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Western Privilege and Anti-Black Racism in Panama
By Guest Contributor Aliyya Swaby, originally published at Racialicious.com
In late September, I moved from New York City to Panama City to start a freelance journalism project. For two college summers, I had traveled in Latin American countries and did not see many people who looked like me.
In Ecuador, a friend told me I seemed more “French” than “Ecuadorean” black, because I wasn’t too aggressive. As I walked around Peru’s inland cities, men called out “Chincha,” the name of the predominately black coastal city.
I thought I would feel more comfortable in Panama, where the skin color gradient includes darker shades of brown. After all, my West Indian immigrant parents belong to the same diaspora as many Panamanian black people, whose ancestors were imported by the U.S. government as laborers on the Panama Canal.
But the reality is more complex. I recently found blogger BlackinAsia’s posts on being a black Westerner abroad, and immediately zeroed in on this quotation: “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 or 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-Latina Black American journalist in Panama, I find this in-between space difficult on a daily basis. Although I share the skin tone and facial features of many Panamanians, I am easily identifiable as a foreigner. It takes people only a glance to know that I’m not Panamanian and usually several minutes of conversation to realize I’m from the United States.
I live with Central American roommates, who regularly consume and fetishize Black American culture. None identify as black. They are more current on mainstream American rap and hip-hop than I am, though they understand none of the English lyrics. (One of them, a Venezuelan girl, was shocked when I explained the backlash to Rick Ross’s “pro-rape” anthem U.O.E.N.O.) 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 is still very different than the common conception of black Panamanians, which is less “black cool” and more black indigence, criminality and failure.
Like in the United States, race and ethnicity in Panama correlate strongly with high poverty rates. Panama’s growing wealth inequality is leaving its majority black cities further and further behind. Two major groups of black people live in Panamanian cities: Afro-Antilleans, descendants of West Indian workers on the Panama Canal and railway, and Afro-Colonials, descendants of Colonial-era African slaves. Both are targets of structural and institutional racial discrimination.
I have been primarily reporting in Colón, Panama, where the Free Trade Zone generates billions annually, little of which is invested in the inner city. At the beginning of my project, I spoke with a Panamanian journalist who claimed Colón’s black citizens are merely lazy and self-segregating. They are continually offered jobs and opportunities, but reject them because they prefer to do nothing. She argued that racism was a non-issue in Panama and offered up her own heritage as proof — though her grandfather’s ancestors were African slaves, she is a successful member of the middle class. I asked her about the connection between color and socioeconomic status, and she brushed off my questions.
Colorblindness is a commonly expressed worldview here, as in many Latin American countries. Panama calls itself a “crisol de razas” or a melting pot. Everyone is Latin@, but white Latin@s happen to have more wealth and political power. No one discriminates, but Afro-descendants are disproportionally in poverty and in prison.
Protests in Colón often begin from this central avenue, which intersects all sixteen streets of the inner city.

