Being Black in Thailand: We’re Treated Better Than Africans, and Boy Do We Hate It

Black expats in Thailand and Australia describe the guilt they feel living fairly privileged lives in comparison with the discrimination that African immigrants and Aborigines face.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on May 26, 2015.

In all fairness, the Thai police officer was absolutely right for approaching the swing set and telling Stephanie Stew’s friend—a grown woman in her 30s—to get off the swing.  

Even though Jane (for anonymity, we changed her name) was swinging next to her young daughter, the swing set was intended for young children, and the added weight of an adult could pose a safety risk.

But when the officer issued his request to Jane—a black woman he might have assumed was Ghanaian or Nigerian, living and working in Thailand—and she responded with her black American accent, he immediately switched gears and insisted that it wasn’t a problem.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the Thai officer said. “You can stay.”

When he realized that she was a black American, Stew explained to The Root, the officer didn’t want to inconvenience Jane.  

Stew—a 38-year-old black American who moved to Thailand last August with her husband and 3-year-old daughter—says that’s just one of the many examples of how African-American expats practically have the red carpet laid out for them in the Southeast Asian country and are treated like gold, especially when compared with the black African immigrants who live and work in Thailand and are treated like, well, less than gold, and at times like s–t.

“That’s not the first time,” Stew explained, “that someone has mistaken us for an African” and then dropped their attitude or condescension once they realized that Stew and her crew were, in fact, American.  

“We’re treated better. … We’re treated better,” Stew said twice, as if it’s an idea that she still can’t comprehend, or a guilt that’s just too hard for her to swallow.

Stew recalls the time an African hair-braiding stylist was trying to get up to a hotel room where Stew’s sister-in-law was staying so that she could braid her hair. The hotel receptionist would not let the African woman get past the lobby, thinking that the hairstylist was a prostitute—even though the woman was older and not dressed scantily—because what could an African woman possibly be doing in such an establishment? (Stew says the hotel was not that fancy.) Stew’s sister-in-law had to come down to the lobby and escort the hairstylist up to her room.  

Stephanie Stew and her 3-year-old daughter in Bangkok

Stephanie Stew and her 3-year-old daughter in Bangkok.

Tomasina Boone is experiencing something similar in Australia.

Boone—a 45-year-old black American who has been living Down Under with her husband and two daughters for eight years—immediately picked up on the way white Australians treated her, as opposed to the way they view and treat Aborigines—the country’s brown-skinned indigenous people who are perhaps more comparable to Native Americans of the U.S.

“It’s the craziest thing in the world. Australians do not view us as they view their Aboriginals,” Boone said. It’s a reality that bugs her because Aborigines view their treatment as comparable to the racism that black Americans experience in the U.S.

“I’ve never experienced racism here as a black American,” Boone put it plainly.

Stew and Boone are two black Americans living fairly privileged lives because of their ethnicity and nationality. Living—dare I say—like many young and middle-aged white Americans live in the U.S., since, on one hand, they’re not contributing to and certainly were not the perpetrators of the ethnic hierarchies in Thailand and Australia—hierarchies that place black Americans on a level several notches higher than that of Africans and Aborigines.

But while they certainly didn’t cause the discrimination, boy, are Stew and Boone inadvertently benefiting from it—and, at times, feeling awfully conflicted about that.

Stew described how she used to give the universal black-people greeting—the nod—to Africans she saw out and about in Thailand, but unfortunately the gesture wasn’t reciprocated.

“They don’t like African Americans,” Stew said matter-of-factly. She described how the Africans “look away” when she tries to make eye contact with them or when she tries to establish that quick bond that black people often form when they are among the few brown faces in a sea of white ones.

Stew says it’s a “weird feeling” because she wants to get to know the Africans but can’t, because “they don’t want to be bothered with us.”

