After only being back in the States for a few weeks, I was planning on writing something nostalgic to express what my Peace Corps service has done for me and what it symbolizes in my life because it has truly been a life-changing, and eye-opening experience that I will never forget. I’ve made the most amazing friends and long lasting relationships with Nicaraguans and Americans. Sadly, however, the first thing that I’m going to write about is the present, heartbreaking reality that is weighing on me: our society needs a huge change.
I recently posted a picture of some friends and I standing in solidarity in response to the violence and systematic-mass killings that have taken place against people of color in the United States. For Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) of color worldwide, it is painful to watch what is happening from abroad, and frustrating because we feel so helpless; we watch from afar as countless numbers of our people are murdered. The picture was our way of standing strong together and showing solidarity for all Peace Corps Volunteers of color all over the globe, as well as fellow our Americans back home.
You see, while serving in the Peace Corps, we deal with racism and prejudice due to a lack of understanding of diversity. This is something we feel on two levels: in our communities and in our PCV cohorts. In our communities, on a daily basis, we are having conversations and interacting with others to try to dispel myths and stereotypes of Black people that we know aren’t true. We are the living, walking examples that these negative stereotypes are false and upsetting. Every day we are confronted with the reality of defending our livelihood and educating the communities we serve, and every day, although we smile, it hurts. Deeply. A cab driver once said to me, “Isn’t New York City dangerous because of all those black people? They’re always killing and stealing!” My heart still sinks when I think about those words. I know that it has to do with the media and how it portrays Blacks and Latinos, but it aches when people feel that they can open up to me about their beliefs because they don’t think I identify as black; I am on the lighter side, and my Afro-Latina roots aren’t very physically visible. I always have to explain that not only did I grow up with Black people, but some of my best friends are Black, and I am also Black. My father, grandfather, uncles and aunts, cousins are Black, and none of them steal or kill.
Then we are confronted with the other reality; the reality of being with other volunteers that don’t understand our culture, our plight, or the history of our country; sadly, our fellow PCVs aren’t always that much more aware or appreciative of U.S. diversity than our host country nationals. As PCVs, when we are together, we should feel safe to be ourselves and put our guard down. However, that is not the case. Too often we find ourselves still wearing a “mask” to accommodate our peer so they don’t feel uncomfortable or wrongly judge us. We never really feel free to be our true selves or have the ability to express our grievances. It’s like we’re considered “other” because we’re the Americans in our communities, and yet, still the “other” even when among other white, Americans Peace Corps Volunteers.
I know for myself, sometimes I’m afraid to be me around other’s who don’t know me because I am afraid they will judge me for being different instead of wanting to learning and celebrating the diversity that exist in the nation that we serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. I had one experience when we had just finished working a camp and a group of us were together celebrating and hanging out with a few fellas of color we had met. We danced to a few dancehall songs, some bachata and some salsa, nothing crazy. But, by the morning, it had gotten around that we had been dancing FOR these guys and not WITH them. What seemed like a harmless and fun night of dancing with dudes that actually know how to get down was suddenly misconstrued and interpreted as the Black Peace Corps volunteers dancing like hoes for the attention of men because they were “shaking their butts”.
This experience taught me that, even though volunteers are taught to be open-minded about the culture we are living in, some volunteers fail to acknowledge the importance of being just as open-minded of the cultures of their PCV peers. After this incident, I realized I wasn’t free to be myself; this is just a little taste of what it’s like to be a volunteer of color.
The recent incidents that have been going on just add to it. So you can imagine how it feels when I post a picture of myself and other PCVs showing black solidarity in a Facebook group for PCVs and RPCVs and suddenly there is backlash of negative comments that make it seem as though what we feel is nothing and that we are only seeking to pursue a “political movement.” Fortunately, many RPCVs and PCVs supported us through their comments and responses to the antagonistic comments. Despite the previous pain, intentionally or unintentionally caused by my PCV peers because of identity, it was very powerful to see other volunteers sympathize with our pain and suffering.
However, the negative comments and criticisms reveal the real issues of our society, that, to some, our voice doesn’t matter. It’s the lack of respect for our feelings and our anguish, as if we have no right to express it, or to demand equality, that is disheartening. We, as volunteers, are expected to share our American values and cultures as if it is perfect, yet how can we do that when our people are being systematically killed and when I’m being silenced? How can I be expected to represent a country that lawfully doesn’t want to acknowledge my rights or my voice? I am and always will be a proud RPCV, but as an agent of the United States of America, I deserve to stand for something better.