A cultural exchange gone wrong

On an extremely hot and humid Friday night outside a bar near La Esplanada in Alicante, Spain the N-word appeared in a conversation. It was at the end of the night, after a few drinks, a few bar changes, with two British tourists on their first vacation on the Mediterranean Coast. Bob (not his real name) was very happy to speak English, given that his Spanish was non-existent. Maybe that ease of finally speaking his native language, gave him a sense of comfort to really express himself.

He first started by referring to himself as a “Guido”, apparently  he thought of himself as the British version of “The Situation” from the Jersey Shore. And wasn’t bothered at all that the term is offensive to Italian-Americans, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here thinking he hasn’t read much history about Italians in the United States.

As the night progressed, he shared his love for music, women, traveling, “his pride in being a really good dancer for a white guy” and his obsession with American culture, and I guess his “coolness” by saying:

I’ve been to Miami many times, where some of my best friends are black and they called me their N-word….And they tell me I can call them that, because to them I’m their N-word.

When he said it, I was surprised and would have felt offended and repulsed by his ignorance if he had called me that. And that got me thinking, are words ever just words? My best friends are Latina women, and I don’t see anybody jumping for joy to be called a ”wetback”  or a “spick”. I don’t remember my white friends ever wanting to be referred to as “red-necks” nor “white trash”.

Where does cultural awareness begin and cultural insensitivity end? Can we really be clueless about other cultures in a world where access to information is instant?

Change is a step towards evolving

For as long as I can remember change has been part of my life. Every four years there was something new happening: a new school, new living arrangements, and therefore new friends. Growing up, I used to pretend my life was a movie that aliens watched very closely. I think it helped me look forward to whatever change was coming, and anticipate the new adventures by taking away the fear.

But in the last couple of weeks, the changes that have happened are even surprising me. In a year and a half, I’ve: moved to Paris, completed a semester at a French university, got a job at a hotel as a receptionist, and today I started a job back in journalism. Plus I  learned French, ran a half-marathon, and on schedule to run another  in Amsterdam in October. I think this is the life my mother wanted for my sister and I when we moved to New York. A life with opportunities to choose what we wanted. A sense of adventure that embraces change and enjoys the challenges that come with it.

During my training session at work today, someone said: When I started working here, it was the first time that I saw blacks, Arabs, and whites talking, laughing and interacting. Apparently, that was unheard of for a French company.

It was the very first time I heard someone mentioned diversity in France. You always hear about diversity initiatives, how they add to the experience of all. And today during lunch it really was truly evident. There we were, four journalists, from totally different backgrounds that together spoke seven different languages. Change has a way of deciding what kind of person you want to be: a) do you move forward and face a challenge, or b) stay in the safety of what you know, and pray that it stays like that forever?

But in life nothing is permanent. I am part of that wave of change.

A Paris hair diary

The other day as I was standing in line to buy a crepe, a woman crossing the street couldn’t keep her eyes off me. When she got closer, her eyes lit up, and gave me a nod of approval as she walked by. It wasn’t a creepy stare. I could guess what it was about, and she confirmed it as she crossed the street, turned around and started walking towards me. She was not a food inspector, nor a figment of my imagination screaming loudly: this better be your last crepe, you’re training for your second half-marathon and you don’t need the sugar.

It was my hair. She walked up to me and said: your locks are beautiful, where do you get them done?

When most Europeans see my hair, the ones that have the courage to say anything usually start with: How do you wash it? Can you take it off? Are you a Rastafarian? Is your family from Jamaica? All that because I wear my hair in locks. The decision to start locking my hair had nothing to do with religion, lifestyle or wanting to make a statement about black beauty. I was just simply tired of chemical relaxers, braids, short haircuts,  pressing with hot combs, and was never going to get a weave (hair extension) or a wig.

I just wanted to see how my hair would behave if i left it natural. I love my hair. No breakage from chemicals, healthy, strong, grows faster that it ever did while it was permed or dying during my jheri curls summer. Yes, I had jheri curls many, many, years ago. Oh the things we do to black hair!

And for what? Whose standards of beauty are we trying to live up to?

As the woman and I talked, it made me smile that she wanted to know who took care of my hair. Here was this black woman who spoke perfect French, living in Paris for over 20 years, asking a recent immigrant where to go to get her locks done. As she walked away, I noticed a group of four black teenage girls eating their crepes in the restaurant. They all had weaves. They were wavy, and straight, blonde, black and some with red highlights. They also stared at my hair, but said nothing.

The invisible character

Over the weekend my mom went to a friend’s graduation at Brooklyn College.  She was very proud of the fact the her friend, father Anthony, –one of the priests in her church– was now a college graduate. Somehow she got to the part about who was in the audience, and she mentioned Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad. Now that was a story I wanted to hear. Mom somehow always buries the lead, I think she wanted to test if I was listening. And hearing the names of my favorite tv parents, took me back to Saturday summer afternoons in Madrid. When we watched episodes of The Cosby Show –lounging on the red couch, eating lentejas, and drinking Fanta–in front of the black and white tv set after spending all day at the public pool.

