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Navigating Identity in a Foreign Country

Posted on February 05, 2017

On a sunny day in California, I was walking around the Berkeley campus with my Brazilian friend. We were practicing each other’s native languages and talking about intersectional feminism. I was explaining to her my experience growing up as a Mexican-American, such as the racism I experienced and my desire to connect deeper with my heritage. She then told me something that sent me into a bit of a shock.

When you go to Brazil, you will be treated as a white woman.

Seeing the look of shock on my face, she then proceeded to explain how race and citizenship are viewed in Brazil. One of the biggest differences, she explained, is that in Brazil, discrimination is heavily based on skin color and less emphasis is placed on ethnic heritage, like it is United States. The combination of my lighter brown skin tone and being an Americana affords me a contextualized privileged status that has made me reflect on my identity.

One of the interactions that make it very clear to me that I hold this privileged status is when I enter apartment buildings. In Zona Sul, where my university is located, it is very common for the apartment buildings to have a porteiro, a security person who selectively lets residents and service workers into the building.. Usually when they let you in, they call the person you are there to see to ask if you have permission to go to the apartment. However, there have been multiple times when I visited a friend in their apartment and the porteiro doesn’t even glance in my direction and let me into the building without asking who I was visiting or if I even had authorization to enter the building.

In other words, people let me into the building without questioning my right to be there.

The first few times this happened, it really struck me as odd, because in my experience in Rio, people are very aware of security issues and are skeptical about allowing people into their homes. The fact that these porteiros would let me, an unknown person, into the building knowing the risks that this may incur has made me reflect on what my Brazilian friend told me. Perhaps my lighter brown skin is perceived as non-threatening.

My Brazilian friend’s personal insights have been invaluable for me to understand my experiences in Brazil. Learning how to navigate this new social position has been very difficult. Whenever I hear a comment from someone that disparages the poor or that generalizes violence in favela communities, I try to use this privileged position to start a conversation about these issues. People don’t realize that back home, people of color can be perceived as violent. Ultimately, being able to have these dialogues has helped me gain a better understanding of how society functions in Rio.

Going abroad can turn your world and how you identify upside down. These challenges to your identity will not only help you understand yourself better and where you fit in the global context, it will help you see the power that identity can have in different parts of the world.

Because identity is contextual, I think one of the best ways to prepare for your time abroad is to make friends with students from your host country at your American university and learn about the culture and social dynamics in your host country. In this cultural exchange, both of you will have so much to learn from each other, since it is likely that social dynamics and meanings of different identities differ in your respective countries.

Author: Diana Arteaga

Editor's Note: This article is part of our Overseas Ambassador Reflection Series, which features the voice of Diversity Abroad Overseas Ambassadors.

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