It's Okay, You Can Stare by Mia Ross
I could feel their eyes on my fro. Granted I might be the first of a few black people they may ever see in their lives and I’m sure their first guess of my nationality would not be American; I had to excuse the civilians of Austria for their stares. Plus, when I looked at them directly, they quickly looked away and pretended they had not gazed at all.
Vienna, Austria in the winter is calm, grey, and quiet. There were few tourists since it was the middle of January. The people seemed somewhat grumpy, forever shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I saw about three people of color out of the ten days I was there, two were men and the woman wore a wig. I tried not to be so weary of the eyes following me, but I was unsuccessful at times.
What were they thinking? Were they fascinated or disgusted? Had they designated stereotypes to my appearance?
It was an uneasy test of confidence that could erode even the most stable self-confidence to expose the fragile insecurities that everyone has at their core; the worry that they are not enough. As much as we like to present a visage that we don’t care what other people think, we do, yet there is a balance to be found. Certain aspects of our appearance we cannot control, so it becomes problematic when a person is criticized for features that are a part of their physical identity. Does everyone experience this pressure the same? I wish I could say they do, but my reality has proven otherwise.
Though uneasy, the feeling was familiar. In my own country, I had a summer temp job in Washington D.C. at a lucrative commercial real estate agency. There too I tried my best to ignore the visual that I was the only brown person on my floor. I’d watch fellow employees eyes scan my face, my clothes, my hair, all during conversation. I could hear my heart beat in my ears as waves of anxiety and embarrassment would wash over me whenever I’d accidentally use slang. I’d press my lips together to stop my comments from rising out of my mouth when I was spoken to in a condescending tone. I’d scream on the inside when I’d overhear coworkers praise Trump, knowing the possible implications of their political choices. The difference here is that at the end of every day, I’d get on the train and go home, my escape.
I grew up in Prince George’s County Maryland, known for having the highest population of upper-middle class African-American families. Washington D.C. is 14 minutes away by car, both my parents obtained “good government jobs”. They were considered successful but lacked exposure of how to preserve the product of that success; such experience comes with generational wealth.
My parent’s incomes and benefits were too good for me to fit the ‘hood’ stereotype, yet they weren’t savvy in stocks. Life is much more complicated than what we see on television, and we know this. Yet, subconsciously, most people still digest the media they consume as reality and social norms. We do this not only on a local scale but on an international scale. All we know of other countries and communities is dependent upon the media we encounter, especially if we are not able to travel outside our pigeonholes.
Young, I learned the best way to understand the perspectives of other cultures is to travel. I found it very odd how American music was played in the city centers of Europe. It was then that I was exposed to how American culture is generalized in the eyes of other countries. My student group was often greeted with references to Jay-z and Beyonce, and once we were asked if we were a gospel choir. These stereotypes I didn’t mind.
More strikingly it was the first time that when someone asked “what’s your ethnicity” my answer was not black, or a mix of Cuban and Egyptian, it was American. But “American” carries distinct blemishes. A friend in college wanted to take a trip to Syria on the weekend while we were staying in Spain, he had to lie and say he was Canadian because to be American is unpopular and dangerous due to their perspective of what we stand for.
I find the landscapes of inter-cultural perspectives alluring. Seldom does one world of traditions, ideas, and shared assumptions intertwined within culture, collide with another; but when they do the result is often turbulent. Two communities could share the same language but maintain very different symbolic interpretations of the same terms. Discovering this consistent friction on an international scale revealed the importance of finding paths to resolve on a local scale.
I cut my hair very low about two years ago so I could start to wear it curly. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with it, to feel beautiful without long hair. At the time I was working in a preschool, and one of the children commented, “You’re not supposed to cut your hair, short hair is for boys!”. I smiled at the unfiltered and surprisingly confident statement from such a little person. I went on to explain that women can do anything a man can do with their appearance, and it's okay. It dawned on me how young we become trapped in the borders of who we are supposed to be. How often do we reassess our social norms, standards of beauty, and societal expectations? How often do we step back and ask ourselves “Why not?” Usually, the times when these frameworks are challenged are due to academic discovery of other options from different cultures.
In the U.S. we ask each other about what we are made of, seeking to know the countries of our parents or grandparents and make guesses based on our skin hue and the way our hair falls. Once we leave the confines of this country, that no longer matters, we are simply American. We reflect what the world is, a mosaic. Often times in our own bubbles we forget this, and in doing so we forget what it means to be a part of something greater than ourselves. We have to pay attention to the big picture and implore our leaders to maintain this beauty as our national identity, a place where every color, every religion, every gender, every sexual orientation can have a home.
Any leadership that does anything less must be resisted.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to a university that’s third in the US for diversity, so I often see not only many women with Afros, but also a variety of hair textures and skin tones. The ability to find camaraderie in people of completely different life experiences allows us to reach deeper levels of empathy, allows us to develop the skill of putting oneself in another’s shoes. I learned much from traveling, but I learned exponential wisdom from the diverse ideas that came from my international peers. Here we question our traditions, test our bias, and disprove our constricting stereotypes together. In places like this I feel most comfortable; it reflects the reality of our world.
On days where America doesn’t reflect what I know it can be, I find comfort in knowing that from the moon, our flags can’t be seen. I find solace knowing all the borders on the map, the criss-cross cutting the outlines of our national identities, are all imaginary. I find that I smile… when I realize that we are all made up of atoms from stardust. We take solace in our universal truth.
So it’s okay, they can stare.
Because I know every atom that makes up what they see looks a lot like the ones that make up the eyes they use to watch. At our essence, we are all fragile, small, and curious. They may not realize it, but gazing at me is just like gazing at the stars.
Mia Ross is a graduate student pursuing her Master’s degree in International Communications at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. Although originally born in the D.C. Metropolitan area, Mia has traveled to over 8 different countries to research global development, activism, education, art, and how they all tie into each other through media.