Boone is not sitting back and taking comfort in the privileges she’s afforded. She is working to make sure that the Aborigines’ social standing in Australia improves. Fortunately for Boone, the Aborigines she has encountered are much more welcoming to African Americans (as opposed to what Stew is experiencing in Thailand) and are extremely impressed and inspired by the civil rights movement in the U.S.  

“[The Aboriginals] call themselves black,” Boone said enthusiastically. She and other organizers held a viewing of the film Selma earlier this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Aborigines’ civil rights movement. Boone also takes her daughters to events and initiatives that advocate on behalf of aboriginal culture.

tomasina attends aboriginals event_2

Tomasina Boone and another black American attend an event at the University of Technology, Sydney, aimed at helping Aborigines get their college degree.

Both Boone and Stew point to “anti-immigration” as the type of “anti-black” racism present in both Australia and Thailand. It stems from the economic anxiety and concern that immigrants are coming into European and Asian countries and taking low-paying jobs from working-class communities.

That kind of discrimination is not reserved for Africans; it’s also directed at other groups.

“[The Australians] discriminate against the Asians, the Lebanese, the Greeks,” Boone said. “It’s about, ‘We don’t have a lot of pieces to this pie, and they’re taking our pie,’” she explained.

Stew echoed that analysis of how race relations take shape, although she noted that the black immigrants seem to get the worst treatment, presumably because of their race.

“The racism [in Thailand] is against Africans first. And then with the [non-Thai] races who are here: the Burmese, the Filipinos,” Stew explained sadly.

It’s on “another level,” she added.

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1st Black Woman to Pilot the Cool Spy Plane That Captures Intelligence for US Leaders

Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and U-2 “Dragon Lady” pilot, in front of a U-2 plane Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and U-2 “Dragon Lady” pilot, in front of a U-2 plane Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

Merryl Tengesdal grew up in the Boogie Down Bronx and pursued her pilot dreams despite being told that human beings weren’t meant to fly.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on March 31, 2015.

In order for Navy SEAL teams to hunt down terrorists, or for foreign policy analysts to track the movement of WMDs—or to detect whether Iran is, in fact, developing a nuclear weapons program—our leaders rely on special pilots to capture that type of intelligence through the use of spy-plane cameras.

Merryl Tengesdal (that’s Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal to you) is the only African-American female pilot to man—or, rather, womanthe U-2 spy plane, a highly complex aircraft that captures that kind of valuable imagery.

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, Tengesdal, 43, spoke with The Root from an Air Force base in California about her journey growing up in New York City’s Boogie Down Bronx, and how she climbed the ranks in both the Navy and the Air Force to become such a distinguished spy-plane pilot.

Tengesdal said she knew pretty early on that she wanted to be an astronaut, or some sort of pilot, but she got pushback from her dad, who questioned whether human beings were even meant to fly.

“My father always said that if God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings,” Tengesdal said. “He was not a big proponent. He didn’t think it was an idea that was suitable for me,” she explained, and especially for a black woman.

But Tengesdal was adamant about her vision and excelled in math and science. After graduating from the University of New Haven in Connecticut with a degree in electrical engineering in 1994, she enrolled in flight school and found that she was learning how to fly alongside a surprising amount of other African Americans.

“It was kind of surprising to me because there were a lot of black people there,” Tengesdal said, recalling a situation that many African Americans can relate to: when black people in a predominantly white setting magically find one another and assemble in one spot just to kick it.

“It was fun. I remember, we were in the hangar, and there was a bunch of us out there,” Tengesdal said, laughing, “and we were like, ‘OK, we have to break this up now.’”

When asked how “race” has affected her training and her time in the various posts she’s held during her military career, Tengesdal explained that because she was often one of few African Americans, that always motivated her “not to mess up.”

“I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to say that I was here because I was a minority or a female,” Tengesdal said. “I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to doubt why I was there.”

