If I could describe what I felt in the week leading up to my journey to India in one word, it would simply be terror. I had so many questions about the life I would be leading in the next 8 weeks, but it seemed that none of the answers I was given could satisfy me or calm my anxieties.
I am working in India under a the Global Engagement Studies Institute, a program through Northwestern University that allows students to gain first-hand experience doing development work in one of eight countries. In the week leading up to the departure, students undergo an intensive pre-departure program during which they complete courses in the fields of International Studies and Communications, as well as country-specific language and history lessons. Even with extensive preparation, I realized that no one had addressed the main source of my anxiety. Yes, people had talked about the problems they had faced when visiting India – sexism, assumptions about wealth, etc. – but I also knew that their experiences wouldn’t necessarily apply to me. People in India were used to white tourists and volunteers, but most of the people I would be interacting with had never even seen an African-American person before. I couldn’t help but fear the reactions I would receive in contrast to my white counterparts.
After a two-day journey that included 3 flights and about 20 hours in layovers, our group of nine stepped out of the airport in Udaipur and were greeted by our contacts at Foundation for Sustainable Development, an umbrella organization that supports NGOs on the ground in various countries. One by one, we were each given a flower garland to welcome us to India. As I waited patiently for mine, a little girl of about nine walked past with her family. When she saw me she tapped a relative and pointed excitedly at me. Her relative turned and stared also. Though I knew that this incident was out of innocent curiosity, I couldn’t help but feel singled out from the group, and I began feeling hypersensitive about how those around me would perceive me.
For the past weeks, I’ve paid close attention to the reactions of those around me wherever I went. In country, we were split up into groups of three and placed at different NGOs. As the only female and person of color in our trio, I noticed the distinct differences between the way I was treated and the way my group mates were treated by our colleagues at the office and by people in general. People automatically assume that I am subordinate and therefore I do not receive the same level of respect. Our male coworkers direct questions and conversation only to them, and often do not even acknowledge my presence. While in public, I incur silent glares, while people often approach them to start friendly conversation and ask them questions about who they are and where they’re from.
Here in India, as well as most places around the world, most of the people who show up to do development work are white, and the people here have come to expect that. Therefore when faced with my presence, people aren’t sure what to think. When someone does ask where I’m from, they’re surprised to hear that I’m from America and instead insist that I must be from Africa or the West Indies – as if I don’t know where I came from. There is a complete lack of knowledge about the history and experience of black people all over the world which makes it much more frustrating for me to try to adjust and connect with the local people and communities.
While the staring, unequal treatment, and assumptions about my heritage are frustrating and sometimes even infuriating, I try to remind myself daily not to take it personally. I instead try to study and observe cultural differences from an objective place. Even so, I can’t help but have a newfound appreciation for the level of respect and anonymity I receive while in the U.S., and a hope that because of me, other black interns will have an easier time in Udaipur in the future.