It all began last Tuesday as I was standing outside the cafeteria in the high school where I work. My head was down and my fingers were frantic as I tried to scrounge up change from my purse. One of my main vices in here in Menorca was the near daily consumption of triangulos; chocolate pastries whose deliciousness could not be understated. As I searched, a fellow teacher came up to me and asked me about my headwrap; the blue scarf that I often wear around my head for both aesthetic purposes and/or to hide the fact that I hadn’t attended properly to my head.
She mentioned that she was in a gospel choir and they had a performance coming up. She asked me if would mind coming to one of their rehearsals and help them to tie their own wraps. I happily acquiesced, not giving much thought as to how or why they would need to do this.
The next day, she picked me up and explained more and more about the details of the choir. It was then that I began to feel the first tinge of dread. She told me that the choir was patterned on the Soweto Gospel Choir and that they had costumes that were patterned after the famed South African singing group.
It was here that the phrase cultural appropriation popped into my head and my dread began to intensify. What exactly had I gotten myself into?
We arrived to find the rehearsal in full swing. The local news station was reporting on the choir’s upcoming performance and the choir was performing a medley that included a song an African language, and Bob Marley’s One Love. The collection of Spaniards were decked out in brightly colored and printed skirts and tank tops. There was a piece of cardboard that had been painted like an African mask painted hanging on the wall. The bright and lifeless face was reflected unto the skirts.
But things went from bad to worse when I realized that some women were wearing varying shades of brown and taupe pantyhose on their shoulders and arms. My mind began racing. This can’t be happening. This couldn’t be happening–again.
In order to steady my mind, I began to rationalize. Some of the stocking weren’t that dark, so maybe they were not trying to look brown at all. One woman’s arms actually had more of a cool toned purple color. I took this as evidence that the tights must serve some other purpose. Perhaps, the women were just trying to keep warm in the slightly brisk late February air. Furthermore, not everyone was wearing them, so the members of choir couldn’t possibly be planning on donning full body blackface.
After they stopped dancing, I noticed a little boy in a shiny black wig with little spirals layered all around. I shook my head. This, I told myself, was not a dread lock wig. Maybe, he was just trying to be a clown.
As they continued talking and rehearsing, I began to look around the room. I looked at the computer, hoping to find a network password for the wifi. My eyes settled on a collage board above the computer. That was when I came across this picture.
I began to tear up, but like so many times that I had been faced with casual racism, I pushed my pain back down. I turned and found a seat near the door. By now, my coworker had begun to notice that something was wrong. She asked me if I was bored. I told her no, it was just that I didn’t understand Menorquín (Catalán) the local dialect here on the island. It was a half-truth. She nodded and invited me to join the rest of the choir come sit with the newly seated choir.
I could no longer deny the fact that these people were truly intending to perform as a South African choir in full blackface. While I was near tears, emotionally, I was still rather numb. I checked in with myself. I didn’t feel angry, sad or even offended. But that hadn’t stopped my body from reacting.
As I tried to keep it together, I heard the choir director say the word “negra.” My head popped up. By now everyone was discussing how to properly paint themselves. Particular concern was paid to what should be done about the space in-between the fingers. She began to instruct them to paint themselves, brown, not black. “You should look like her,” she said as she indicated towards me and smiled.
The pain in my throat went from a throb to a burn and tears again sprang to my eyes. I gave a wry smile as everyone turned to me, and inhaled sharply, once again stuffing my tears back down.
I began to tear up, but like so many times that I had been faced with casual racism, I pushed my pain back down.
A woman next to me asked again if I was going to come and help them wrap their hair that Saturday. I nodded I told her yes, despite the fact that I knew that there was no way that I would be able to hold back the tears if did. Having to stand in a room with people who believed that my identity was nothing more than a costume to be taken on and off at will would probably lead to a full on meltdown. I just couldn’t do it.
When I got home, I called my mother and recalled through my tears what had just occurred. At first, she reacted the same way she always did. The way she always had.
She told me not to worry about it. Not to let myself get too upset. Not to feel. They were just ignorant. They didn’t mean any harm. I inhaled and felt a catch in my chest as my pain morphed to accommodate my frustration with her. In her attempt to soothe me, she invalidated and negated the reality of my real visceral pain. The same way she when I was 5 and come to her crying about a splinter.
But I wasn’t five. And I was complaining about a splinter. This problem could not be solved with tweezers and colorful bandage.
Yes, I insisted. I understood that no one meant any harm, but the reality is that it was harmful, whether the intention was to be so or not. I told her that the worse part was that I would have to go back and help them because I said I would.
“What? No. You don’t have to put yourself through that”. She told me. As she continued to rant, she began to lose the patronizing parental jargon and denial. It was only then, probably, for the second time in my life, that we began to have a real conversation about what it was like to live and deal with racism.
Then we began the conversation about what I was going to do next. I wasn’t going to help them prepare. That was certain. But, should I mention to my coworker, to the nice choir director, the members of the choir that what they were doing was horribly disrespectful and in really poor taste.
No. I decided. I wasn’t going to put myself through that. Again.
Read Part 2 here: http://meetmeinmadrid.blogspot.com/2017/03/about-spain-and-blackface-part-2.html