Let’s begin with a story. I have a nagging feeling I’ve mentioned this one before, so bear with me if so: it still relates critically to today’s essay. My first conscious encounter with “white culture”, to which I belong, came from a season-opening exhibition game for the children’s baseball league in my neck of Toronto. I wore my team uniform and had my giant, freshly grilled hot-dog in hand. The sun was bright and the bleachers were full. And by the fence, where I was watching the plays, I recognized two adult men, both white, both fathers of players, introducing themselves to each other for the first time. And perhaps that’s why I paid attention to their conversation at all; perhaps I was curious to see how adults formed relationships. These two had, after all, one point in common–their sons in the sport–so now all they had to do was find other points of similarity.
And they did. Within minutes, they were talking about how immigrants were negatively affecting the economy and threatening their jobs.
But how did they know to jump so readily to this theme? I wondered about this long after the day’s end. They could have talked about the weather, or other sports teams, or whether their sons were naturally into baseball or needed a little coaxing to get into team contexts at all. They could have talked about where they lived relative to the ballpark and whether parking or traffic was “hell”.
And yet… they knew. They knew they could broach this rather volatile political topic easily, and had clearly assumed–correctly–that they’d find a sympathetic ear for all their talk about other people. Others, that is, who didn’t look like them.
Years later, in high school, I would call out a latina student sharing “ambassador” duty with me at the front door to our school for a parent-teacher night. She kept pointedly avoiding black families when they entered, and when I confronted her and asked her why, she told me that black men were dangerous. I told her that was racist, and she gave me a long once-over before declaring, “You’re white; you’re more racist than I’ll ever be.” And I admit, I was stunned. At that moment, I could easily have entrenched myself in a school of North American discourse that claims “reverse racism” to be the most critical issue of our age. I could have let her vicious deflection become excuse for blocking myself off to the socioeconomic issues created by life in a white-normative culture.
But I had grown up in a predominantly West Indies/immigrant-heavy neighbourhood, and I had seen the variations in life expectation and outcome that came with the territory. Moreover, I had seen, on occasions like that season-opener for my baseball league, how there was an unwritten cultural alliance among white persons, which could be invoked whenever we so chose. We could be aware of racism! We could fight it at every turn! But if ever we wanted to, if ever we permitted insult against us to feel like injury… we could also fall back on it. It would always be there for us, waiting with open arms: a sheltering anger and sense of entitlement to greater security and comfort than our neighbours of different ethnic backgrounds.
And this is why allyship–all allyship–needs to be treated as more verb than noun: more a Borgesian series of ongoing actions than a stated position or declaration of intent. Because there’s good reason for distrust among marginalized persons in any community towards even helpful outsiders; because outsiders can leave the struggle whenever they want, and that makes it dangerous for insiders to rely on them too much for aid with real reform. Sure, we can be pro-radical-economic-change… until we get our piece of land or win the lottery within the current system. And absolutely, we can support the rights of different ethnic groups… until we have one bad experience with an employee or neighbour from said group, and start to feel afraid of the whole. And yes, 100%, we can support disability rights… right until some of the public modifications called for by persons with disabilities seem to the rest of us too costly or unsightly.
We can advocate when it’s convenient, then revert to our defaults without personal cost.
And so our allyship is only as good as the actions in the present that it entails.
And this is true, too, for humanism–a label, as I noted a few essays ago, that can easily become a catch-all for quite a range of behaviours. Global humanism, in particular, should be considered more a series of ongoing actions than a declaration of intent.
Or else you end up like the caricature I met yesterday. The quintessential embodiment of every reason I do not hang out with North Americans here in Colombia!
The walking stereotype of the old white male tourist in “exotic” lands.
Rick Rolling the Canadian
I was returning from a dinner with two Colombians in a part of the city that is more upscale and tourist-y than my own. I had been telling these Colombians that I didn’t usually spend much time in the barrio of Laureles precisely because I felt uncomfortable being around fellow North Americans, of which there were many in our bar, where 90s Brit-rock played and English signage reined. Both my associates found my position amusing–but even though one of them also speaks English, he doesn’t pass for white, so his bafflement with my aversion doesn’t surprise me. I’d wager that his conversations with white people in English are quite different from mine.
Because when I talk to North Americans here, I learn quickly that the majority are tourists or six-month digital nomads with little interest in venturing far from comfortable routines. They stick more or less to their tourist-y districts, eating food similar to North American upscale standards, complaining at what they can’t find here, and drinking in accordance with North American elitism, too. They’re also not doing much in the way of language integration either, even if they talk with pleasure about taking on the occasional salsa class or fancy day-trip or local hobby.
And for many, of course, the entitlement worsens. Many like to talk about Colombians as sexual objects. Many invoke cocaine and the spectre of Medellín’s most notorious son to make themselves seem badass, and to play up the perils of their cosy South American adventures. And most of all, most regard their time in Colombia as a reprieve from their real lives in North America, which they will of course return to once they’ve had their fill: charmed and Eat, Pray, Love-educated by this “simpler” way of life.
So, as you can well imagine, as a Canadian who is adamantly here, and making of Medellín my forever-home, this is all a painful and tedious reminder of the life I do not want. And I try to avoid it wherever possible.