Tengesdal said that it doesn’t hurt that military professionals are trained to be extremely confident and, well, a bit egotistical. Pilots and soldiers are dealing with complicated weaponry and equipment, Tengesdal said, so there is really no time for second-guessing yourself or walking around wearing your insecurities on your sleeve.

That kind of self-deprecation, she argued, can cost lives.

“That’s how our community is,” Tengesdal explained. “Typically there is a lot of ego to go around, and as a pilot, you have to be pretty confident in your abilities.” After all, in the Air Force, she and her peers are “trusted with high-volume equipment that can harm people or destroy property.”

Tengesdal said that she had little time to be concerned with how others perceived her as an African American. Rather, she was obsessed with being the best pilot she could be and with conveying her skills to her superiors and her team members, who were relying on her to complete the mission.

When asked if she ever feels conflicted as an African American working in our nation’s armed forces, given the checkered relationship between black Americans and the government, Tengesdal took apart the entire premise of the question, pointing out that black Americans have been fighting for their freedoms and their rights since they were brought to these shores. 

“When people question the patriotism of blacks in the military, I think it’s kind of strange,” she said. “When you look back at the Revolutionary War, black people fought for independence here. Even though we were enslaved, we still fought for what we believe in. We’ve always been fighting for freedom.”

“It’s something that I do willingly alongside other people who have those same ideals, regardless of their background,” she added.

Tengesdal went on to speak about that camaraderie among pilots after she was asked about the Germanwings disaster last week, in which a German pilot is suspected of intentionally flying a commercial airliner into the French Alps, killing everyone on board. She said the story made her extremely sad, not only because so many people lost their lives but also because of the negative light cast on pilots.

“When another pilot dies—civilian or military—it’s a sad day. [I] know the training that is required [for pilots] is extensive, it’s hard. It can be mentally, physically and emotionally hard,” Tengesdal said. “There’s a lot that goes into [being] a pilot.”

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Obama’s “Body Man” on What He Taught the President

US President Barack Obama (R) talsk with

Reggie Love and President Barack Obama

The president’s former “body man” opens up about the “White House Ph.D.” he got just by watching Obama in action.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

An abridged version of this article was published at The Root on March 3, 2015.

Don’t even bother asking Reggie Love about that infamous spades game that he and President Obama reportedly played while Navy Seals were en route to Abbottabad with orders to kill Osama bin Laden.

During an interview with The Root to talk about Reggie’s new book, Power Forward: My Presidential Education, a coming of age story that pivots around the five years he’s worked as a personal aide to Barack Obama, Reggie insisted that the entire spades story was “overblown” in the media.

Reggie wouldn’t divulge any more details about the alleged game (perhaps not wanting to balloon the notion that Obama wasn’t taking the Abottabad mission seriously). But when asked about Obama’s spades game in general, like if the president can, as they say, play his hand, or, whether he underbids (plays it too safe) or overbids (too ambitious), Reggie said that Obama is “a very good spades player.”

“When he’s focusing, he’s good,” Reggie chuckled. “When he’s not, sometimes there’s some slippage.”

“In all fairness, I’m the same way,” the 33-year-old North Carolina native confessed.

Those are the kind of gems that Reggie divulged during our 40-minute conversation about those specials moments that he and the president shared.

Reggie stayed on as Obama’s “body man” during his first term and left in 2012 to pursue a career in business. Now that Love has caught his breath—a bit—and is no longer hopscotching from state to state, and from hotel room to hotel room, making sure Obama is OK and where he needs to be, Power Forward reflects on Reggie’s childhood and his college sports experiences that prepared him for the role. Reggie said he became a much better person having once spent nearly 15 hours a day with Obama.

Yep, 15 hours a day.

One immediately gets a sense of that when hearing Reggie speak. He sounds, well, presidential. I stopped him mid-way through one of his responses and asked if he had undergone media training, or, if he naturally spoke with the same cadence, intonations and a mindfulness that sound eerily like a well-trained politician, or, more specifically, like Barack’s.

