I’m a Brown woman in the United States and a Brown woman abroad. My Brownness, though, plays out quite differently depending on where I am and who or what is around me.
As a professor who teaches about issues of race, identity, and social justice, I travel with students to introduce to them people who are working to make life better for themselves and their communities amid great historical and current challenges. My partners abroad—in India, México, Ghana, and elsewhere—teach us about resilience and strength, and the importance of seeing colonialism and globalization through other people’s eyes.
My own travels, too, help me see myself with different eyes.
In my daily life in the U.S., I can’t help but notice how I’m often the darkest person in a meeting or at an event. Sometimes I’m one of few people of color, or the only, in a sea of White. Being different or sticking out doesn’t always feel bad, but it does make me more aware of when I do belong.
When I travel to Black and Brown lands abroad, what a soul-soothing relief it is to blend in more easily with the majority and not be so visible and obviously different. My skin relaxes into camaraderie, and I don’t have to be so vigilant, so aware.
And yet, the Brownness I share with people around the world can also feel conflictual because of my education, wealth, global mobility, and other advantages. Traveling connects me to experiences outside my own and shows me how Brownness is both window and mirror.
“Are you from Pakistan?” local people ask me repeatedly. “Libya?” I am in Morocco with a group of 18 White educators and one other colleague of color, Ahmed. We all are American and here to learn about Islam, development, and gender issues.
Wherever we go, local vendors rush to the White people in our group to make a sale, but always approach me and Ahmed to guess where we are from. “Somalia?” “Kenya?” people surmise as they look at him. “Sri Lanka?” “Ethiopia?” “India?” as they look at me. The friendly hubbub around our skin color and ethnic origins continues in whichever part of the country we travel, and I love the fun interactions that ensue.
It does, though, take me a little while to get used to it. In the U.S., “where are you from?” is often a loaded question, depending on who’s asking it and in what context. In my experience, when a White person asks a Brown person this question, it can feel unsettling. The question might be a small-talk conversation starter for the questioner, but for the immigrant, person of color, or “unrecognizable” accented recipient, it sometimes feels like a way for the White person asking to quickly identify the difference in you and be able to manage it with a category that makes them either comfortable with or knowledgeable about who you are: “Ah yes. Now I can make sense of you.”
In Morocco, though, the vendors’ insistence on finding out where we are from feels quite different to me. I begin to realize that the context in which I had been asked that question hundreds of times before has shifted, and that here I respond more openly.
Ahmed and I use the extra attention as a way to practice our beginner’s Arabic and deepen our understanding of the local culture. It feels nice to be a part of something outside of the spectacle that is our large and loud White group. After a while, we start to notice that whenever a Moroccan comes up to us to guess our origins, a few of our White colleagues sigh, roll their eyes, or turn away their heads.
This happens repeatedly. Maybe they think that the Moroccans who ask about our origins are rude or inappropriate by pointing out what is quite obvious, that Ahmed and I are not White like the rest of our group. Perhaps they feel we are being unfairly treated special and become resentful. I never ask them what they are thinking and continue to relish the interactions with curious Moroccans who approach us, Moroccans who are Brown like me, and yet differently Brown.
Increasingly, I get the feeling that the sighs and eye rolls speak to something about identity and racial discomfort—something that is beyond the attention that Ahmed and I receive but related. I get the sense that some of my White colleagues—accustomed to being the invisible norm in the U.S.—are getting tired of being on display. Now that their Whiteness is linked to tourism and American wealth, perhaps they aren’t sure how to respond. The “Sri Lanka? Kenya?” moments carry an energy of their own, and the sighs, eye rolls, and the bad vibes of some group members only increase, especially when in the presence of the vendors and shopkeepers.
One afternoon, three White men in our group snap and lash out at the carpet vendors who approach us. Faces red with rage, they yell, “Leave us the hell alone!” They shoo away the vendors with big, sweeping arm gestures and shout, “No! No! We don’t want any!” Local people around us gape in surprise. The vendors slink away, chastised, humiliated, and grumble under their breath. The rest of our group and I stay quiet, unsure how to say that something about race and masculinity and entitlement and cultural difference is playing out.
I’m American like these White men I’m traveling with, but I cringe at their unchecked privilege as they dismiss the rug salesmen. The next time Moroccan vendors ask where I’m from, I slink away, not knowing how to stand tall in my Brown difference amid what feels like White people’s racial anxiety of visibility.
The once-sweet interactions between the local vendors and me now feel sullied by the racial anxieties of some of my White colleagues. Brownness can be a great connective tissue in different parts of the world. It’s also, though, always complicated by Whiteness.
I’m walking through a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of México City, a wealthy Global Northerner traveling through an impoverished area of the Global South. Life—in all its mundane and pungent messiness—spills out every which way. Women squat outside their corrugated tin homes and fan coal stoves. Children play in stagnant pools of water. Everyone watches me, curious, because I am here and people like me are usually not. In my red leather sandals, with my trendy traveler’s backpack slung over my shoulder, I appear so different, and yet I am also Brown, my skin like so many of the women at their coal stoves and the children playing in the pools of water. My belonging and disconnection merge into questions I cannot answer. How does, simultaneously, my race make me feel a sense of closeness and my class make me feel worlds apart? Vexed, I begin to worry how I come across. How does my desire to respectfully observe and learn press up against colonial history and borders and my parents’ immigrant journey from India to the U.S.—all of which have afforded me this shiny passport to travel and witness the pools of stagnant water that splash in the children’s play? I’m self-conscious, and my heart pounds. My discomfort and guilt pull me under, and I check out.
I am a tourist in Tiananmen Square. My particular Brownness flags me as an easy-to-spot foreigner in the ubiquitous crowds of Chinese people all around. There must be 2,000 or 3,000 people in this square alone, I think. Politely curious, people nearby glance at me.
One elderly man stands near me and propels himself forward at an unhurried pace. When he approaches me, he thrusts his hand out to shake mine. I lean back slightly, unsure how to respond. As a woman, should I shake the hand of a male elder? I’m not familiar enough with the nuances of Chinese culture in regard to age, status, gender, and foreignness, but I quickly return his handshake. His hand is worn and strong. His face splits into a big and toothy grin, and I am a bit surprised he has so many teeth. He pats my shoulder and totters away.
As the hours pass, many more elders will approach me with outstretched hands. A few will whisper near my ear sentiments I do not understand. Some elders hold my hand and pat my shoulder. The Chinese elders’ light touch on my skin feels good; they are gentle and kind and welcoming and, at least for a few moments, quell the feeling that I’ve harbored about how conspicuously different my Brownness makes me from all those around me both rich and poor. The handshakes and pats and whispers are small gestures in this big concrete square, and they make me feel a part of the thousands of people around us. Sometimes as an outsider, it’s wonderful to blend in. And sometimes, sticking out couldn’t be sweeter.
Anu Taranath wrote this article for the Travel Issue, the summer 2019 edition of YES! Magazine. She is a University of Washington Distinguished Teacher, Fulbright Scholar, and consultant specializing in global literature, identity, race, and equity. She is the author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World. Reprinted with permission by YES! Magazine.
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