Panama’s black activists have to take on the double task of proving to society that they exist and that they deserve better. Locally, in Colón, they lead protests against governmental land seizures and human rights violations. On a national level, they are currently collaborating on an initiative to criminalize discrimination, which would be the most comprehensive law of its kind in Panama to date [PDF].
In a country where almost everyone has African heritage, but only nine percent consider themselves black, what does it mean that my roommate recently greeted me using the word “nigger”? He argued it was the equivalent of the Spanish word “negro,” meaning black, even when I tried to explain the difference in the historical meanings of each. And Panama has its own set of slurs tied to a history of anti-black racism and oppression.
The Spanish word “chombo” is somewhat equivalent to “n-gger” — it refers to dark-skinned English-speaking black people from the West Indies. In 1941, then president Arnulfo Arias wrote a new constitution proposing to deport this group and take away their Panamanian citizenship. Even today, many Afro-Antilleans avoid teaching their children English, giving up part of their heritage.
As a black American abroad, I am privileged in being more easily able to separate myself from a one-dimensional stereotype of blackness, in ways a black Panamanian might not be able to, sometimes regardless of class or educational level. My parents were born in Jamaica and Trinidad, but here I am primarily American. It’s unlikely anyone would use the slur to describe me. But an Afro-Antillean Panamanian professor at the University of Panama told me students sometimes call her “chombo” as she walks down the halls.
The United States plays a significant role in anti-black racism in Panama. During the construction of the Panama Canal, the U.S. implemented a version of Jim Crow in the Canal Zone to control their ethnically diverse community of laborers. Black laborers were put on a lower-paying “silver roll” and were excluded from quality housing facilities, schools and social clubs.
Many older Afro-Antilleans have spent decades in the United States. Some chose to leave for economic purposes, for example, in Colón as the city slid into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. Unable to flee, poorer Colonenses were left in the city center.
I have had trouble navigating this history while conducting interviews, because many Panamanians who self-identify as black have perceptions of race heavily informed by their time abroad. I could easily prioritize viewpoints just because they seem familiar or similar to my own. But I know that many approaches to racism in the United States would be ineffectual in this country’s context.
Generally, being an American journalist reporting on marginalized groups in a developing country is complex and difficult, irrespective of my race. Journalism is an elastic medium, guided by a set of ethics rarely policed on a higher level. When proposing my project last year, I was not required to get permission from the Yale Institutional Review Board, while a sociologist or anthropologist would have been.
Dominated by white, upper-class men, traditional journalism in the U.S. is often seen as “objective,” since it reflects the worldview of people considered to represent the societal norm. Just as important as striving for impartiality is determining how to integrate a wide variety of worldviews. Media outlets are beginning to value gender and race diversity in their staff, but still have a long way to go.
My identity and experiences give me insight into certain topics absent from mainstream media. But my blackness does not erase the power disparities inherent in my reporting in low-income Panamanian communities. When I choose to report on an issue, I am putting other people’s stories into my own framework. I have to be careful about the way I represent a culture that is not my own.
Last month I met the wife of a sociologist I have been trying to contact for weeks. She told me he might never 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 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 in the next several months. Though I have limited resources as an inexperienced freelancer, I want to find ways of interacting with people and ideas that are not one-sided. 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 informed and responsible.
Aliyya Swaby is a freelance writer in Panama, reporting on race, poverty, and urbanization on a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship from Yale University. She is blogging her travels at aliyyaswaby.com and new to Twitter at @AliyyaSwaby.

Western Privilege and Anti-Black Racism in Panama

By Guest Contributor Aliyya Swaby, originally published at Racialicious.com

In late September, I moved from New York City to Panama City to start a freelance journalism project. For two college summers, I had traveled in Latin American countries and did not see many people who looked like me.

In Ecuador, a friend told me I seemed more “French” than “Ecuadorean” black, because I wasn’t too aggressive. As I walked around Peru’s inland cities, men called out “Chincha,” the name of the predominately black coastal city.

I thought I would feel more comfortable in Panama, where the skin color gradient includes darker shades of brown. After all, my West Indian immigrant parents belong to the same diaspora as many Panamanian black people, whose ancestors were imported by the U.S. government as laborers on the Panama Canal.

But the reality is more complex. I recently found blogger BlackinAsia’s posts on being a black Westerner abroad, and immediately zeroed in on this quotation: “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 or 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-Latina Black American journalist in Panama, I find this in-between space difficult on a daily basis. Although I share the skin tone and facial features of many Panamanians, I am easily identifiable as a foreigner. It takes people only a glance to know that I’m not Panamanian and usually several minutes of conversation to realize I’m from the United States.

I live with Central American roommates, who regularly consume and fetishize Black American culture. None identify as black. They are more current on mainstream American rap and hip-hop than I am, though they understand none of the English lyrics. (One of them, a Venezuelan girl, was shocked when I explained the backlash to Rick Ross’s “pro-rape” anthem U.O.E.N.O.) 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 is still very different than the common conception of black Panamanians, which is less “black cool” and more black indigence, criminality and failure.

Like in the United States, race and ethnicity in Panama correlate strongly with high poverty rates. Panama’s growing wealth inequality is leaving its majority black cities further and further behind. Two major groups of black people live in Panamanian cities: Afro-Antilleans, descendants of West Indian workers on the Panama Canal and railway, and Afro-Colonials, descendants of Colonial-era African slaves. Both are targets of structural and institutional racial discrimination.

I have been primarily reporting in Colón, Panama, where the Free Trade Zone generates billions annually, little of which is invested in the inner city. At the beginning of my project, I spoke with a Panamanian journalist who claimed Colón’s black citizens are merely lazy and self-segregating. They are continually offered jobs and opportunities, but reject them because they prefer to do nothing. She argued that racism was a non-issue in Panama and offered up her own heritage as proof — though her grandfather’s ancestors were African slaves, she is a successful member of the middle class. I asked her about the connection between color and socioeconomic status, and she brushed off my questions.

Colorblindness is a commonly expressed worldview here, as in many Latin American countries. Panama calls itself a “crisol de razas” or a melting pot. Everyone is Latin@, but white Latin@s happen to have more wealth and political power. No one discriminates, but Afro-descendants are disproportionally in poverty and in prison.

Protests in Colón often begin from this central avenue, which intersects all sixteen streets of the inner city.

