Western Privilege and Blackness Abroad

Recently I found blogger Black in Asia’s posts about Western privilege and how to navigate it abroad. This part (in the first link) about being a black Westerner abroad really spoke to me:

We inhabit a liminal space which is difficult to dissect, but that’s why a more nuanced analysis is necessary—with “Westernness” bestowing on us some privileges abroad (e.g. diplomatic immunity) rooted in the global power of our countries of origin, but our “blackness” leading to our oppression due to anti-black sentiments. We encounter and live both while abroad as black Westerners.

As a non-Latino Black woman reporting in black communities in Panama, I’m finding this in-between space difficult on a daily basis, most often when dealing with the way Black American culture is consumed and fetishized here. My roommates are more current on mainstream American rap and hip-hop than I am, though they understand none of the English lyrics. They mime exaggerated swagger and sag their pants and ask me whether they’re doing the correct “black” dances. Based entirely on one-dimensional, dehumanizing stereotypes, their conception of American Blackness is neither positive nor complex. But it’s still very different from the way black Panamanians are viewed, which is less “black cool” and more black indigence, criminality and failure. (Especially since race/skin color and poverty are linked so deeply. Poorer cities in Panama have a greater population of people with darker skin.)

In a country where almost everyone has African heritage but only ten percent consider themselves black, what does it mean that my roommate recently greeted me using the n-word? He argued that it was the equivalent of “negro,” which plainly means “black,” even when I tried to explain the difference in the historical meanings of each. The Spanish word “chombo” is somewhat equivalent to the n-word — it refers to dark-skinned English speaking blacks from the West Indies. It’s unlikely anyone would ever use it to describe me.

As a researcher/journalist from the U.S., I am privileged in being more easily able to separate myself from that one-dimensional stereotype of blackness, in ways a black Panamanian might not be able to, sometimes regardless of class or educational level. I spoke with a black Panamanian professor at the University of Panama who said she’s heard students call her “chombo” as she walks down the halls.

Panama is an interesting country to look at the nuances of blackness and privilege in, because its history is so intertwined with the United States’. Many black Panamanians have actually spent decades in the United States. Some chose to leave for economic purposes, for example, in Colon, as the city slid into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. Unable to flee, the poorer Colonenses were left in the city center.

I have had trouble navigating this history in my journalistic interviews, because many Panamanians who self-identify as black have perceptions on race heavily informed by their time abroad. I’m trying not to prioritize viewpoints just because they seem familiar or similar to my own. Also, certain approaches to racism that could be successful in the U.S. would never work here, and vice versa.

Generally, being an American journalist reporting on marginalized groups in a developing country is complex and difficult, irrespective of my race. The other day, I met the wife of a sociologist I have been trying to contact for weeks. She told me he might not ever respond to me — Western academics are constantly traipsing into the country, taking the information they need and then leaving with it. Sometimes he never hears from them again. And even if he does, he rarely actively benefits from the information transfer.

I think about that often, and it can be paralyzing. But I’m trying instead to use that knowledge to be more intentional about the way I carry out my research. I can’t be an expert on other people’s lived experiences, but I can work to record and present them in a way that is ethical, informed and truthful.

4 thoughts on “Western Privilege and Blackness Abroad

  1. My beautiful cousin! How God has blessed that mind of yours. Keep inquiring and seeking. You will find. Your comments remind me of intersections in my research with Afro-Caribbean women living in NYC. They said the same thing. Researchers came and took what they wanted and they never heard from them again. After conducting that study and then my dissertation research, I understand it better from the researchers sode. We have all kind of constraints that do not necessariky allow us to keep certain contacts with those we research. It can be very frustrating to be confined in that way. I think this makes awonderful case for culturally sensitive research and inclusion. Community based research is a powerful too that can assist with some of this. Attitudes and perceptions of “blackness” abroad is an interesting phenomenon. When I spent time in Spain, it was fascinating to see how Blacks related to each other in a society that was hostile to those of the Diaspora. But even more interesting is how we define ourselves in other cultural contexts. So proud of you!

  2. Excellent article , allow me to rephrase the issue in a historical manner.
    white supremacism and the distribution of wealth and power along skin color and race were systematized during what is referred to as white christian European modernity. every study of western European theological and political imagination, since roughly 1492, shows that ‘blackness,’ or people of African descent, have been made
    ‘other’ or to use C. West’s term “nigerized” meaning they are subject to random violence, unprotected and hated for who they are. Nigerization has been internalized by many people of African descent. Panama is good example because only 10 percent consider themselves Black. Everywhere you go in the Americas, or Europe or the middle East, even in Africa, you come across the same pattern of distribution of wealth and power along skin color. If you have time read about the story of Black Falashas in the state of Israel, or Black skin workers in the golf states. This reality of ‘nigerization’ transcends religion and geography, and seems to have wrecked beyond repair modern states political imagination.
    Western privilege or supremacy is tied to whiteness and western blackness disrupt and frustrate its logic.
    In the USA, Obama’s election to the highest office is a case in point. In France, right now there is a serious political scandal going on . Christiane Toubira, French current Attorney General, a woman of African descent, has been called a ‘monkey’ by right wing party members and by a journal ‘Minute.” The same kind of verbal lynching that Obama and many others have been subject to.
    Hence, what you see in Panama fits a historical pattern of nigerization.
    Finally, one of the leading scholars in Africa, Achile Mbembe, just published a seminal book entitled “Critique de la raison negre” a parallel to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.”

  3. thank you for posting your article. I am from Panama, El Chorrillo sector of Panama City. And I grew up in Panama and in the U.S. I am of mix heritage, my grandfather is Indigenous and my grandmother is Jamaican Black, Jewish, Chinese and American. I just wanted to add also, and this may be helpful when framing how as Panamanians we view our heritage. It is not only the erasing of ethnic bloodlines, which most do to separate their ethnic identities. But it is about a history of nationalism, Panama as a country independent from Gran Colombia since 1903 has always had a history with identity representation and identity politics as a nationalistic identity versus ethnic identity. Racism is very subtle, yet very visible in Panama. It just depends on the part of the country you are at and in what areas one encounters the (in)visible racism. I look forward to reading more about your travels in Panama. Keep up the good work in your research!

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