamaica’s upper class has been comprised of mostly fair skinned people, while darker skin people tend to make up the majority of the working class. The intersectionality of race and social class in Jamaica has a major influence on the country’s culture. This culture has directly affected me as a mixed race Peace Corps Volunteer.
To be candid, I identify as mixed-race, but I have a lighter complexion. In America I am often mistaken for being Hispanic or white. In Jamaica I have been called every racial label because of the shade of my skin. It is important to understand a majority of the labels are in fact harmless and have no malice behind them; however, in instances when the name-caller assumes I am from a privileged background, it becomes frustrating. It is common for strangers trying to get someone’s attention to quickly call out to them based on how they physically look. In the market place the majority will scream out “Indian,” “White-rasta man,” “Italian,” “Brownin.” This is because the caller does not know my name and wants my attention. No harm is intended behind it. However, I have had beggars beg me because I am “white.” From their point of view I surely must have money to throw out! Despite the fact that, like all PCVs, I live on a small stipend similar to the people of the country we serve in…
Very early on into my service when I was helping my farmer’s group to bill land (clear land) to cut down overgrown brush with a machete. A member of the group at the time said, “Wow I did not know Peace Corps officers do Black man’s work! He bills land, and picks up cow manure with his bare hands. Are you sure you can manage this work? I thought you only did book keeping?” While most Americans would be offended and proceed to have a dialogue about race and ethnicity, I simply have found sarcasm and humor to be far more effective in explaining myself to others. I use jokes in a situation like this to tell others that you cannot place labels and assumptions on someone based on how he or she looks. I bantered back, “Boy, plenty of white man cannot manage the book keeping thing either and would rather pick up sh*t and chop bush!” The entire group erupted in laughter and my complexion has never been brought up again in my community. In fact my farmers’ get very defensive when we are outside of my community and I am being called labels. One day in Port Antonio, the closest shopping town to my site, a merchant in the market said “White man! I…” But before he could finish his sentence, one of my farmers angrily snapped at him and said “Look at his locks, do you think he’s a white man!?” The merchant smiled and said, “Yes boy him is mixed up like Bob Marley.”
I think what makes complexionism even more frustrating than racism is the fact that it is mostly the same people hurting one another. I have had many positive experiences as a mixed-race American as well. Before I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was still a trainee in St. Thomas parish, a farmer said to me after our training had ended, “Stephen you really look like us. It is nice when volunteers look like us.” At a community meeting with all 18 environmental trainees in the room, a community leader said, “I do not know what the Peace Corps has done this year. But I see more Black volunteers and I am happy to see more people that look like us.” This is why diversity is important when it comes to being a Peace Corps Volunteer. By having a diverse workforce in the Peace Corps, Jamaicans will see that Americans also come from all shades, all classes, all nationalities, and all walks of life.
I have a very pragmatic view for dealing with racism and complexionism. You may not be able to change someone’s attitude against you, as differences in race, class, and cultural are inherently apart of human life all around the world, but you can choose how to respond to that person. A majority of racists and complexionists have stubborn pride. Stubborn pride is even when someone is corrected on his or her ignorance, he or she still believe they are right. As long as at the end of the day embrace your own identity and acknowledge there may be times when you are challenged, then you will be successful at dealing with any conflict, including racism or complexionism. I believe volunteers should refer to Peace Corp Expectation #8: Use personal judgement, as a majority of your service will be based on personal judgment.