My first impression? It had all the ingredients of a developing country: smog, unpaved roads, crowded sidewalks, people sitting around, empty buildings, vendors on the sidewalk. And I was on the most developed of the 83 islands that make up this country in the Pacific. Looking out of the passenger window, I saw groups of young people with brown and black skin crossing busy, two-lane roads with an ease that explained that traffic signals and signs were unnecessary. The dark-skinned nationals are Melanesian on the island of Vanuatu – they call themselves Ni-Vans (nee-vahns).
“Is it safe?” I heard myself ask my company who was driving me.
“Yes, yes, it is very safe” they insisted. My present company consisted of a family from the Southeast Asian Pacific. They had offered to drive me to my lodging. They have been living as expatriates in Vanuatu for several years.
I felt disgusted with myself. Is it safe? Did I really just ask that? I saw how quickly I had become one of those ignorant individuals who I judged and for whom I felt disdain in the U.S. You know, the ones who make assumptions about others based on how they are dressed, their skin color, the type of car they drive, the slang they use, and so on. What happened on the flight over here that transformed me into one of them?
I really didn’t know. I’m considered a minority in the U.S. My parents are immigrants; I am an immigrant. I am a professional and have worked for higher education institutions, I am open-minded and woke. But in that moment, I was not those parts of me. My sense of unease and deep desire for it to disappear was distracting. I wanted it to stop so that I could continue being the person I thought I was, the person I wanted to be. My self perception as an open-minded, educated, non-judgmental, and definitely not racist was suffocating.
That first few nights were difficult. It didn’t help that my luggage was stalled in Fiji and I had nothing on my person except my wallet, passport, and smartphone without a charger. My phone died quickly and suddenly I found myself left with a lot of time to reflect. My circumstances forced me to socialize as I had to buy clothes, a toothbrush and other necessities. The time without internet, social media, nor a connection to the outside helped me look inside. And my understanding of my bias boiled down to this: the media is powerful.
We so often see images on screen and hear stories about people with dark skin committing punishable acts that, despite knowing intellectually that individuals of all shades of skin commit terrible offenses, deep inside, below my consciousness, biases against dark skin stirred. Biases which I buried because it doesn’t fit with my self image and self perception. The world has a long history of colorism, racism, classism, other -isms. Basically, people take from people. Humans innately understand impermanence thus we have a keen awareness of how quickly we can lose what we have. Loss is painful to bear so we grasp and in that grasping we force others to lose or never have. And not having my belongings coupled with facing my biases led to unease and irrational fear.
Second Impression? It felt great to be proven wrong. I was so wrong. In my days in Vanuatu, I walked around downtown Port Vila alone. No one harassed me. People were friendly – black, white, yellow or other. They greeted me good morning, good afternoon, said good evening, they smiled, they laughed, they ignored me. They were fine and I was fine.
It was here that I learned about my biases despite believing that I was absent of them because I am educated, have lived and traveled to different parts of the world, have community with members with skin color spanning the rainbow, identity and orientation varying across the spectrum. I am a lover of diversity and respect what I don’t know. And I can still perpetrate an -ism. With each passing day and each interaction with someone, I found that my unease and discomfort was unwarranted and it quickly disappeared as I came to learn more about the Ni-Vans. Only then was I able to focus and receive.