On Baltimore, Global White Image, and Being a Non-White American in Indonesia

on a day where I was tol

I lately find myself at the verge of a crossroads. April prepares to roll into May. I’m 25-and-a-half months into a 27-month long Peace Corps volunteer service in East Java, Indonesia. I’m preparing to return to Chicago, the American city I call home. Half my mind remains on all of the much-missed food I’m going to eat when I touch base. Maybe more than half. The weather here has been fickle. Not far from the equator, Indonesia’s heat and humidity are typically suffocative and unrelenting, but the past few weeks I’ve been waking up to a keening call to prayer (normal) and a thick, cool fog weaving its way out from the vast cane fields (less so). It is a precipitous time in my professional and personal life, my emotional state, and, with the death of yet another black American at the hands of the police, also in my home country’s state of social and political affairs.

My students, seventh and eighth graders at a local Islamic middle school, are also restless. National exams are creeping in; classes are continuously cancelled for myriad reasons; the students don’t have a mind to study. I made a game for them instead, a list of interactive trivia questions about America. Basic questions about America’s first president, the number of stars on its flag. Their general pattern was to guess wildly and without basis, following their friends. I added one question I was positive would be easy, ludicrously simple even: All American people have white skin, true or false? I ordered the students who thought this was true to gather at the back of the class, and those who thought it was false to come to the front. There was a scuffle, the students shouted. To my disbelief, solidly half of the class ran to the back and half to the front, making this the most divisive question on my list. I stood alone in the middle, swimming under the din.

This is far from the first time I’ve been made acutely aware of my race here in Indonesia. Being a brown person here is a double-edged sword. This is a country in which it is repulsively difficult to find sunscreen or deodorant without a skin-bleaching agent. Where “white skin” is synonymous with “clean skin”. I appreciate that I am not harassed even half as much as my white volunteer counterparts. At bus terminals and on the street I often manage to pass as Indonesian and avoid much of the staring and questioning that my white friends deal with on a daily basis. I don’t avoid harassment completely because after more than a cursory glance it is clear that I am foreign, but it is possible for me to fly under the radar. However, being brown also often means automatically being placed in a caste slightly below white foreigners. It means being asked “but where are you from?”, even after a friend has made it clear that everyone in your group is an American. It means repeatedly being completely ignored in a group of white people, being skipped over as an Indonesian person showers white friends with compliments like “beautiful!” and “your skin is so clean!” I’m bothered even though I know this toadying attention is shallow and obsequious; each time I let it roll off, it still makes a mark in my skin. Small marks tend to accumulate to make a gutter that has me on constant emotional guard.

Of course, as soon as I collected myself in the classroom with my students and reminded them that I, their teacher, am an American, and invited them to determine whether or not I have white skin (I am biracial, but of course their resounding answer was “no, Miss!”), they all rushed to the front, those who had been in the back now looking sheepish. I’m not sure what else to do. There is little place for a session on global race politics in my English classroom, and anyway I’m not sure I have the Indonesian vocabulary to make it stick. This despite the fact that such a session is, in my opinion, deeply needed as more and more Americans emigrate to the once-insular Indonesian archipelago. The need is apparent as I watch my students divide. These aren’t stupid kids. I refuse to believe in the myth of stupid kids. But they’ve been raised and made in a culture of community, a culture of following and deference, often at the expense of critical thinking. What they’ve seen and heard for their entire lives about America is that American people are rich and have white skin, and it turns out that this hard impression wins out over both a visibly non-white American president, and two years with a non-white American teacher in their classroom.

Despite knowing and understanding every reason why half of my seventh grade students would think that all Americans are white even as I stood in front of them, despite knowing that their mistake was far from personal, this lack of critical thinking still served to demoralize me, and it took me a week to get over this blow. As I did, years of police brutality in Baltimore came to a boiling point with the death of Freddie Gray and the pursuant protesting and rioting. I saw the news on facebook, accompanied by lengthy rants and pleas for solidarity from many of my friends. I only scanned headlines, gleaning what I could of the story from photos and article titles without clicking, because I feared that if I read through I would be sick. It’s a cowardly and counterproductive feeling. But the only thing I could think as I scrolled through a feed flooded with this terrible news was not again, not again, not again.            

I don’t purport that Indonesia’s attitude toward non-white Americans stems solely from American race issues or our corrupted policies. Indonesia also has a long history of colonialism, largely instituted by white Dutch settlers, and has come out the other side with a severe and deep-seated inferiority complex in the face of white foreigners. There is also a connection between dark skin and labor-heavy outdoor work; light skin and the wealthy who spend their lives inside. But when it comes to non-white foreigners in Indonesia, specifically non-white Americans, we can’t pretend that the problems with our global image and our chaotic race relations have nothing to do with the discrepancies in treatment non-white Americans experience in Indonesia and indeed, in much of South East Asia. The power structure treats black citizens a certain way in America; the rest of the world is simply following through with our discordance. We can’t alter the international trend of white authority without rioting against an attitude of complacency. As we excuse authorities that target and abuse a comparatively discrepant number of non-white Americans, we actively promote a global image that allows a community in Indonesia the thought that they would rather associate with a white American or no American at all. That presents a block making it difficult for my students to realize that not all Americans are white.

As we continue to descend into domestic turmoil, and as intelligent, progressive white Americans at home and abroad continue to remain silent or explain away or use reductive and misguided arguments to minimize issues of racial injustice (perhaps the most frustrating of which I’ve heard paradoxically come from the smartest and most open people I know), the deep web of global race relations gets stickier. As Deadline publishes articles about the overabundance of “ethnic Americans” cast in television and movies, there will always be another Indonesian ticket-taker on the bus who staunchly refuses to believe I am American. Non-white Americans leave their home country hoping for respite from tumult and fear perpetuated by our own police force only to go abroad and have our identity called into question, to lose our visibility as Americans and humans and to be forced to fight to reclaim it.

America’s biggest strength is its diversity: this is one of the most important truths I’ve come to understand during my beautiful and transformative two years in Indonesia. A diverse citizenship means there will always be a voice for someone who elsewhere may not have one. Whether or not those in power will listen is a different question. After everything I’ve written here, there is much hope in Indonesia’s national motto, “bhinneka tunggal ika”, or “unity through diversity”. For Americans, we must own our strength and our difference so that others may follow and that every American may proudly carry their identity as such. So that the next volunteer’s students will all stand, no question, no confusion, on one side of the room.