obstinate othering.

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Somewhere in-between all the hey day, thousands of adjustments, millions of failures and just plain trying to figure shit out, five months have passed since the green light flashed and I said a resounding, “Yes!” to living my life as an expatriate.

I’ve changed addresses twice. I’ve made fast friends with people only to realize the people I befriended I couldn’t stand. I’ve quit teaching jobs (and of course, been fired, heh)  and re-embraced the philosophy central behind the reason I left my life behind in the States–my comfy lifestyle with my expensive car and driving to a job everyday that I hated–slowing down enough to be present to enjoy the gifts life offers. I’ve started writing more, or should I say consistently, versus going days, weeks and months without trying to make sense of life as it unfolds with my words. I’ve cooked the most amazing meals of my life in a kitchen the size of a pantry and an oven the size of a shoebox. I’ve slept in twin sized beds so little and compact my feet dangle off the edge if I don’t sleep in the fetal position.

While so many things have changed, while various components of life as I know it, my Madrid experience as I refer to it when I’m all by my lonesome, other things have remained static, unchanging and rather, things I’ve not wanted to consciously deal with or think about so most of the time I (try to) ignore them.

The ill-fated r word: race. And it’s dear friend, the ill-fated cousin: racism.

When I was home for Christmas, many people asked me if there were many “Black people” in Madrid. So many people looked at me, doe-eyed, wanting to know if there was an inkling of people of color, people who looked like me or them. Most of them were shocked or confused (or both) when I declared there weren’t and that because I was one of the few and I was quite tall, it made me a spectacle. I found (and still find everyday) stares lingering far past the typical “Spanish stare.”

But the way Spaniards deal with race in particular is quite…interesting. They won’t come out and say really prejudiced and racist things that would shed light on the way they view other races and other people in general that are different from them.  Instead they box those “other people” into these neat little categories. I suppose categories which make it more comfortable to wrap their minds diversity and enable them to distance themselves of the concept of being open to the concept of diversity altogether.

Here’s a relevant example I’ve received from Spaniards as well as fellow expats quite a bit:

There’s this neighborhood in Madrid, which, although I don’t go there often is easily my favorite. It’s called Lavapiés, also known as a vibrant, thriving melting pot of culture.

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Buildings lining the street in Lavapiés on a sunny, sultry Sunday evening.

The first few times I ventured to the barrio I was in search of delicious food because the bland and greasy Spanish dishes weren’t quite hitting the spot. I’ve had delicious Indian food on a table lining the streets while languages whooshed past my ears that certainly wasn’t Spanish and enjoyed the tastiest tacos with equally invigorating margaritas in the same barrio as well.

Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and numerous other ethnicities call this barrio home. I love being in that neighborhood because there I feel less like an alien. I can look onto to the faces of people who look like me, who are clearly different, whose heritage is closely aligned like mine and for once, I don’t feel shame. I don’t feel inclined to try to ignore the racist rubs and inclinations I’m faced with almost daily.

When the subject of the neighborhood has arisen naturally in conversation with either my students or others of Spanish descent or fellow expats or even other immigrants here who aren’t those of color, they say the same sort of things. They frown up at the neighborhood. They immediately say the neighborhood is composed of immigrants, as if it is bad thing. They’ll say the area is notorious for crime and to “watch your purse and belongings” if you venture there. They’ll also mention the alleged bed bug infestation and how the buildings look dirty and the area is dirty in general. There’s never a positive nod to the abundance of rich culture there.

And it reminds me of the same notions from back in the States. As an Atlanta native, these are the exact same sentiments I’d hear about people not going to “that part” of Decatur or Stone Mountain or Lithonia on the Eastside or anywhere on the Southside past a certain time because of course “thugs” abound. Because of course, any area where there are a lot of people of color there’s sure to be crime and it’s not safe and it’s not anywhere anyone would want to be. Right?

I used to live in Tetuán, a surburb roughly 20 minutes north of Madrid. I only lived there for three months and moving from there had much more to do with me not liking being compadres with the three cats and dogs (along with three human roommates). I got sick of cat hair being on all my belongings and also being so far from the city center. The commute drained and depleted me. But again, if you ask many people their opinion of this barrio, all negative. They’ll mention, immediately, the number of immigrants. And how the area isn’t pretty to look at. And how there’s nothing to do there. Same things said about Lavapiés.

But these notions, these reactions, these thoughts I’m continually bombarded with has me thinking: is this how I am viewed when I’m just innocently walking around, commuting on the Metro, eating in a restaurant? Are people in Madrid automatically thinking negative things when they see my face or are they already internalizing the type of person they think I am because of the media and other negative interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, to be Black, to be African?

As I’ve stated before, I’m not interested in changing any aspect of me just to fit in or be desirable and to not get the rampant amount of lingering stares. But at one point or another, one has to wonder whether or not it’s truly worth calling yourself a temporary resident of a country, despite its beauty and slower pace of life and many, many, many enjoyable things, that in one way or another is committed to misunderstanding you, to othering you and plain out making you feel like you don’t belong.

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awake and anti-assimilation.

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I don’t think I’ve ever really known how to blend in, how to not to stick out from the masses, how to not be less unidentifiable from the next person.

