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.