Why Are You So Dark?
– by Hillary
Four months after my stay in France, I found myself in Israel-Palestine for study abroad through my university’s program. As my plane landed on the tarmac, there was this ever lingering feeling of wanting to return back home whilst somehow bypassing the many hours it took to get there. I quickly grew cognizant of my outward display of fear and confusion as I approached the customs check. With words sprawled in Hebrew, my lack of cultural competency was made aware to me. I had not prepared myself, simply because I had not received advice to do so, and perhaps I had presumed that in stepping into what I often envisioned as an extension of America, my lack of in-depth knowledge would suffice. In search of the bathroom, I simply looked for the enclaves within the walls, encapsulated with light.
Following the images, I found the stalls designated for women–but even the turning of stall doors and the flushing of toilets was complicated for me.
When I followed the crowd towards the airport exit, I quickly resorted to a corner where I could make a phone call back home. I found it difficult–finding myself in an oasis where my dark brown skin looked incorrect in the homogeneous conglomeration of beiges and tans–where even Ethiopians seemed to become obscured in the mix. Their presence would do nothing for me. Our histories and physical locations were too far-removed to bear any sentiments of solidarity or unification amongst us. In retrospect, I cannot tell if much of this was just my own musings, but I was aware of my identity–both as a foreigner and a non-Jew. I only longed to prolong my arrival past customs, into the actual state of Israel, but beyond these constraints, I fumbled with my bags. The airport’s employee just ahead of me asked if I needed transportation–a train? A taxi? All to which I responded no, to her surprise.
I needed the proper currency to purchase a breakfast after missing the meal on my connecting flight, but what was enough? 50 shekels was sufficient–if one wished to solely order a smoothie drink and cinnamon roll, but this was not enough to eat during the 5 hours that I would spend in the airport awaiting my friends’ arrival.
After meeting the six others who would be accompanying me on this journey, the 40 minute trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ensued. Given the rapid nature of school-sanctioned programs such as this, our first full day in Jerusalem became solely allocated for full exploration of the Old City just 15 minutes away from our
living quarters near the checkpoint–the place in which Israeli Defense Soldiers regulated the passage of foreigners and Palestinians into and out of Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Each time we entered into the Old City, we entered through the gate that would lead us immediately into the Christian Quarter. Meandering through the narrow streets, we would find ourselves in the Muslim Quarter if we turned left, and the Jewish Quarter if we turned right. The Jewish Quarter was lined with shop sellers who sold trinkets with the Star of David, and one could easily see the Wailing Wall from afar. One could see Jewish people praying and a variety of people inserting prayer notes into the wall, whereby just across it, one could also see the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa compound within the Muslim Quarter. We never entered into the Armenian quarter, however, and our knowledge of Jerusalem beyond the Old City remained quite scant.
Nonetheless, the Old City reminded me of how much I hated swarms of tourist groups congregating in a single area, as it somehow diminished the political and religious significance of the places we visited. In walking past persistent and overly-assertive shopkeepers, some would presume that being referred to as “Brown Sugar” or “Hot Chocolate” is a form of flattery. I didn’t find it coaxing. Instead, these instances became ones in which I found myself alone–brooding over whether or not such comments were inspired by feelings of adoration for Black women or simply fetishization and imagined provocative behavior of the very demographic under scrutiny. Although a harsh or crude assessment of people that probably meant no harm, I knew that I was not simply creating a new narrative for the lives and experiences of many Black women when encountering men of other races.
When visiting the Holocaust museum, our tour guide, who was a Jew from the United Kingdom, found joy in taking us through the exhibition. It was quite an uncomfortable exchange for me–to witness something so harsh, yet critical and telling of the development of Israel’s history. Despite my intentions to focus on the display of what was the displacement of Jewish people throughout Europe, the topic of eugenics was brought up–as it pertained to understanding Nazism. My tour guide then turned to me asking, “Who is the most racist group in America”? I looked at him, uninterested in partaking in his oddly-constructed social experiment, but in failing to re-avert the question towards my peers of white men and women. I responded with, “Why are you asking me that?”All he could offer was conciliatory, “It’s just a question.” He would probably protest that he never meant to offend me with his insensitive remark, but it wasn’t the first time that someone seemed daring enough to identify me as the only Black person within a group to ask whether or not I was aware of how the world was being modified by white people. It was evident that foreigners saw me as the representative of Black victimhood and were ignorant of the burden they were placing on me.
As a part of my university’s program, we were placed in specific housing at an ecumenical institute, which meant living amongst priests and research fellows–many of whom had families of their own. Although subtle, the disparity between ourselves and the workers was evident, as many of them were Palestinians from Bethlehem or from Arab-dominated parts of Jerusalem. I was fortunate enough to experience some form cultural exchange in my communication with the staff there, but I found greater difficulty interacting with those who seemed to bear semblance to my cultural heritage, not as a Nigerian, but as an American. I easily befriended two families and their respective sons; however, I was taken aback when a little white boy, with his French accent, told me, “I don’t like your skin tone”, while another, in his British accent said something along the lines of “if you’re from America, why are you so dark?” I had to confront racism and microaggressions by children in ways I failed to anticipate it.
These weren’t boys who had been born in Israel, but boys who had been born in Europe and later raised in the context of eschewed nationalisms between Israelis and Palestinians, intertwined with the presence of four varying religious communities. Living within a sheltered oasis of Americans and Europeans, they remained untouched by the complexities of a religious and political civil war–unable to grasp racial disparities.
I was disappointed by their inadequacies but I was not surprised. I was not surprised that this was what my experience of being a Black woman abroad. You carry with you a heightened sense of insecurity, wondering when people will realize the indecency of constantly requiring you to be the voice of the oppressed. You become reduced down to your body for the appeasement of other men, yet you still feel incapable of satisfying the expectations of others. You bear the burden of carrying a kinky crown when those beside you simply have hair that neatly rests at their shoulders, and you wonder at what point being Black will foster a sense of normalcy.