My first mark of differing identify, my name, prevented me from ever really being just like many of my other classmates, neighbors, church members or friends. And when I hit my grow spurt at the tail end of my sixth grade school year and shot up as tall as the oak trees that lined my family’s house and shrouded the sleepy house from the strong, unrelenting summer rays in Georgia during the scorching months of June, July and August, there was yet another reminder that I wasn’t made to blend into the crowd.

I became the tall, lanky, socially awkward girl with the weird, African name. And I hated everything about myself, too. I rejected each of those sentiments that made me a constant source of crazy questions, condescending looks and stares and an overall sense of discomfort. I would’ve much rather been average height with a “normal” name like Ashley, Brittany or Nicole.

These are thoughts that I had nearly two decades ago, and I never expected to feel even a tinge of those thoughts, to feel in some childish, silly way wishing I didn’t have to stand out, that I didn’t have to get the more than usual amount of stares.

But isn’t thinking like this, in a way, a bit natural, especially when I walk around in this city that inspires me and takes my breath away in both big and small ways each day and there are no faces that don’t look like mine?

Perhaps, and perhaps the months leading up to moving to Madrid, a period when I slowly began to realize that I was rejecting every notion that told me that it was wrong for me to revel in being both a Black American and African, served a greater purpose than even I considered.

Because the racial affronts I’ve faced here in just my past three weeks have blown my mind, partly because I’ve never had to take into account how Blacks (and Africans) are viewed outside of the States. And to be honest, living in Atlanta can have one thinking one way about how race and race relations are.

In my 27 years in Atlanta, there weren’t many moments where I had to consciously confront the pain, isolation and feeling of being othered that being Black and/or African brings because I was constantly interacting with those who were just like me and looked just like me. I wasn’t one of a few within a sea of a majority.

I’ve had people ask me bluntly to my face if I’m African or Latino, and yes, in that, “What are you?” tone of voice accompanied by a quizzical expression. I’ve been asked hair questions and had unwarranted hands mingling in my hair. I’ve been called “morena” which is supposedly a term of endearment for women of color. I’ve been referred to as “my sister” by other Africans as I pass them by on the street. This makes me smile.

Went I went out on a Friday night two weeks ago, an older Venezuelan man who was drinking solo in the corner a young, hip bar in the city center, approaches me, after noticing me dance as I waited for my food and asked where I was from. After I told him I was from the States, he matter of factly states that I have “skin like Obama.” I nodded and smiled unsure of how else to respond. I shared the story with many people who thought it was hilarious. I just thought the entire interaction was weird.

Last week I was asked if I spoke Nigerian. I responded kindly, with a smile, that Nigerians speak English and ended it there. When I got back to my flat later that day, my feet planted firmly on the floor as I sat on the edge of my unmade twin bed, I sobbed because it was yet another stark reminder how many people here and period just don’t “get it” and how I don’t feel like it’s my role or responsibility to forge that bridge of understanding and lack of ignorance.

Being outrightly othered can wear you down.

I’ve had several conversations with people about racism and race relations in Spain because I needed an outlet to vent my frustration. One person told me that it wasn’t really an issue, and that if I was confronted with being called “negrita,” supposedly the slang word used to refer to Black people that I should shrug it off and not take it personally.

But wait.

Shouldn’t I be able to determine what or what shouldn’t offend me as a woman of color? How is it anyone else’s role outside of people of color what or what shouldn’t offend us in these cases?

And that’s when I knew that it “not being an issue” was code language for covert notions  lurking in the shadows or—If it doesn’t affect you personally in your day-to-day life then of course it’s not a big deal and can surely be ignored.

Especially when already, in terms of other minorities here I’ve seen small shreds of oppression that bother me. For instance, there is a huge Chinese population in Madrid, many of whom are business owners of shops in the barrios throughout the city.  These shops offer everything you could imagine in one place for an affordable price. Many Spaniards refer to their businesses as the, “Chino,” which literally translates to The Chinese in English.

Does anyone else see the glaring issue with this?

But I hear it often: in casual mentions of where people will pick up items they need on the weekend or after a long day at work. And although, once again, I was told that the term was not offensive and was okay to say, I can’t help but put myself in those shoes.

What if there were shops with everything imaginable under one roof called the “Africano” which literally translates to “The African” in English? How is that not offensive? On what universe is it not offensive to refer to a store solely as the nationality that owns it and not what is actually sold there?

I digress.

Before I moved to Spain, I made a silent vow to each day, be proud of who I am, my heritage, where I came from. One way I’ve consciously done this is insisting that people refer to me with the true, proper Nigerian pronunciation of my name, versus the Amercanized pronounciation I have gone with for years, to coax myself out of my previous heritage insecurity. Often I slip up and default back to the latter pronunciation because it’s comfortable and familiar, for others, but not me. In those instances, I feel silly, because people wonder why I say my own name differently. No one knows how much of a personal struggle that has been for me all my life though, so I can’t become too fixated on what others think.

Although being “me” here, being one of the few brown faces, is down right uncomfortable, unnerving and clearly establishes me as different, I won’t tone it down or adjust or code-switch or attempt to blend in solely for the sake of not having to bother with answering the many questions that continue to flood in.

I’d much rather deal with the anguish of being authentic versus the anguish of being a fraud.