Imagine having to start a whole new life on the other side of the world. Well, that was me, when I had to leave the States—a place I had called home for the past 16 years—and head to Jakarta to continue my teaching career. While filled with some trepidation, as I left my family and friends, I saw this as an adventure, looking forward to what this new chapter of life would entail. I say looking forward to it because as someone who was born in Ghana, but lived, grew up, and attended school in three different countries (Botswana, South Africa, and the United States), I saw this as yet another international experience I could embrace. Little did I know what I would be getting into.
Once the novelty wore off, I became painfully aware of the way people reacted whenever I stepped outside of my apartment building, as I quickly learned how “being the center of attention” could have a negative connotation. The stares, finger pointing, laughing, and double looks (sometimes more) became something that I encountered day in and day out. As a black person, while I had encountered some negative interactions due to the color of my skin, nothing had been as intense as this experience.
Here in Indonesia, I have learned what it means to be both black and African (I say African because here, as in America, there’s not much differentiation). Colorism is most definitely in play here, as the darker your skin color, the more you are treated differently. There is a great preference for lighter/fairer-skinned people, with skin whitening/bleaching creams littered around stores, all in plain view. Lighter/fairer-skinned people are seen in commercials, on T.V., on billboards, etc.
However, one irony I have found is that even the darker-skinned Indonesians point, stare, and laugh. It’s not only confusing, but disappointing as well, because I would think that because we are both more or less in the same boat, we would be able to connect and even commiserate with each other. I suppose it’s that whole idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, in a bid to distance themselves, and hopefully, one day, find themselves being accepted as well. Thus, the idea is “while I may have it bad, at least I don’t have it as bad you do.” And so, the cycle continues.
In addition to colorism, there is the stigma associated with the continent of Africa. My African background puts me at a further disadvantage than my African American counterparts, in that while they are black and may encounter the same reactions/treatment I do, there is often a change in attitude/demeanor once people find out they’re American. The American passport still has a lot of sway in many parts of the world.
About three weeks ago, I went out to eat with a friend, and it turned out that there was a live band playing. My friend and I found ourselves so taken in by their performance (boisterously singing aloud) that once they were done, they came over to say hello. They asked where we were from, and my friend stated America (meaning himself). They immediately became so enamored with his answer, pointing out how pleased they were to have an American present, listening to their songs, that I made the choice not to say where I was from. I know that it wasn’t right, but at the same time, I did so because I didn’t want to see a change in their overall attitude.
I was enjoying their admiration, not to mention the anonymity—an anonymity that is often nonexistent due to the misconceptions many have about people from Africa. The perception of Africans, in most countries located in Southeast Asia, is that we are drug dealers or prostitutes, who are often “poor and uneducated.” The following passage from a recent AP [Associated Press] article I read regarding Africans living in India perfectly sums up the experiences of Africans due to misguided stereotypes: “But the worst kind of discrimination is reserved for the Africans. In a country obsessed with fair skin and skin lightening beauty treatments, their dark skin draws a mixture of fear and ridicule.”
I’ve seen some examples of this “mixture of fear and ridicule.” One of my students (originally from China) wrote me a note for Teacher’s Day telling me how initially she was scared of me, as she had never met/seen a black person before. To have people come up to my face, just so they can get a better look, takes its toll. And as one of your readers shared, all of this slowly chips away at you.
So, while having to deal with being in another country (getting used to the culture), I find myself trying to navigate through this as well. And unlike some, I struggle to see the silver lining in all this. Each time I venture out, I find myself on edge, constantly on the lookout for the stares, the laughing, etc., that I know will inevitably come. I get myself so worked up that sometimes when it doesn’t happen the way I thought it would, I find myself completely taken aback.
I also find myself questioning words and actions that others may construe as innocent. For example, while riding in a cab, the driver began chatting with me in his broken English, and I attempted to respond in my very limited Bahasa- Indonesia. When we found ourselves stuck in Jakarta’s never-ending traffic, he indicated that he wanted to take my picture. My guard immediately went up, and I vehemently refused his request, time and time again. At one point he asked why, and I explained to him (now having resorted to Google translate) my experiences.
He then stated that the reason why people stare is because “black is sexy.” I will admit, I laughed, as this was not a response I was expecting. However, as he continued to go on about it, I began to wonder, was he saying that because I was African? Was he associating black with being sexy because of the fallacy of “Africans being prostitutes”? Or was he merely subscribing to the delusional fantasy of the dark-skinned woman? You know, the whole “the darker the berry . . .”
As I sit here typing this, I keep telling myself that it was probably harmless fun, but there’s still a nagging part of me that thinks otherwise. This is me now; this continuous questioning, second guessing, has become second nature to me.
Before I end this with you thinking that being in Indonesia has been entirely “me against the world,” I must add that I do have friends here—a number of locals that I’ve connected with at my school. I share my experiences with them, and they have certainly helped me to see why people say Indonesians are so friendly. They have been true lifesavers, as they have given me positive experiences to help counter most of the negative ones. And while I am pleased that as a professional dark-skinned African, I have helped to increase other’s exposure to not only black people, but to Africans as well by challenging the stereotypes, a part of me worries that I am not really changing their perceptions all that much.
I say this because even for those who see me day in and day out, they continue to stare and sometimes laugh. This is definitely a different experience for me—an ongoing process that will hopefully prove to be benefit rather than a drawback during my last few months here.
By Akosua Frimpong