I’ve never had to hide my identity as a U.S. citizen before, and never really wanted to. I’ve travelled to a few countries, some as a tourist and others as a student in various summer programs, and I’ve never felt this urgent need to hide. To conceal my identity as an American was never something that ever crossed my mind, because, to me, it was always something to be proud of. Being a citizen of the "greatest country in the world" is supposed to give you so much privilege, so much protection, and to be honest, so many bragging rights. In some countries, cities, states, and social circles, it’s so easy to be "proud to be an American" (where at least you know you’re free, right?) But after studying and living abroad in Santiago de Chile for about three weeks now, this has definitely not been the case.
From day one, in one way or another, I’ve been strongly cautioned to conceal my American identity. In this city, if it’s obvious that you’re from the states, you’re a major target for theft and assault. I’ve been taught to fit in as much as I can. I’ve been taught to never speak English too loudly (or at all if I’m on public transportation, in a taxi, or out and about late at night). I’ve been told to never wear anything that’s too outrageous or outside of the normal fashion/dress code in Santiago. I’ve been taught and told so many things that all lead to the fact that when I’m here, in order to be as safe as possible, I can be anything I want, but not American.
This has served as an extremely confusing task and caused me to constantly question my identity in this city and country, because on the outside, I’m not your stereotypical white-American ‘gringo’; I’m Black. I’m a Black woman with a 20-inch weave, curvy thighs, brown skin, and brown eyes. So while others may serve as targets just by their mere looks, that hasn’t always been the case for me. Because of my looks, I’m able to hide behind an ambiguous identity that grants me a privilege of safety and obscurity. When I’m walking around, people can easily assume that I’m a Haitian or Dominican immigrant living in Santiago. And in an uncomfortable and potentially problematic sense, I’ve taken pride in the fact that I’ve been able to hide behind this identity obscurity.
As someone who is constantly on guard and looking for ways of self-protection, this comes as a comfort, but also poses an issue of claiming identities that aren’t my own. Unless I’m with a lot of white students who are speaking English and are clearly from the States, I feel like I could be from anywhere, especially because I don’t look that different from the other Black people I’ve seen around Santiago. One time, I even went so far as to lie to a homeless man and say that I was from Eritrea in Africa because I didn’t want him to keep talking to me in English and follow me and my friends out of a restaurant.
Everyday, I’m grappling with this confusing sense of identity I’ve come to have in Santiago. Never before have I felt so protected by my Blackness. In the states, Blackness targets me with so much hate, danger, stereotypical connotations and racism, but here, I haven’t had those same experiences. I’m so blessed to be here, and even more grateful that God continues to protect me from all the dangers of this city and this world, but with all this confusion I’m even more motivated to use this time studying abroad to better understand my own Blackness, and the diasporic ways that Blackness exists around the world.