“Ohhhh maaan,” Reggie said laughing, “You know my friends tell me the same thing?” he confessed. Apparently, Reggie also developed a habit of gesticulating like the president too.

“I do get made fun of. I never used to have these hand gestures,” Reggie explained.

And then there’s the stuff that Obama learned from Reggie. Putting Obama on to Jay-Z is one of the more well-known examples, but there were substantive lessons too.

reggie and obama

Right after Obama was elected president, then came the task of appointing people to his cabinet and getting them confirmed, a process that Reggie explained was slow and challenging. Some of the people that Obama picked had made semi-controversial comments during press interviews years prior, or, forgot to make mention of a babysitter they had employed on their taxes—fairly innocuous mishaps that people sometimes make, not ever thinking that they’d be asked—by the first African American president no less—to serve in the president’s cabinet.

Reggie described how he advised Obama to chill out and to remember that not everyone always held themselves to the same standards as Obama—a guy who had been engaged in the political process for quite some time at that point.

“You know you can’t hold people to the same expectations that you hold yourself?” Reggie told Obama. “You’ve been on campaigns, you have this down very well and a lot of people didn’t have the same level of scrutiny,” Reggie said to the president-elect.

I then wondered if and how Reggie’s role as Obama’s personal assistant altered his personality? Did he grow leery and suspicious of hanger-on’s who wanted to get close to the guy that’s close to the president? Reggie said that his characteristics are still pretty much intact after the experience. People tell him that he’s still “engaging and approachable,” but, he is very careful about the information the he shares with people.

“You can’t have every conversation with everybody,” Reggie warned.

Reggie made clear that he is well aware, content and at peace with how he will likely never go on to do something “as significant” as work on the campaign that elected the country’s first black president.

“I think that there will not be anything as historically significant that I’ll go on to do,” Reggie said. “I don’t even make decisions around trying to replicate how I was on the presidential campaign that elected the first African-American president.”

When asked if he’d ever run for office, Reggie said that he doesn’t have a “huge desirability today” to get into politics, but did say that regardless of if he ever runs, “being engaged in the process is important.”

“I’m would not try to write the next 32 years of my life.” Reggie vowed to continue to do things that would an impact on his friends, family and community.

If you want to work for Obama, Reggie said, you have to be smart, hardworking, humble, but also have a “decent sense of humor.”

That is best illustrated when Reggie wrote about the time he first bought a pack of peanuts for Obama, having first taken the job and not knowing what kind the then-senator Obama liked. He got into the limo, handed Obama a pack that contained an assortment of peanuts and other snacks. Obama cherry-picked the stuff he wanted and handed the pack right back to Reggie.

“Here you go” Obama said, indirectly teaching Reggie a lesson about paying attention to detail.

“Oh, I got my PhD in the White House. Hands down.”

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Why They’re Heading Out On An 11-City Wedding Engagement Tour

Antoine Kinch and Shaunte Otey in a photo shoot for their wedding-engagement tour. (TE & TOINE FACEBOOK PAGE)

Antoine Kinch and Shaunte Otey in a photo shoot for their wedding-engagement tour. (TE & TOINE FACEBOOK PAGE)

Sure, their 11-city love tour might be a tad excessive. But it’s also a reflection of a generation of African Americans who’ve truly gone global.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

An abridged version of this article was published at The Root on February 14, 2015.

Antoine Kinch hopped onto an ottoman in a swanky New York City rooftop lounge to toast his fiancee and thank their family and friends for making it out to celebrate his and Shaunte Otey’s wedding engagement. Antoine, a 37-year-old engineer, spoke giddily about how he was marrying a longtime friend and a woman whom he at times refers to as a “unicorn” because he still can’t believe that she’s, well, real. Why? Shaunte, also a 37-year-old engineer, is black and—the adjective that makes her oh so surreal—fine. 