Panama’s black activists have to take on the double task of proving to society that they exist and that they deserve better. Locally, in Colón, they lead protests against governmental land seizures and human rights violations. On a national level, they are currently collaborating on an initiative to criminalize discrimination, which would be the most comprehensive law of its kind in Panama to date [PDF].

In a country where almost everyone has African heritage, but only nine percent consider themselves black, what does it mean that my roommate recently greeted me using the word “nigger”? He argued it was the equivalent of the Spanish word “negro,” meaning black, even when I tried to explain the difference in the historical meanings of each. And Panama has its own set of slurs tied to a history of anti-black racism and oppression.

The Spanish word “chombo” is somewhat equivalent to “n-gger” — it refers to dark-skinned English-speaking black people from the West Indies. In 1941, then president Arnulfo Arias wrote a new constitution proposing to deport this group and take away their Panamanian citizenship. Even today, many Afro-Antilleans avoid teaching their children English, giving up part of their heritage.

As a black American abroad, I am privileged in being more easily able to separate myself from a one-dimensional stereotype of blackness, in ways a black Panamanian might not be able to, sometimes regardless of class or educational level. My parents were born in Jamaica and Trinidad, but here I am primarily American. It’s unlikely anyone would use the slur to describe me. But an Afro-Antillean Panamanian professor at the University of Panama told me students sometimes call her “chombo” as she walks down the halls.

The United States plays a significant role in anti-black racism in Panama. During the construction of the Panama Canal, the U.S. implemented a version of Jim Crow in the Canal Zone to control their ethnically diverse community of laborers. Black laborers were put on a lower-paying “silver roll” and were excluded from quality housing facilities, schools and social clubs.

Many older Afro-Antilleans have spent decades in the United States. Some chose to leave for economic purposes, for example, in Colón as the city slid into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. Unable to flee, poorer Colonenses were left in the city center.

I have had trouble navigating this history while conducting interviews, because many Panamanians who self-identify as black have perceptions of race heavily informed by their time abroad. I could easily prioritize viewpoints just because they seem familiar or similar to my own. But I know that many approaches to racism in the United States would be ineffectual in this country’s context.

Generally, being an American journalist reporting on marginalized groups in a developing country is complex and difficult, irrespective of my race. Journalism is an elastic medium, guided by a set of ethics rarely policed on a higher level. When proposing my project last year, I was not required to get permission from the Yale Institutional Review Board, while a sociologist or anthropologist would have been.

Dominated by white, upper-class men, traditional journalism in the U.S. is often seen as “objective,” since it reflects the worldview of people considered to represent the societal norm. Just as important as striving for impartiality is determining how to integrate a wide variety of worldviews. Media outlets are beginning to value gender and race diversity in their staff, but still have a long way to go.

My identity and experiences give me insight into certain topics absent from mainstream media. But my blackness does not erase the power disparities inherent in my reporting in low-income Panamanian communities. When I choose to report on an issue, I am putting other people’s stories into my own framework. I have to be careful about the way I represent a culture that is not my own.

Last month I met the wife of a sociologist I have been trying to contact for weeks. She told me he might never 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 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 in the next several months. Though I have limited resources as an inexperienced freelancer, I want to find ways of interacting with people and ideas that are not one-sided. 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 informed and responsible.

Aliyya Swaby is a freelance writer in Panama, reporting on race, poverty, and urbanization on a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship from Yale University. She is blogging her travels at aliyyaswaby.com and new to Twitter at @AliyyaSwaby.

All of the things I had grown accustomed to in the US were engaged often and early in my move to South Africa. I felt right at home after experiencing housing discrimination in my apartment search. Seeing airports filled with white travelers, while bus stations overflowed with folks who looked like me. It all seemed so familiar. South Africa was a long way from being post-racial. I could deal with that. I came from that.

What was pleasantly surprising was the level of activist engagement of the South African people. The documentaries I had seen were capturing something real. From service delivery protests to pushback against Wal-Mart’s acquisition of South Africa’s largest retailer, the people were not afraid to protest—nonviolently and otherwise.

South Africans won’t let you off the hook easily. In my role directing programming between the largest American trade union and its counterparts in West African, more than a few meetings with partners ended with tough questions about U.S. foreign policy and my employer’s take on positions supported by the American government. One had to be quick on the toes to navigate queries on Palestine, Israel, and Cuba. The activist community in which I had to engage expected that I would be able to respond to issues and concerns in and outside of Africa. As the only G20 member on the continent, politics beyond its borders mattered to my South African counterparts.

With the above in mind, I was wholly unprepared to be faced with the popularity of Tyler Perry in South Africa.

