Piropos and Privilege
August 15th, 2017
A piropo is the Spanish word for catcall. It can be anything from a whistle, kissing noises, or creepy/sexual (very unwanted) grunts. Piropos are common in most Latin American countries. In Colombia, the women are no stranger to these unwanted stares and noises; while young men grow up thinking this kind of behavior is the norm.
Upon arriving to Colombia, I tried to blend in to my surroundings. With my dark hair and a tendency toward tan skin (once I am out of the office, of course) I can be a little more ambiguous in Latin America than some of my blonde-haired, blue-eyed friends. However, I quickly realized that no matter how hard I tried to blend, I would always stand out here. Most costeños, people who live in Santa Marta area, are dark with brown eyes, black hair and caramel/brown skin. Not a day goes by that I walk down my street without being stared at – whether it be unwanted stares from men, curiosity of little kids, and women (side note: I am slightly terrified – intimidated – by Colombian women). I get it – I am an uber gringa. I talk like a gringa, I walk like one, I look like one, I can’t not be a gringa. Sometimes it’s fun (who doesn’t like a little attention?), other times it is a bit scary, and mostly it is downright exhausting.
The first few weeks I was here, I asked people how late I could walk around alone by myself. They told me 7 pm. SEVEN PM. That is ridiculous right!? In a country that has grown up riddled by crime and corruption it may not seem too extreme to be advised not to walk in the dark alone. However, growing up as a person of privilege, in a nice and safe area of the U.S., I am not used to being restricted to the outdoors solely during daylight hours.
These past few years I have thought a lot about the inherent privilege I was born with. As a white woman of comfortable economic standings, I have had privileges in my life many have not had nor will never know. Recognizing my privilege can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but I think it is important, especially in the field of conservation (see Brown et al. 2016, Conservation Biology for a great piece on facilitating privilege in conservation).
I want to talk about one aspect of my privilege in this post – my color, as a white woman. But first, I would like to acknowledge that this is how I feel, these are my experiences, and I can and would never be able to (or try to) compare my experiences to someone else. This is merely a blog where I deposit my thoughts, where I can reflect on what has been happening in my home country, and parallel those with my own experiences in Colombia. I am privileged in the first place to have this experience to come to Colombia for a year, live and work here, and gain new experiences, that many people could never fathom. This is an experience, a gringa in Colombia, that I chose and that is an important distinction between my experience here and a US citizen of color in our shared home country.
Being white has allowed me to integrate much more successfully into certain places (newsflash South Carolina). But, in Colombia I am different. I am a minority and it has made me think about what people of color deal with in the U.S. on a daily basis. The psychological impact of continuous staring, name-calling, cat-calling, and all around being made to feel different or other is something I will never truly understand, but it has begun to wear me down and I have felt myself become more introverted, change my body language, and alter walking routes, in an attempt to hide from the constant staring.
It is mentally and physically exhausting to be on guard 100% of the time. Whether it is going for a run, sitting on the beach or in a café, I have to make sure I am constantly aware of my surroundings, even when I get lackadaisical about it someone or something reminds me. In this world, there is an inherent bias that based on the color of your skin, your genitalia, your sexual orientation, or your religion, you may not be able to do something as “well” as an able-bodied, heterosexual, white male (a mediocre one at that, cough orange cheeto-in chief).
With the racism of the United States coming to an ugly head this month in Charlottesville, I thought it was important to reflect on my own privilege and my place in our system. While most of us can agree that neo-nazi’s and white supremacism is bad, we need to move further than agreement and head-shaking, toward action. As a white person in America, I do not live in fear because of the color of my skin. I do not fear that at a traffic stop I could lose my life; I do not have to deal with the harsh realities that some of my friends and many P.O.C./LGBTQ have dealt with.
However, as I walk through the hot, crumbling streets in Santa Marta, Colombia, trying to ignore the whistles, flacas, and stares, I realize, I am different here. I am treated differently and it will always be that way for me. I have found the constant accumulation of this culture shock to be surprisingly difficult to deal with. I can usually take these moments in stride, but the fact of the matter is, as I write this and the sun sets at 6:30 pm (like it does every day), I am no longer feel 100% safe walking down the street. I live with a constant sense of heightened awareness, one which I try to keep from turning into fear. It is this awareness, that woman everywhere know, it is this awareness that people of color everywhere know, it is this awareness that a person ever made to feel like an “other” knows.
Privilege comes in many forms, in this post I briefly touch on my race (which may I remind readers is a socially built construct, for the sole purpose of oppression) and gender. I think the biggest thing we could all do is recognize our own privilege(s) and use that privilege to educate those who look like us and protect others who cannot say, do, or act in the ways that we (I) can. These conversations are not easy, but they are necessary.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. - Dr. King