It seems that my foundation for any conversation involves my race, or race period, which is unfortunately non-negotiable. I don’t have the privilege of viewing myself as just Tiffany, or a woman, or an American. My race constitutes my placement in most, if not all, societies and determines the value people and our institutions place upon me. This is something I’ve learned to embrace in the midst of working towards re-narrating what Black is. So when you’re wondering why black is always mentioned in my identity as a BLACK woman, a BLACK American, and a BLACK Peace Corps Trainee, remember that I did not start this and I do not perpetuate it. It is always already inscribed in my being and dismissing it is being nonexistent.
I’ve been in the Sing Buri Province of Thailand for a month and a half. This time has consisted of strenuous mental and physical preparation hosted by the staff of Peace Corps Thailand. Think of it as a sort of hazing process or maybe even being jumped into some sort of gang. I’ve returned to bed with bruises, scrapes, headaches, anxiety, friendships, enlightenment, appreciation, awe and everything else you can and cannot imagine. On my way home and leaving from, I may or may not be chased by neighborhood dogs that have grown familiar to me, however, the Thai people have cushioned these hard days.
I began staging in San Francisco, California. Staging is similar to hopping on the diving board. You’re excited, but scared you might die; you’re ready, but can’t see any of the shit that is coming; you’re energetic, but tired as fuck from pre-preparing. I hopped along staging , during the cross-cultural and diversity trainings thinking, “What?! There are folks here that don’t know the difference between gender and sex” internally patronizing the folks that I was leveled with. There was an aura of arrogance that clouded me. Me, this black girl from the South, lineage of a privileged and resilient black family who sought to achieve the American dream for their children. This might sound cliche but this is the story, as I assume, of many black families in the suburbs. My brother and I, suburban kids roaming the cul-de-sacs of Prince Georges County, living life like it’s golden as much as America allows black children to see gold. This is what I carried in my baggage that did not effect Peace Corps’ weight limit but weighted on the diving board.
My intangible and most valuable baggage was a critical mind. I had the fortune of learning to be critical at the renowned Schomburg Center of Black Culture and Research. I believe that to love being black is to be critical of all things because most things teach black hatred. I came to these cross-cultural and diversity trainings as a facilitator of these conversations because my first professional job was in diversity and social justice education. I worked at a diverse higher ed institution; diverse to white American standards (percentage of all “others” students matching or barely exceeding percentage of white students). This was the first time I sat in a diversity and cross-cultural training as a participant and a sole representative. Needless to say I felt alone and invisible and often times I still feel that way.
The intention of Peace Corps and their trainings in cross-cultural competency are good however, how do you teach those that have lived and maneuvered in their home country as an outsider to maneuver as an outsider in another? No matter who could have delivered this training, that was the question that replayed in my head. Respect, kindness, gratitude, resiliency, patience were all involuntary attributes I had to have to survive in my home country. Now, some people might think that using words like survival is extreme, but my Peace Corps network will understand that Pre Service Training is a sort of survival and efficiency camp.
Staging is a short period of time; three days to be exact. I learned more about the Peace Corps culture I was entering than Pre-Service Training has taught me thus far. Peace Corps is an American agency and you can’t expect it to be any less American than America. There are plenty of failed attempts, within internal conversations, to separate service mentality from our current Trump-reigned America. I don’t entertain these conversations nor do I share tears with other Trainees. Being black is having an ignored and shunned struggle and Peace Corps unconsciously, in my opinion, has that bias running through it’s peaceful veins.
Moving forward into Pre-Service Training, there is a monolithic presentation of culture and being. Inevitably I am excluded and silenced from this because my experience is uniquely American, which in many ways is not shared amongst my white counterparts. But I can survive, though it is not a choice to survive in such conditions, I have been conditioned to survive. What I think is damaging that happens in my Pre-Service Training is the American vs. Thai comparison that arise in trainings from Thai natives and occur in outside conversations by Trainees. I’ve been a contributor of dangerous dialogue and often have to check myself when encountering situations that make me uncomfortable because of misunderstanding. But this is the way we have conversations about “other” things and people. This is how our language has been formed when encountering difference. Despite the utopian cross-cultural D.I.V.E (Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluation) Model I am trained to use, there is a conditioning of how comparisons, pros, and cons, are spoken about dated back when folks were locating new lands and people. Maybe I needed a deeper conversation. I definitely needed a deeper conversation.
Being black in Peace Corps is a host of conflicting emotions. What makes this experience unique is that being black makes me a double outsider, though many times I feel more of a connection to the Thai people (specifically the Thai people that have not been/visited/been educated in European countries or America) than I do with the fellow Trainees. Only if I had the language! My host mother would send me with her friends to sell her iced coffee at the market. The Thai women dressed me in traditional clothing, taught me Thai words and phrases, and fed me until I could no longer force the food down. That was the most familiar and warm experience I’ve had since Peace Corps began which includes all encounters with Thai people and Trainees.
I’m not saying that all black folks in Peace Corps will experience this same, occasional disconnect but I do encourage black people interested in Peace Corps to have a knowledge and comfort of self and of being black before taking this dive. Being black in Peace Corps is a necessary struggle. Being black in Peace Corps is redefinition and global education. I receive said benefits but most importantly, I give it. What I am able to give is an unfamiliar standard of intellectualism, professionalism, beauty, speech, and perspective. I’ve always felt that the black presence alone is radical. To live, to strive, to pursue is black radicalism (Of course, there are conditions). This speaks to the sweeping of black men and women in prisons and black bodies bleeding by the hands of law enforcement. Everyone’s step towards change differs and if this is your lane then take Peace Corps for a worthwhile ride.
The contents of this website belong to Tiffany Fitzgerald and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government, the Royal Thai Government, or the Peace Corps.