My Identities Abroad
Now that my time is ending in Spain, I thought I would share some of my thoughts about my various identities and traveling abroad in Spain and other countries in Europe. I will discuss my black, American, and New York City identities in hope to show how each one shifts my power and privilege in different contexts.
Let’s start with my black identity. I must admit that it was difficult to be black in Europe. I remember the first week I came to Spain and I got so many stares from Spaniards. For example, my first night out in Granada I got dinner with some of my friends and a waiter stopped and stared at me by a doorway. He looked at me as though I wore a fruit hat and would soon dance the cha-cha-cha. I tried to ignore him, but I felt his eyes stabbing me and eventually I switched seats with someone else. These kinds of stares occurred at least once a day and I considered that my American identity was to blame. However, I spoke to my white counterparts and not one of them could relate. The only students abroad that understood these intense stares were students of color. Some have argued that Spaniards stare because it’s not common to see black people in Spain eating at restaurants.
While it is true that many blacks in Spain come from different parts of Africa seeking refuge and jobs because they are poor, it does not justify staring. Spaniards are constantly exposed to American films, news, and music. Within each media outlet there are black actors and actresses, and music artists like Kendrick Lamar that many Spaniards listen to. Not to mention, there are native black Spaniards. Thus, white Spaniards do not live isolated from the rest of the world, so I do not think my presence should startle them.
I would also like to mention how sometimes Romani people (aka Gypsies), and almost all blacks in Spain, are not considered Spanish. A Roma person is someone who originated from the northern region of India as a nomad and entered Europe between the eighth and tenth centuries. Romani people are also referred to as Gypsy, which comes from the word Egypt, because Europeans believed they were descendants of Egyptian Pharaohs. However, the term Gypsy is considered derogatory and politically incorrect in the U.S. Romani people tend to have different rituals, customs, and some look like Spaniards. Despite appearances, Spaniards “other” Romani people and vice versa. Some Spaniards think Roma people are thieves and cannot be trusted while others acknowledge Roma as Spanish. However, blacks in Spain are never considered Spanish, but rather seen as African, American, or English. I remember my Spaniard professor was curious and asked me in class if Americans ever questioned my American identity. I told her no and realized that in the U.S. I experience racism, but I was never considered non-American. I thought about how awful it would be to have been born black in Spain and not seen as a Spaniard. Imagine going to school, speaking Spanish fluently, and growing up with the Spanish culture but still not considered Spanish.
Moving from my black identity we will now discuss my New York City identity abroad. Interestingly, I identified more as someone from New York City than from the U.S. Whenever I was asked where I was from, I would always say New York City. Most Europeans do know where New York City is located, but I did not realize how subtly I expected them to know. Other American students from different parts of the USA did the same thing and Europeans would always know. I learned that Europeans are always learning about the U.S., because American culture influences the world. Young Spaniards know and love American celebs like Kylie Jenner. Even festivities like Black Friday sales are becoming trendy and worldwide. So, when I say I am from Manhattan, New York City many people are filled with excitement. Suddenly, I become an important person that Spaniards, Germans, Italians etc. want to know. Europeans have called me a rich man or assumed that my parents work on Wall Street. Whenever I tell my stories about being frustrated walking through Times Square, they think it’s romantic. It occurred to me that being born in New York City is truly a privilege and I could grab the attention of foreigners just by mentioning it.
My New York City identity also had more advantages than expected abroad. Among my peers from small-town states, I believe I was the most prepared for city life. I grew up around street hustlers, tall buildings, public transportation. So, when I arrived in different countries with a transit system, it takes me a few minutes to figure it out. Many of my peers were afraid they would get lost. Some of them were so scared they took a taxi cab everywhere. In addition, I had to save some of my peers from a scam artist on the streets. I learned that I had the privilege of learning essential street skills that prepared me for my study abroad experience. No matter the language or culture, I could apply the skills I developed in New York anywhere.
Aside from my New York City identity, I think it is important to mention how just being an American affected my travels as well. On an excursion to Morocco, I noticed many Moroccans live in poverty. In my experience, our group of Americans and Europeans that visited Morocco were assumed to be rich and many Moroccans worked hard to satisfy our desires. Considering my American identity equated to wealth in certain spaces, my black identity became secondary. For example, at an opulent hotel I was greeted by the hotel staff with mint green tea rather than alarming them. I was surprised because often blacks wearing casual clothes in affluent spaces can cause concern. However, my presence was desired, and I had authority which made me uncomfortable.
I learned that my identities shift and change power dynamics abroad. At times my black identity was met with stares and I felt uncomfortable. I was vulnerable because I did not feel safe enough to travel on my own. However, when I mentioned I was from New York City I felt confident and comfortable in my skin. I had a soft power because I drew people in and I lived somewhere many people dream of going someday. My NYC identity became an advantage because I was equipped with the skills I needed to travel. I even learned that being American in settings like Morocco made a huge difference because I was considered rich. With each identity there was change in how I was perceived. It was amazing to watch how one identity dominated the other depending on a location or who I was speaking with. Now when I travel, I have better sense of which identity is coming into play.