From day one, I have been proud to be Puerto Rican. There are a plethora of reasons, but the main reason being that Puerto Ricans have deep roots that span over an entire ocean. Puerto Ricans have stake in three major groups: Natives that lived and thrived on the island before colonization, Spaniard qualities that were produced after colonization, and blood ties to people of African descent who were displaced and brought overseas to “support” (and I use this term loosely) the Spaniards in their colonization of the “New World.” Through tremendous history, that I will spare you of at this point in time, the formation of what is today’s modern day Puerto Rican emerged.
Now, being a Puerto Rican-American abroad was the last thing I thought was possible growing up in one of the “rougher” neighbourhoods of New York City, let alone be in Mongolia serving in the United States Peace Corps. In the Peace Corps, we are surrounded by the “melting pot” that is the United States. Of which, I thought, was a great way to show the peoples of the other countries that we serve, how America is a very diverse nation. And, as I predicted, many people abroad had never encountered “other” Americans. In turn, they become more intrigued by the appearance of these “other” individuals which was easily switched to a positive learning experience. I, also, believed I would be serving alongside like-minded individuals that were just like me: willing to throw their lives away temporarily to dedicate 27 months serving another nation in need of help. One thing I did not expect was a small number of the “like-minded,” fellow volunteers’ level of ignorance toward people from their own country.
To clarify: Not all volunteers made these assumptions, nor did those who did intend to but, that did stop a drunken phrase or a joking statement to slip out of their mouths toward the people around them.
The first time I was called “Mexican” was while I was in the Peace Corps. The first time I was assumed to be willing to date a drug dealer was in the Peace Corps. The first time I was referred to as “black Amanda” was in the Peace Corps. I’d assume, myself, that being from a very liberal New York City that I did not experience these “racial assumptions” beforehand. And by racial assumptions I mean unintentional ignorance of an individual who did not care to even ask me before placing a blanket statement on me.
In one occurrence, I was in my language training classroom with a few of my fellow “trainees.” (Trainees are those of us who haven’t been sworn in as Volunteers yet and were undergoing training to become one.) We had break time, so we got to joking around and talking about food. One girl was saying how much she loved Kim-Chi, the Korean Spicy Cabbage. Another trainee was saying how he liked spicy barbecue sauce. That is when I make a sour face and said, “Yuck, I hate spicy food.” Then, the last trainee in the room turned to me, looked me square in the face and said, “I thought all Mexicans liked spicy food?” I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head when I heard him say that but, instead, I responded with, “First off, I am not Mexican. Secondly, you said you liked spicy food, does that make you a Mexican?” This statement must have made him realise what he asked and got him to be silent for the rest of the class.
A second occurrence, was while I was finally a volunteer. I was at my new site and finally getting to know my suitemates. We were all hanging out and playing games, one of which was called “Most likely to…” I had never in my life played such a game nor did I know these people well enough to make such assumptions about them, but I played along anyway because maybe it would be a fun time. The game was going well until I had noticed the low blows people were saying to try and poke fun at others. But the one that irritated me the most was the statement, “Most likely to date a drug dealer.” Out of 8 people in the room, 6 pointed to me. Mind you, all these people are of Caucasian decent and had known me only for a few weeks at this point. I raised an eyebrow and asked, “Why me? I would never in my life date someone of that job description, especially with the morals I was raised with. I know better than to do that.” The response I received was even more mind blowing than the statement, “Oh, It is alright, my foster sister who is Dominican, has dated a drug dealer.” All I could muster up was, “I’m not your foster sister and I was raised better than that.” After that, the low blows stopped. Even better, we never played the game again.
These are just 2 of a bunch of incidences that I have had to use quick thinking when it came to “Racial Assumptions.” In a place where I thought people were open minded and more aware of the world around them, I have found ignorance. I have now come to realise the sheltered lifestyle of some of these individuals causing them to have limited knowledge of other cultures beside their typical American lives. With that being said, I am also not here to be a teacher of what is politically correct and what isn’t but even then, is it so difficult to just ask?
“You know what happens when you assume? You make an ass out of you and me.”