“True”—one of Antoine’s engineer friends blurted out midtoast—“not a lot of cute, black female engineers,” he quipped, while everyone laughed. Antoine finished his speech and reminded everyone to use the hashtag #TeAndToine when sharing photos and video from the party on the InstagramTwitter and Facebook accounts specifically created for their wedding-engagement tour.

Yep, you read that right: their tour.

If you’re a friend or a relative of the soon-to-be Kinches and you missed their New York City gathering in January, no worries, you can catch the smiling duo this Valentine’s weekend celebrating with loved ones at another fabulous engagement party in Oakland. And if trekking it to the West Coast proves to be too burdensome, don’t fret, the pair are taking their love celebration overseas at the end of March, where their Italian brethren and sistren can nimble on prosciutto and olives, perhaps, at their engagement festivities in Milan. A couple of days after that, Antoine and Shaunte will be wining and dining with comrades in Munich, Germany, and then it’s off to the Czech Republic to clank beers with their acquaintances in Prague.

I hope the literary equivalent of jetlag hasn’t got you pooped because we’re not done yet. Where were we? Oh, right—Prague. After that, the newly engaged and their Parisian friends will be noshing on croquet-monsieurs, perhaps, at a fine eatery in France towards the beginning of April. And then it’s off to partake in an authentic Sichuan cuisine at wedding engagement gatherings in Beijing and Shanghai.

engagement city guide

Antoine Kinch and Shaunte Otey in signage for their wedding-engagement tour. (TE & TOINE FACEBOOK PAGE)

Sometime in May, they’ll resume the U.S. leg of their tour in the nation’s capital, a stone’s throw from where Shaunte grew up in Virginia. After Washington, D.C., the lovebirds are promising to nail down dates for tour stops in Los Angeles and Chicago.

At this point, some of you are probably furrowing your eyebrows at all the pomp and circumstance of the whole shebang and wondering what possessed them to go to such lengths—literally—for the engagement. (“All he did so far was buy a ring, take a knee and y’all already taking a victory lap?,” wrote one of my editors after seeing their itinerary, which is mocked up like a faux movie poster.)

But during an interview with The Root to commemorate all things “love” this Valentine’s Day weekend, Antoine and Shaunte talked about how their endeavor is equal parts a reflection of the digital times that we live in, where social media is used to document special occasions in people’s lives; the euphoria they feel as late-30-somethings having found “the one” in each other; and, just as important, a natural extension of their lives as travel junkies.

Antoine and Shaunte are proud members of Nomadness Travel Tribe, an online resource for black travelers. The engagement tour was a perfect way to tout their identities as African-American nomads of sorts—a lifestyle that has gained a lot of recognition in recent months because of the online spaces popping up to commemorate the trend.

Shaunte Otey and Antoine Kinch (Facebook)

Shaunte Otey and Antoine Kinch (Facebook)

“Individually, we have had such lives on different coasts and friendships in different pockets,” Shaunte explained. Antoine added that since everyone they know probably won’t be able to make it to the wedding, he and Shaunte thought: “Instead of them coming to us, why don’t we go to them?”

They’ve both already shown signs of a nomadic existence, living and working in the U.S. Antoine grew up in New York and has lived in Boston; San Jose and Oakland, in California; Philadelphia; the state of Maryland; and now Raleigh, N.C. Shaunte, a Virginia native, has lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco and also has a spot in Raleigh. Their passion for traveling has taken them to Brazil, Peru, Turks and Caicos, the Netherlands, Italy, Cape Verde, India, Equatorial Guinea, Mexico and Aruba—just to name a few.

“You’re on the road too much. You travel too much. You’re not going to settle down,” well-meaning loved ones would tell Shaunte, advising her to “sit still” if she wanted to snag a man. Then she attracted her match in Antoine—a guy whom Essence named one of its most eligible bachelors in 2012.

