In May of 2017, I began my study abroad program in Morocco. I spent the majority of my time in the heart of Meknes. The silhouette of the mountains hid behind the city, and the Ramadan festivities in the street were my lullaby. My mind was occupied with intricate art and culture. The sun was very bright but still kind. I still call it a ‘home away from home.’ My family has grown; the other students, the on-site staff and local students made my trip unforgettable.
But in a single moment, a lot about the racial climate in Morocco was revealed to me during a trip to Marrakech.
There was a weekend where a group of students decided to venture off to Marrakech. A fellow classmate and I decided to head out earlier than the others because an overnight stay didn’t seem to justify 14 hours of travel. We chose to stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan home transformed into a hotel, located in the medina. At this point in our travels, we were accustomed to receiving unwelcome commentary as foreign women, which was a phenomenon addressed on numerous occasions by domestic study abroad staff as well as the staff on-site. Therefore, navigating through the medina initially seemed like a feasible undertaking.
When it came to my ethnic identity, I relied on knowledge of the sociopolitical climate in Northern Africa from my Senegalese father and my own research. My prior understanding provided a cushion to the heinous words thrown at me and my classmate. Before leaving, I knew that the United States Census Bureau classifies white as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” I had a sense that the notion of “whiteness” could very well come up in an Arab nation. I also took notice of the postcards that had a striking resemblance to graphics originating from the Jim Crow era that depicted black people with overly exaggerated features and dark skin.
As an American with a mixed racial background, I acknowledge that my racial ambiguity often averts racial commentary or simply “softens” it because bigots just can’t figure out what box to put me in. But there came a time I was called something I had never been called before.
How was it that someone 5000 miles from home would use a derogatory racial slur invented in the United States? How was it they would use the same language as the people who colonized my father’s country and enslaved my ancestors to denigrate me in a supposedly contemporary society? As I could feel my heart beating in my chest, with tears brimming in my eyes and the blood pumping through me with rage, frustration, and confusion, my plan was to move through the marketplace toward to any tourists who were unlikely to experience the same aggression.
Following the incident, I wondered, “Is it possible to not expect something but not be surprised by its occurrence?” I did not know if or when the racism and sexism would manifest themselves, but there was a part of me that was ready to be fractured by ignorance. I didn’t know that I would be called a profane term that was not only injuring as a black person but also as a young woman. Yet I was prepared for the possibility. I prepared myself for this reality in the hopes that the hatred lurking wouldn’t reveal itself and made an attempt to be as blissfully ignorant as possible to protect my pride. I wanted to think that I would not have been attacked in such a manner because it makes being me a little less difficult. The dissonance was overwhelming in that moment. It was evident to me that not only did Moroccans disassociate themselves from Sub-Saharan Africans; they found themselves to be superior to them and their descendants.
As a Benjamin A. Gilman scholar who set out to become a study abroad ambassador for black students on my campus, recounting this experience is not a concerted effort to instill fear into someone who is considering an experience in another country. I recognize that virtually every aspect of me being a black American is politicized, and there is constant pressure for me to be a representation of an entire race. Furthermore, when traveling I felt pressure to be a “black diplomat” to break down barriers and rebuild perceptions of black people. It is unjust to be placed in such a position, yet it feels as empowering as it does frustrating. I do not enjoy being an anomaly in the eyes of people in other countries. However, there is a sense of relief in not being comparable to the misrepresentations of black people in American media consumed by other nations.
I would like to firmly articulate that the best lessons are the ones you are not expecting to learn, and life doesn’t always give them to you in a beautiful package. My hope is that no one is misguided into thinking that I regret going to Morocco. I do not. I am grateful for every moment that teaches me something about my existence in the world and expands my consciousness. The fear of how I may be treated will never be bigger than my dreams to see the world. What traveling has to offer to my growth as an individual will be infinitely more far-reaching than any incident of prejudice.
The world awaits…discover it.