As I stood among my white counterparts in Brazil, however, I realized that the way I saw myself was not necessarily how people outside of the US viewed me. While I certainly had not thought of myself as exceptionally privileged in the US, I was still an American, and my ability to travel abroad (even with grant support) signaled a certain kind of privilege. As that realization dawned on me, I began to feel resentful of my travel companions because, though we shared some similarities, we were profoundly different.
As a descendant of slaves myself, I believed that I “deserved” to be there more than they did, that I understood the experience on a more primordial level. I thought that my ancestral ties to Africa somehow trumped my American-ness in that moment, and I wanted everyone in the room to know it.
Ultimately, though, I wondered if my Americaness rendered me just as much of an outsider — an intruder in a sacred, all-black space, in the company of an otherwise all-white group. What did they think of me, those men and women to whom I was connected by the legacy of slavery, but whose rites and rituals seemed so different, so distant from my own?
What would the residents of a favela think of me, rolling into their neighborhood in a big white van with a big, white tour-group?
The fact that so many of Brazil’s poor (and the world’s poor, for that matter) look so much like me means that, at bottom, I am asking a very simple question: What would I think of me?
Answering this question means putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and treading very carefully. We are all entitled to our own choices, but we are also responsible for the impressions we leave behind.
Every single American traveler can do something to help diminish those “Ugly American” stereotypes, but the story is even more complicated for African Americans. U.S. popular culture reaches the farthest corners of the globe, and there are not nearly enough three-dimensional representations of our history, culture, and beauty to balance out the often-negative images prevalent in the media.
Given the increasing global impatience with our country, and the tensions erupting between African-Americans and immigrant communities in the US, there is so much good and understanding to be gleaned from our increased presence on the world stage. But first, we have to acknowledge and embrace our duality.
As I said, self-awareness is both a privilege and a burden.
But we should not have it any other way.
Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.