Back to Basics

I started this project on the assumption that the audience would understand the significance of this project. However, I now realize that it is unfortunately not enough to simply state that alternative images of Colombian black women, especially outside the realm of the “national geographic” portraits of displaced black Colombian women, are necessary. Thus I wrote this entry to highlight my observation of race/gender politics in Medellin as well as a few of my experiences.

I came to Medellin with quite a few intentions. In one sense, I chose Medellin because the research I did prior to coming here suggested that Medellin was a diverse city, with a decently sized black population (1). Several sites admitted that Medellin was socially and politically working to improve the lives of the oppressed through cultural and artistic initiatives. And in part this is true. Though, I mistakenly assumed that it was a citywide initiative that truly focused on ending racism/sexism and all the other isms.

Now having lived here for 8 months, I see that this is not the case. Being here, especially as a black female, allows me to explore, observe, and participate in race/gender relations that would not be possible if I were white (2). It’s a greatly complicated privilege. Below is “general knowledge” about black Colombian women, media representations, experiences, as well as a few comparisons to American culture.

General knowledge (in no particular order):

  • Race is frequently talked about in informal conversations, but then no one really wants to explore or “deconstruct” the meaning behind it.
  • Similar to the US, Medellin places great emphasis on class rather than race. What I would categorize as a race-based issue is often seen as simply a class-based issue (3).
  • Some of the same stereotypes that are applied to black women in the United States are attached to black Colombian women such as hypersexual/ good in bed, great dancers, great at sports (4), always have attitudes).
  • Almost half of all black Colombian women are displaced and as a result many black women experience financial hardship (5). It is common that black women are domestic workers.
  • Few positive images of black Colombian women are available in the media. Often the images available are either hypersexualized black female bodies or black women as domestic workers. There is very little diversity in representation.
  • The same sort of public attention black hair gets in the US occurs here (especially on a localized level/ in informal dialogues). This speaks both to the pressure women receive to chemically straighten their hair and the “awe/mystery” of natural hair.
  • There are a variety descriptions or names to call black people. In the US the focus is mainly on black and African American (politically correct term). Here it varies from negra, morena, afro-colombiana, and afrodescendiente. The first and second are more commonly used. The latter two are what I would consider more politically correct terms.
  • Because the majority of black Colombian people are from Chocó, a region along the pacific coast, it is often assumed that if you’re black and living in Medellin, you are from Chocó and not Medellin. I think this makes an interesting conversation for black women who are in Medellin and are consistently asked where they are from by other paisas. Of course what follows are the varied and complicated responses they may/must offer about being paisa or being paisa but having roots in Chocó or elsewhere. This continuous dialogue is a way of being othered (6).

While the 8 points I have provided about black women and race in Medellin are short and random, it’s a starting point to consider the importance of producing images of black Colombian women that challenge the negative images reproduced by the media (local and international). I have met so many black women in the past 8 months who do not fit within the confines of the media’s representations of black women. I am not surprised rather angry and annoyed at knowing that in 20 or 40 years, black Colombian women will still be invisible to the rest of the world or known as being poor and displaced. I am not saying displaced black women are not important rather that there is diversity within the community of black Colombian women. There are black women studying at universities, black women who’ve traveled to and lived in other countries, and of course black female hipsters (yeah that’s a thing)! However rarely do you see representations of them in the media. Thus this project is a way to show different representations of black Colombian women through fashion but to also enter into the conversation of what its like to be a black woman from or living in Medellin (e.g. through Hair Stories of course).

  1. For anyone that is unaware, Colombia has the fourth highest population of blacks or African descendants after United States, Brazil, and Haiti in the Americas.
  2. On a daily basis I am marked as a black Colombian by Colombians and foreigners alike. Thus the sort of public interactions (e.g. street /sexual harassment) I experience on a daily basis may be typical of what black Colombian women experience (clearly this varies when you take into consideration class). Most black women live in working class neighborhoods (estratos 1 & 2). I have lived in working class/middle class neighborhoods that are estratos 3 & 4 (San Pedro/Manrique, Prado, and Villa Nueva). All of these neighborhoods are a part of La Calendaria or Comuna 10. To see the class demographics by estrato or class, click the following link: http://www.medellin.gov.co/ReportesSite/reportes/Mapas_socioeconomicos/Estrato_predominante_barrio_2006.pdf
  3. I talk more about this and how it relates to sexual assault here: http://thefeministwire.com/2013/04/reckoning-race-and-sexual-assault-in-colombia/
  4. While black American female athletes are often portrayed as masculine and then of course lesbian, I am not sure that the same conflation of gender/sexuality happens in Colombia.
  5. To learn more about displacement and common black experiences (quick fact sheet), click here: http://www.afrocolombians.com/pdfs/ACfactsheet.pdf
  6. This in particular is similar and different from the way black Americans experience otherness in the US (specifically in regards to the question so where are you originally from). The question in the US is framed to ask black Americans about their heritage outside of the US and thus a way to authenticate their experience and being, as if being “just” being black is not enough. This form of otherness also recognizes displacement as a common experience among people of the African Diaspora.
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