Last weekend, Dwight and I went to Playa Blanca to celebrate my birthday. From breakfast to dinner…from the beach to the pool, we were stared at, and I didn’t understand why.
Even though we were surrounded by brown people, their eyes were glued on us as if they were observing aliens.
It was the look we’ve gotten when we’re in the “wrong neighborhood.” It’s the look we’ve gotten when we’re the only Black people at an event. It’s the look we get when it’s clear we don’t belong.
I was confused.
When we first arrived, a woman, petite, scrawny, and browner than either of us, hollered out “¡Gringos!” and then proceeded to ask us for money. She was what Central Americans call la vagabunda.
“Did you just call us gringos?” I asked, face scrounged up.
Gringo, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a pejorative term referring to Americans. I always thought it was reserved for white Americans. I’ve never seen myself as a gringo, and I’d never refer to myself as one.
I gave her some money, and in the end, she shouted out, “I love you!”
<insert side eye>
Later that week, Conrad, a local eighty-eight-year-old islander who has cozied up to D, saw us at a tourist cafe called Unido; it’s like an over-priced Panamá Starbucks. He gave Dwight a lecture about how indigenous people don’t dine here (because they work in the fields to create the coffee); only gringos do.
“But you’re American. You’re not like the gringos,” he added. “’Cause you’re Black.”
In my mind, I was like but you just threw a bunch of shade, Conrad.
<insert another side eye>
So, I’ve been thinking about this. When I’m at home, and I see another Black or brown person, it doesn’t matter where they’re from. I assume we’re all Black, sometimes disenfranchised in some way (e.g., upbringing, office, education) because we live in this white supremacist world, and we should band together. You’re like me, and I’m like you.
But since I’ve been in Panamá, I’ve sensed this is not necessarily the case, even though a lot of Panamanians don darker skin than I do. Our skin color doesn’t unite us. Our identities divide us.
I’m willing to admit that, in some ways, D and I are more like gringos because…after all, we are living in their country for four weeks, tip-tapping away on our laptops, and invading their space. I wonder if when they see us, they just see brown-white people. Our west-side of Chicago and Detroit backgrounds don’t matter. Only our American identities do.
It’s just weird to me.
When I’m home and I see another Black person, we do the proverbial head-nod, a seemingly mandatory acknowledgement for people our shade.
Here? Not so much.
If you give off that American vibe, like we do—tattooed, shorts-wearing Black people—then forget about it. Panamanians will ignore you. They don’t even speak, sometimes. And I suspect it’s because they just see us as gringos.
But I’d like to offer this. We’re all Black. The boat just dropped them off over here.
Apologies for getting all social justicey…I’ll be back to tourist status on the next post.
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