But! I was walking back from dinner with these Colombian friends when I saw a video playing in one of the tiendas in my barrio: Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”. I was chuffed, and thought it might make for a spot of social-media fun, “rick-rolling” my unsuspecting North American friends who follow my posts about life and nature here.So, I started filming… until I noticed that one of the guests at the tienda was excited to see me filming, and had confused the tienda’s owners with his shouting in English about it to the point that they paused the video. I immediately went up to the counter to apologize to the owners for interrupting their karaoke fun, and started to explain why I was filming.
In Spanish, of course. Because the tienda owners are local to Medellín (paisas).
But this action riled their guest, because, up close, he realized that I wasn’t Colombian. I was… white! Canadian! Like him! But then why was I speaking so confidently with the tienda owners in Spanish, and not to him in English?
It bothered him so much that he demanded I speak in English. What, what was I telling these locals?
Now, this irked me unto itself, but I gave him a split-second’s benefit of the doubt, and explained that I was telling the others why I’d filmed the video playing in their tienda. That the Rick Astley song has a greater significance in North American culture, and I was thrilled to be able to “rick-roll” my friends online with it.
“Don’t tell them!” he replied, catching at my shoulder and raising his voice when I turned back to finish talking to the paisas. “You’re ruining the joke! They don’t need to know! Don’t you see? That’s what makes it so funny!”
Sounds About White
This man was so upset with me for a few reasons, which all reduced to a sense of betrayal of our shared culture.
For one, I was speaking Spanish with a great deal more fluency, which put him to shame and made him feel left out. It was clear he expected that I would speak only in English, with him, as if the other three people present in the tienda were simply props. I soon learned that he’d been here about as long as I had–one year–but still spoke almost no Spanish, because, well, he’s found workarounds by cleaving to other expats and expecting the locals to play along in their rough English instead. He even has a Venezuelan girlfriend, who was also in attendance and did not speak English–but in the painfully typical manner of many older men in relationships with younger South American women, he still only spoke English at her while I was around, and gleefully mocked her to me for not knowing much in our shared tongue.
Yes, mocked her to me. As if, again, automatically assuming that I would be on his side.
Oh, and that year here? Yeah… Perhaps you’ve heard about the vast number of U.S. citizens illegally in Mexico? Well, this Canadian is here illegally, past his tourist-permit expiration–and told me so, boastfully… again, as if assuming I would automatically be on his side for having ever-so-cleverly gamed the Colombian government.
But to get back to that essential sense of betrayal…
“Why do you speak Spanish so well?” he demanded–to which, at first to the tienda owners, then in English to him, I explained that I live here, in the very traditional barrio of Belén los Alpes, precisely because I am actively integrating. Because I want to live here forever, and know the work that this dream requires.
“What do you mean, forever?” he gallingly went on. “You won’t go back to Canada? Oh, no, don’t say that. No, no, not forever. For a few years, maybe, but here? Forever?”
Clearly recognizing that I wasn’t impressed with this response, though, he tried to change tactics, to get me back on his side, and asked me to stay and have a beer and talk to him some more “about the locals”. Ugh. I explained–first to the tienda owners, then to him–that I had to work in the morning, so no, I was going to go.
Again, he was incredulous. “Work? But the salaries are shit–how do you work here?”
Another dizzying question with regard to its underlying presumptions. Yes, Colombians make less than North Americans, by and large, but an educated North American can still live on an entry-level-professional’s Colombian salary by living like a Colombian. I make about $900CAD a month at my teaching job, which covers a relatively high rent of $510CAD (I love my three-bedroom apartment!) and leaves me enough to pay for my public transport, utilities, phone, internet, and groceries including fresh produce. I still have to dip into savings every now and then while I acclimate (for instance, when I learned that Christmas season meant no work for a month: will be more prepared this year!), but even small writing sales to US markets have thus far given me enough to pay for new shoes and clothes when necessary, and to host the occasional lunch for local friends, all within a careful budget that doesn’t involve excessive outings.
But also… uh, yes, I work, and I explained to him how the work visa functions–even though his flagrant disregard for the tourist-permit restrictions would clearly disqualify him. (I think I was so irritated I wanted to make it perfectly clear that a legal option had been available to him if he’d wanted to hang out here for longer, with respect for the culture, the country, and its laws.)
And then I left, reeling at how much presumption had been packed into so relatively brief an exchange. Because, sure, the language part was irritating enough–and his opinion about my decision to build a life here, and his comments about my working (heaven forfend!) in a country with lower wages–but that physical contact and the act of shouting over me to try to get me to stop telling the locals about rick-rolling… That made my blood boil, because that was white culture at its ugliest.
That was him saying, confident that I would be on his side because of our shared background, hey, these people are the joke to me–look how little they know about our culture! look how I get to make fun of them without them even knowing it, while they smile politely at this language of mine they don’t understand!–so don’t ruin it by letting them in on my fun!
All my friends who have spent significant time in other parts of the world have also seen this caricature firsthand. I’ve certainly observed it time and again here, because the entitled white person in “exotic” lands is a stereotype for a reason.
But this was the first time in a long time that I had someone so aggressively try to pull me back into white culture. Into playing the same game of mutual bonding through presumed superiority over others that I first recoiled from as a child at a baseball game.
And it felt awful.
And it felt disgusting.
And I am thankful to have felt both–because with those renewed feelings came the reminder, for this aspiring global humanist, that falling into step with cultures of unearned superiority is and always will be a readily available option for me.
Granted, I think I verbed my humanism decently last night.
But the real test will always be my next, won’t it?
And my next. And my next. And my next.