Well, guest contributor Christopher Keith Johnson gives a really interesting analysis on why Tyler Perry gets some love in South Africa on the R today. I see it as a great companion post to Tami Winfrey Harris’ post on Perry at Clutch

Where do alternative minded black folks go in a city that prides itself on being different? For roughly the past seven years, it’s been Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk festival. The free, two-day affair made its triumphant return over the weekend after a freak hurricaine made landfall in New York City last year. Black skaters, artists, hip-hop heads, and self-described nerds joined some of the industry’s most celebrated alternative black singers like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monaé at what’s become one of the city’s premiere summer music showcases. And all of it leads to the question: Has being black and different sorta become the norm?

Of course, it depends on who you ask — and where you ask the question. But the absense of an affirming enviornment for black kids who grew up reading comic books, wearing Converse, and standing out at punk rock shows is what led to Afropunk’s development in the first place. In 2003, music industry veteran Matthew Morgan teamed up with writer and director James Spooner to produce the film Afro-Punk, a documentary that followed a handful of black folks in the punk scene. The point of the film wasn’t just to show their trials and tribulations, but to showcase their pressence as legit participants in, if not originators of, punk, hardcore, and metal scenes across the diaspora.

The film became something of a cult classic. “Alternative urban kids across the nation (and across the globe) who felt like outsiders discovered they were actually the core of a boldly innovative, fast-growing community,” according to Afro-Punk’s website. In 2005, that explosion of energy led to the first Afro-Punk music festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This year was my first time at the festival. And I’ll admit, I was critical when I walked through the gates. I’m fussy about lines and this one stretched about three blocks around Major Commodore Park in downtown Brooklyn. Friends who’ve called Brooklyn home for years did what city dwellers tend to do: reminisced about how great things used to be.

And, in a way, they were right. Headlining acts like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monaé — a fraction of the nearly two dozen acts present — aren’t exactly the epitome of punk. Badu may talk about being a vegan and a doula, but she’s a Grammy-winning fan favorite. Monae is nearly three years removed from an album about love and androids, but she’s garnered enough critical acclaim to win a slot as a new Cover Girl spokesmodel. Both represent a sort of mainstreaming of an alternative black aesthetic.

And that’s the point. Some of it is basic math: when you get a bunch of outliers together, they become the norm. But what they also do is affirm something that’s been plainly obvious to black folks since the beginning of time: we’re different. There is no living, breathing black monolith. We’re vegans and divas, nerds and cover girls. What Afro-Punk does is remind us that that’s how things are supposed to be.

Lee takes Perry to task by following his formula of healing and redemption through religious faith. Throughout the film Enoch insists that his grandson “needs Jesus.” In one of many lengthy church scenes, Enoch tries to get Flik to give his life to Jesus by stating, “There’s somebody in this holy sanctuary who needs Jesus.” After repeating the phrase in various forms, we see one of Enoch’s eye’s open and look directly at Flik. By this point it is clear just who that someone is. This religious tug of war between Enoch and his grandson continues throughout.

Then about a third of the way through, when its formulaic structure and less than stellar acting have bred boredom, Lee not only disrupts but mocks this message. When Enoch’s proverbial demons come out the closet the viewer is forced to rethink the preceding sixty or so minutes of flatness. If we think of Red Hook as a parody of any one of Tyler Perry’s or T.D. Jake’s films then, suddenly, the sensationalism, heavy-handed messages, simplistic character portrayals, low-budget look of the film, and mediocre acting begin to work in an interesting way.

Layered upon Lee’s seemingly satirical rendering of Perry’s filmic themes and aesthetic is a strong engagement with the post-soul culture which we see throughout the body of his work. By post-soul, I mean Lee’s creation of a distinct tradition within the tradition that addresses the intersections of class, religious, generational, and racial identification in post-Civil Rights black America, an aesthetic he tackles explicitly in films like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever.

In Red Hook, Lee maintains his post-soul agenda while taking a dig at some of the most popular aesthetic values of the moment. While Perry and Lee are concerned with similar topics (religion, class, generational rifts), Lee’s main point of contention seems to be with Perry’s reaching back into the shaming and muddied waters of minstrelsy, reviving the black mammy, jezebel, and preacher types in various ways.

The film’s insistence on complicating the tradition and how it is used in the black community could be interpreted as direct commentary on what Lee and others have found offensive about Perry’s films. As a symbol of post-soul culture, Flik is openly atheist and disconnected from the tradition of the black church. He sees the world not through religion but through the lens of technology; his iPad serves as his means to record and interact with his environment. Enoch, however, uses the tradition of the black church as a veil to hide behind.