Television programs back in the 80s were not very diverse in Spain, outside of El Barrio Sesamo, there were no shows for children. But when we did watch tv, our options were very small. On the one hand there were the Tarzan movies, where the Africans seemed to be always running away and in fear of the animals, while he managed not only to communicate with them, but also train them. Second option was The A-Team, where the one black character  Mr. T, was more about brute force than intellect.

And then, there was The Cosby Show. A family on television where everyone was black. Both parents worked, the kids went to school, had friends and lived normal lives. These were people who looked like me. Now as an adult , I realize how important it is for children to see people who look like them in positive roles. It teaches you that you too can reach higher heights, you can choose any medium and succeed, that you matter. That the color of your skin does not mean you are less smart, less capable, or less committed to work hard.

After 20 plus years of watching tv in the States (even BET), I’m now working my way through French TV. I can count on one hand how many black news anchors, black actors in positive roles I´ve seen. One of my favorite shows is Scène de Ménages, which focuses on the home life and relationships of four couples. There is the retired married couple who are always bickering, and amuse themselves by playing jokes on others. Then there is the middle-aged married couple with a kid in college, where the husband is very much a kid. There is a young married couple who is adjusting to life with a baby. And then there is the only black character. A business man living with his white girlfriend. They are the only unmarried couple.

I watch the show because it’s funny and many of the scenarios are ridiculous. But if I am an adolescent black or Arab girl interested in acting living in France, what do I take away from this show?

who knew language had color?

In Paris people are always asking me where I’m from because of my accent. It throws them because I don’t have quite the heavy American accent when I speak French. And frankly my accent, just like my culture is a mixture of all the places I’ve lived in so far: Madrid, Brooklyn, and now Paris. A blend obviously hard to pin-point, when once again people feel the need to put me ‘the speaker’ in a box. When I speak Spanish, I have a Spaniard accent, but that can’t be quite right, since I’m black. When I speak English, it’s okay, because they are used to black Americans speaking English, even before president Barack Obama.

And when I tell them where I’m from, they still ask: but what’s your origin? Because saying Spain three times never sinks in. I’m after all black. Well imagine my delight when I had a chance to ask that question to a couple of black Irish 20-something guys in Paris last week. But when I asked, where are you guys from, it had nothing to do with their “origin”, and more about their experience as Afro-Europeans. And my question didn’t even say anything about place of birth , I simply said: what was it like for you growing up in Ireland?

We all shared a look, and smiled. The smile and look that said, yes, I know exactly what it was like for you, because I lived it too. Apparently they always get the: Wow I can’t believe how great you speak English ( or any European language) look. Which they always respond with: that is the only language I speak. I’m guessing somewhere in their highly developed brains, some people expect people of color to always have ‘an accent’ when speaking.

I brought this up to my Spaniard roommate, and this was his take: Well Ines just how you were the only black kid in school in Spain some 30 years go, some Spaniards have never come in contact with a black person. Some have never left their small town or travel abroad, and to them seeing you speak their language is a shock.

Really? Who knew the color of my skin would dictate my language as well. Well I’m happy to shock them in English, Spanish and French. Portuguese is next.

The culture puzzle

In my own skin I’m more than enough. It’s the rest of the world that is a challenge.

When I moved to Paris last January, I was pretty sure of what my adventure would be about: learning French, writing, seeing the world and living life on my terms. Instead, Paris has turned into an adventure of self-discovery, race, culture and belonging.

Every day that I live in Europe, I realize more and more what a culture puzzle I am. To some I’m a woman of African descent, but not a ‘real African’ because I  was born and raised in Spain. For many I’m not a real Spaniard, because my skin is black. And for the rest who feel the need to label me, I’m the American in Paris.

And that label – ‘American’ is what surprises me the most. During the 20 plus years that I lived in New York, I never felt American – but now I feel that more than ever. Maybe that old cliché really is true: you can take a girl out of Brooklyn, but you can never take Brooklyn out of the girl.

For now, I define myself as an Afro-European who was raised in New York, and who for the moment lives in Paris.

When I lived in New York, I was proud to say that I was born and raised in Madrid. Always reminiscing about my childhood, my family and friends. How being the only black kid from kindergarten to 7th grade didn’t faze me, because when I went home there were kids my age who looked like me. Children who called Spain home, the only country we knew. So what if nobody played with me during recess? I was happy to read and dream imaginary worlds. It was the beginning of an isolation that eventually became a part of me.

I think that isolation (or wall, as my best-friends would say) is what helped me survive moving to New York as a child. Where once again everything about me was different. Yes I spoke Spanish, but for the Latin Americans I had the accent and traditions of the “Conquistadores”, so I was never really part of their of culture, because I didn’t have the Latino experience. I had many African-American friends, but for them I was a ‘different’ kind of black, because no one in my family was born on American soil. A blend of many, but not enough of anything.

So where does that leave me now, as the Afro-European woman raised in Brooklyn traveling through Europe? Who am I? What culture do I identify with? Today, this is the answer to the puzzle that works: I am a woman who belongs nowhere, but makes a home everywhere she goes.