We were the United Colors of Benetton. Indian, Korea, Malaysian, Black…Christian, Sikh, Heathen…the comfort was in the differences that somehow made us the same. And that was my reality through high school – until I made a conscious decision to go to an HBCU (Historically Black College/University). Other than family, I’d never been in an environment where most people looked like me.

Despite what we all looked like, Florida A&M University (FAMU) was an experiment in diversity for me. Garveyites shared space with Black Republicans shared space with poets shared space with my male friend who sometimes wore a skirt and my then-boyfriend’s female best friend who often dated women.

It wasn’t a singular experience by any stretch but, like the Benetton crew before, there were similarities despite the differences. We laughed about being told we talked “white” or the twisted “compliment” that we were “so articulate…and spoke so well”. It was there that I learned that other people had had their blackness questioned because of the music they listened to, the hobbies they had, or their travel aspirations.

In a lot of ways, FAMU was a respite for me to know that I wasn’t alone in the life and experiences I was having. The people and experiences there serve as soft landing when I find myself the lone black face in my work or leisure world or when I travel – where it is usually so pronounced.

But not here.

Here, there is more than a smattering of black faces. CRS Fellows, Peace Corps and IFESH volunteers alike, we are a collection of black folks who are all living and working in Liberia.

It makes me smile, but it is unusual. the reality is that international development work is largely devoid of Black American faces. And while that doesn’t have to mean anything it can mean a lot of things.

In South Africa it was an overlay of race interactions back home waltzing with the ones there and people greeting me, “what’s up my N*&&#%…”. In Sri Lanka it was being called Bob Marley. In New Zealand it was not being able to find hair care products. But in each of those, my point of reference was not the dominant one.

There were a few black volunteers who served with me in South Africa and we found ourselves describing a different kind of service than other volunteers sometimes…how we were treated, things that were said. You were a prostitute if you were with a white man. Expectations for language were often heightened. Behavior that was inappropriate and unthinkable to do to some volunteers was not at all to us…

But I wasn’t alone and somehow that made it easier.

Speaking with the other Black American in Liberia who have experienced all of these experiences and none of them – there was simply a familiarity. to varying degrees how each of us is perceived, how we are treated, is similar.

So often in development work the faces of the “victims” are brown, sad eyes and distended bellies pronounced against the worker – blonde and in stark contrast against those they are helping (and that is a whole other issue that maybe I‘ll tackle later). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a poster where the person helping looked like me…or for that matter, looked like the person they were helping.

One of my friends here remembers when Peace Corps was in Liberia when he was a young man. He confided in BushDiva and myself that he was so gleeful to see us because it took him back to the first Black Volunteer he met all those years back. He said, “I remember thinking, why don’t any of the people coming look like me?”

We do.

And aid is aid and resources are resources…but I have to agree that seeing myself “reflected” in this work feels really good.

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1 Comment on united colors of benetton

  1. Kyla says:

    This is good stuff. I’d love to read more about this kind of thing. I’m very interested. Thanks.

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