The first time intersectionality slapped me in the face I was standing at an intersection. The intersection of Carlos E. Restrepo and the main highway that ran through downtown Medellín. The old man viciously rolled down his window, winked, sent a kissy face then proceeded to yell out a sexual slur in Spanish. I kept my head down and picked up the pace.
Life is all about spaces—where your space is, who is in that space and what are the ideologies that define your space. As I spent two months in Medellín Colombia this summer, my space began to acquire blurred lines. At Duke, a predominantly white space, my blackness is a sense of loneliness, a permit to passively ostracize me. But most of all, my blackness is something that I’m not able to forget— it permeates every part, or rather, is the reason why I’m not part of certain spaces at Duke. My definition of blackness was only in relation to my experiences; I only knew how blackness bounced off the walls of American spaces like Duke, and what that meant under those conditions.
As my time in Medellín was underway, I started living blackness in a new context. The new backdrop to my blackness was more fluid within Medellin, the ability to elude stares that my white friends couldn’t avoid and general acceptance from the public as long as my broken accent didn’t betray me. I found that being black in Medellin allowed me to pass on the outside as an Afro-Colombian. I could enter stores and restaurants without having my American identity and the stigma stamped on my back. I was able to enter certain homes and share certain meals because they embraced our shared melanin. Although we were worlds apart, my ancestors and theirs were of the same. We had shared history. I was able to be myself and let Colombia form naturally around me. Nobody altered their interactions with me because of my blackness.
That freedom was stripped from me every day, unfortunately. My gender screwed me over. My gender took my blackness, my love for the culture, my curiosity and burned it to the ground, replacing it with fear. My gender made me vulnerable. Every day I’d walk the quarter mile from my homestay to my local gym, and every day I was harassed: men, windows down and tongues out as they passed by, honks and hands out the window with slimey waves and winks. Red lights were the worst because they were stagnant and I was defenseless against the salacious slur of words and the appropriation of my body which somehow became a display once I emerged out of the fitness center.
In America and Colombia being a woman is hard, and being a Black woman is even harder, both of which are two burdened intersections that need to be acknowledged. Colombia however flung me into an awkward position because though I was still a Black woman, it meant something different in that space. I had a white male colleague who constantly got stared at as we walked to the store. Skin red from the equatorial sun, blonde hair gleaming and knees showing in his evident American outfit. I knew that if I were without him, I’d be initially welcomed into the store with the assumption that I was Colombian and the privacy of not being a spectacle. But in being with him, the immediate consensus was that we were gringos, and we got everything that came with that. Yet, in that same walk I realized that the honks had ceased. I realized that men didn’t dare roll their windows down or gaze from head to toe. My body was mine again… or rather, my male colleagues because that was the only valid reason a man would not catcall me.
I took a lot of walks that summer. Highways and side roads. Malls to coffee shops. And every time those walks contained thin lines. I was Colombian on those walks. A Black person who looked enough the part to blend in, yet a woman whose gender was enough to pull me from the street and into the nasty mouths of men.
On one end it was such a blessing to be in a space for two months where every move I made didn’t have to be in perspective of my Blackness. I was myself first, and judgement followed based on my character and not my color. I was simultaneously a tourist, a resident and an assumingly accepted member of the Colombian community. Yet, while my skin gifted me with so much liberation, my gender took it all away. I couldn’t travel alone. I had to tuck certain outfits back into my suitcase and I questioned every smile sent my way by a foreign male.
I walked six days a week down that path to the gym. I was catcalled at many times. And during it all, I didn’t know what to think. I was stuck between being harassed with slurs as a woman and being Black enough for them to think that I was Colombian to understand those slurs. I stood at the intersection of transnational mistaken black womanhood.