What Flik and Enoch do have in common is a desired sense of freedom. In order to achieve this, both characters must learn to navigate the circumstances of their past and present. By the end of the film, Lee makes it abundantly clear that, for those seeking redemption, the church is not the answer.

Really, really digging Naomi Extra’s review of Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. Check it out on the R today!

Since blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed, particularly when the transit into the United States promises the dream of gold and glory? The immigrant seeks a form of vertical assimilation, to climb from the lowest, darkest echelon in the stepladder of tyranny into the bright whiteness. In U.S. history the Irish, Italians, Jews, and–in small steps with some hesitations on the part of white America–Asians and Latinos have all tried to barter their varied cultural worlds for the privileges of whiteness.

Yet all people who enter the United States do not strive to be accepted by the terms set by white supremacy. Some actively disregard them, finding them impossible to meet. Instead, they seek recognition, solidarity, and safety in embracing others also oppressed by white supremacy in something of a horizontal assimilation. Consider the rebel Africans, who fled the slave plantations and took refuge among the Amerindians to create communities such as the Seminoles’; the South Asian workers who jumped ship in eighteenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, to enter the black community; Frederick Douglass’s defense of Chinese “coolie” laborers in the nineteenth century; the interactions of the Black Panther Party with the Red Guard and the Brown Berets in the mid-twentieth century; and finally the multiethnic working-class gathering in the new century.

When people actively or tacitly refuse the terms of vertical integration they are derisively dismissed as either unassimilable or exclusionary. We hear “Why do the black kids sit together in the cafeteria,” instead of “Why do our institutions routinely uphold the privileges of whiteness?” There is little space in popular discourse for an examination of what goes on outside the realm of white America and people of color.

–Excerpted from Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections And The Myth Of Cultural Purity  (2002)

This quote is partly why Dr. Vijay Prashad is the Racialicious Crush Of The Week. Read the rest of our reasons why on the R today.

Linsanity is not a story of Jeremy Lin or even basketball but a story that gains power from the deployment of ideologies of colorblindness and racial progress. Lin, like Tiger Woods when he first enters the national consciousness, symbolizes the possibilities and the purported exceptionalism of the United States. Interestingly, Woods, like Lin, was celebrated as “America’s son” not only because of his success in golf but because of the values and ethnics instilled in him by his parents.

“Woods celebrity depends on a eugenical fantasy that stages a disciplining of the black male body through an infusion of Asian blood and an imagined Confucian upbringing,” writes Hiram Perez.

“Just as model minority rhetoric functions to discipline the unruly black bodies threatening national stability during the post-civil rights area, the infusion of Asian blood together with his imagined Confucian upbringing corrals and tames Tiger’s otherwise brute physicality. Some variation of his father trained the body and his mother trained the mind is a recurring motif for sports commentators diagnosing Wood’s success at golf.” While Lin operates through a different point of reference, the dominant narrative continues to represent his success as the result of his father’s ability to teach him about basketball, knowledge he learned from watching the NBA’s black superstars, and his mother’s emphasis on learning, school, and values. Whereas Asianness was depicted as the necessary disciplinarity to transform Tiger into a phenom, Lin, as product of family and culture, is imagined as antidote to the NBA’s ills–its blackness.

Dr. David Leonard, "Family Ties: On Jeremy Lin, "Tiger Moms," and Tiger Woods, Racialicious 2/28/12. 

petitedeath:

arseniccupcakes:

racialicious:

This vid can be conversed about for days just around the ideas of Blackness, beauty, trendiness, and US media. Racialicious Owner/Editor Latoya Peterson wrapped her head around global hip-hop with this post back in 2009.

soo many thoughts in my head @_@

 wow i almost cant tell shes japanese. i think its interesting.. people always get so wrapped up in the love for european looks such as pale skin.. that they forget that there actually is quite a very large love for dark skin and specifically black culture.

::record scratch::

::silence::

::blink::

@petitedeath—You “almost can’t tell she’s Japanese?!?” As if Japanese people all have a “look” or, more insidiously, all Japanese people look alike?

You seriously want to make such a stereotyping statement on the Racialicious tumblr? Okay, since you did…here’s our moderation policy, which applies to this part of the R, too. I bring your attention to policy point #7:

Try not to speak in generalizations. Don’t attribute characteristics to entire ethnic or racial groups. Adding modifiers like “some” or talking specifically about your personal experiences help reduce the likelihood that you’re stereotyping entire communities.

::walks away::

This vid can be conversed about for days just around the ideas of Blackness, beauty, trendiness, and US media. Racialicious Owner/Editor Latoya Peterson wrapped her head around global hip-hop with this post back in 2009.