The topic of Diversity has always been of interest to me and it’s no coincidence that it’s presented itself during my service in the Peace Corps.
Growing up as a bi-racial and multi-cultural woman has shaped my life experience in more ways than I can describe. I remember what it was like to grow up “mixed” in the 80s when there weren’t many kids who resembled me. There were more times than I would like to count when adults and children would ask me, “That’s your mom!?” as if there was no possible way that a woman with fair skin and blue eyes could have conceived me. As I grew older, people started to ask me, “What are you?” trying to make sense of my identity like I was some zoo animal they had never seen. In high school and college I was always asked if I felt more black or white. That question in itself implied that I needed to CHOOSE between my two ethnicities. But how could I do that when I’m BOTH? In college, I never felt like I really fit in and I was confronted by many people who didn’t welcome me in their circle because I was different and not like them. They consciously or subconsciously found my racial ambiguity or “unlikeness” a reason to separate themselves from me, treating me differently or acting like I’m the one acting different, and ultimately placing me under a period of observation to see if I could fit in. During those younger years, I struggled with that feeling of not being a part of, shifting from one group to another, back and forth, letting other people’s determinations of my identity impact how I felt about myself and how I existed in the world.
Fortunately, both of my parents were very aware of the cultural sensitivities during that time and made a conscious effort to pick a school for me that would embrace diversity and help better prepare me for the challenges that I could face around my self-identity. I had the privilege of attending Burgundy Farm Country Day School, the first school to be integrated in Virginia after being founded in 1946. A diverse and very liberal elementary and middle school, Burgundy was composed of the most diverse, eclectic mix of students and teachers from a variety of different backgrounds. At school, I was constantly encouraged to cultivate an open mind and spirit towards other people and cultures, as well as with the environment. I never felt like I stood out or didn’t belong. Looking back now, I realize how unique an experience that was to be educated among others with such diverse mindsets. I am so grateful for having had that foundation. It equipped me with all of the tools I needed to face the many challenges I would later encounter regarding my identity.
As a result of these life experiences, I have actively participated in diversity groups and attended different conferences centered around leadership and diversity. After swearing in as Peace Corps Volunteers last June, my sister Tess and I were both eager to join the Diversity Committee in our respective host countries. As members of our Diversity Committees, we are involved in supporting PCVs in a variety of different areas that relate to self-identity and intercultural understanding in both our host countries and in the United States. Today, we would love to see if we could create a bridge between our country’s diversity initiatives and further broaden the learning experience. Serving as a member of this committee has been a highlight of my service. It’s provided a space for me to do some deeper self-identity work and to connect with others on topics and issues that oftentimes don’t come up in everyday conversation.
Recently, we held our first-ever Diversity Affinity Retreat for PCVs which centered around the theme of Intersectionality, looking deeper at our self-identities and recognizing when social dynamics come together — the overlap of our identifiers such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, ability, etc. I was also asked to co-facilitate a session on diversity with the new group of Peace Corps trainees and led an activity on Identity Mapping. At both events, we spoke about the complexity of our identities, and how often times we can’t see all of a person. Certain parts of our identity are hidden, by choice or because people don’t see certain aspects of who we are. As a result, we have the tendency to create a single story of others — our perception of that person based on what we see and how we make them out to be in our minds. And it’s at this point, we have the tendency to judge others and categorize/label them. I will be the first to admit that I’ve done that…many times. It’s something that I’ve grown more aware of since moving abroad and integrating into a completely different culture.
Every day here in Nicaragua, I am constantly having to check and right-size myself when I move into a place of judgement. I’ve found that when I am feeling discomfort (which happens a lot), I can quickly resort to a place of ego which I think can be a fairly common response to someone making you feel like you’re different or don’t belong. And when I’m in that place, I’m not as compassionate with others. And this can occur anywhere, both outside of the U.S. as well as within. It’s been so eye-opening for me as I become more aware and conscious of how I choose to perceive the world around me.
They say you learn so much about yourself while serving in the Peace Corps, and I’m realizing the truth in that. Every person I come across, every interaction I have, every challenging situation forces me to grow in some way, to stretch my understanding of others as well as of myself. At the end of the day, the self-growth I seek is an inside job. It’s up to me to choose to perceive things in a way that will help me become a stronger, more open-minded and authentic person. Little by little, I’m getting there.
*For those of you who are interested in learning more about the concept of a single story, feel free to watch this Ted Talk “The danger of a single story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.