However superfluous the tour may seem to some, it knocks down stereotypes about how black people are rigid, unadventurous and don’t travel. Plus it’s nice that Antoine and Shaunte—middle-class African-Americans from working-class roots—clearly have the coin to luxuriate and explore the world alongside fellow avid travelers.

Shaunte said she and Antoine receive messages from hopeful people who had given up on love, and people who are only now making space in their schedules to start seeing the world. But for Shaunte, as she begins her journey with Antoine, there’s no time like the present.

“It doesn’t make sense to save all of your money until you’re dead,” she said. “I want to experience all that this life has for me.”

She added: “Life isn’t promised.”

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Black in Amsterdam: Should She Return to the US to Expose Her Son to ‘the Struggle,’ or Nah?

Marly Pierre-Louis, her husband and son ,

Marly Pierre-Louis, her husband and son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

Marly Pierre-Louis, an African-American expatriate living in Amsterdam, looks at the #BlackLivesMatter movement under way in the U.S. and wants her young son to identify with that cultural pride. But at what price?

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on February 6, 2015.

Marly Pierre-Louis spotted them out of the corner of her eye. She was sitting on the train in Amsterdam one winter day and did an about-face the second she stepped on the platform so that she wouldn’t have to get a full view of the ridiculousness.

“White Dutch people in blackface, curly hair and red lipstick,” Pierre-Louis, a 31-year-old black American living in Amsterdam, sneered. “It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.”

She’s talking about Zwarte Piet. It’s the Netherlands’ version of one of Santa’s elves, except the Zwarte Piet costume requires that white people wear blackface, a short Afro wig and then, to add insult to injury, fire-engine-red lipstick. It’s as if the Dutch literally snatched a page right out of the minstrel-show playbook.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Jan Arkesteijn/Wikimedia Commons)  COMMONS

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Jan Arkesteijn/Wikimedia Commons) COMMONS

When Pierre-Louis asked her Dutch friends what was the deal with the Mantan-looking characters parading around Amsterdam during Christmastime, they reassured her that the Zwarte Piet costume meant no harm and carried with it no racial connotation. As the story goes, Zwarte Piets have their faces blackened because of the soot inside people’s chimneys. Lest we forget, Pierre-Louis was told, they’re tasked with making their way up and down chimneys, and in and out of fireplaces, delivering toys to well-behaved Dutch kids during the holidays.

It’s a pretty convincing explanation that Pierre-Louis told The Root she has a hard time believing. When asked if she was perhaps looking at an innocuous Dutch tradition through an American lens—as ethnocentric Americans tend to do—Pierre-Louis insisted that her black Dutch friends reassured her that her racism meter wasn’t completely off.

“When you talk to black Dutch people and hear their stories about being teased as kids, and called Zwarte Piet, no one can tell me that it’s not related to race,” Pierre-Louis argued.

It’s that kind of consciousness—one of “Am I being objective here, or looking at this through America’s racial lens?”with which Pierre-Louis sometimes wrestles. But not often, because she says she’s never really had a pronounced experience with race in the nearly two years she’s been living in Amsterdam. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., she, her husband and son, now 3, moved to the Netherlands in 2013 when her husband landed a great coding gig in its capital city, Amsterdam. The Dutch pride themselves on “not seeing race” and being “tolerant” (as if ignoring race eliminates racism, Pierre-Louis noted), but other than that, race isn’t really a biggie in her new life.  

She does foresee it becoming an issue when she thinks about where she and her husband intend to raise their son. A large part of that discussion hinges on what kind of racial identity, or lack thereof, she wants her son to have.

Marly Pierre-Louis’ 3-year-old son. (SOILIVEINAMSTERDAMNOW.TUMBLR.COM)

Marly Pierre-Louis’ 3-year-old son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

The Dutch don’t have a gun culture, Pierre-Louis explains, so one’s black kid is less likely to get shot in the street because someone finds him “suspicious,” she said, referencing Trayvon Martin. She cringes at how “structural racism” in the U.S. is so real, and so blatant, that sometimes it carries with it life-or-death consequences.

“‘So my son can just be walking on the street and somebody kills him?’” Pierre-Louis recalls asking herself. “‘Oh no, I’m not going back to the States,’” she vowed at one point. 

But then she took a gander at the racial culture in Amsterdam.

The Dutch pride themselves on being far too advanced to drive themselves into a frenzy over a social construct called race, which, on one hand, is a good thing, since again, no one is getting shot or being funneled through an inferior public school system or getting substandard health care. (Pierre-Louis marvels at how even the low-end in Amsterdam is pretty high. The Netherlands’ safety net is on fleek.)

Marly Pierre Louis’ husband and son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

Marly Pierre Louis’ husband and son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

But on the other hand, Pierre-Louis says, the Dutch don’t see her, they just admire black American culture. On one hand, she realizes that everything black Americans have gone through—from chattel slavery to Jim Crow, to being disenfranchised and then fighting for those rights during the civil rights movement and beyond—has led to a demonstrative and rich style in the way in which we express ourselves, our music and fashion that Europeans want to emulate.

“I think our history enabled us to be these really powerful creators of culture,” Pierre-Louis described. “It was a beautiful struggle” that created “amazing dynamic people,” she said. Europeans borrow the fashion and use remnants of black culture to make things cool. 

But Pierre-Louis describes how that coolness rarely translates into anything substantive for black Europeans. She and a friend went to see an opera recently that had a picture of a black king on its marketing poster. But when the curtains closed at the end of the production, Pierre-Louis realized that nary a black character appeared in the opera. It was an example, she said, of how blackness is “provocative and exoticized” and used as a cool factor to lure Dutch people in, but then that’s where it ends. “Having black people in the show is not something they were interested in.” 

Pierre-Louis wants her son to identify as a black American and to revel in black cultural pride in a real and genuine way. But she is concerned that gaining admission to that club involves moving back to the U.S. and having him go through “the struggle.”  

“He needs the black [American] experience … I need him to struggle,” she said.

But, as if the gravity of the word “struggle” had sunk in, Pierre-Louis censored herself: “Maybe it doesn’t have to be about the struggle. I don’t think he only needs to be subjected to the struggle of blackness. “I just want him to learn to find power and strength in the madness.”

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Black Cubans: Restoring U.S. Ties is Cool, But America, Keep Your Hang-ups About Race at Bay

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba. All Rights Reserved.

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba. All Rights Reserved.

Will the current racial tension in America seep into Cuba and awaken a sleeping giant? Black Cubans say probably not.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

An abridged version of this article was published at The Root on January 21, 2015.

It doesn’t matter how much Cuba’s culture changes now that the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations, if you’re waiting for black Cubans to set off some sort of racial revolution, don’t hold your breath.

That’s according to a handful of black Cubans who shared their thoughts and experiences with The Root in the edited Q&A below about how the restoration of ties between the U.S. and Cuba might impact black Cubans. They also spoke candidly on how their experiences with “race” compares to the African-American experience—especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Four black Cubans and one mulatto shared their perspectives: Omar Diaz, a 28-year-old black Cuban actor living in Miami, immigrated to the U.S. when he was four years old. He said that while he’s rooting for a democratic Cuba, he hopes that black Cubans will continue to benefit from socialism’s decree that Cubans prioritize nationalism over race.

Ruben*—a 52-year-old black photographer and book publisher. He is the only interviewee that is still living in Cuba and did not emigrate, save for a few business trips to Europe every now and then. Even though he spoke passionately about the race inequality in Cuba, he explained why he and most black Cubans don’t quite see themselves as Afro-Cuban or black Cuban—just Cuban.

afro cuban boys

Afro-Cuban boys playing in Trinidad, Cuba. JPLAVOIE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

First-cousins Elia E. Espuet and Sira Perez, on the hand, both strongly identify as Afro-Cubans. Both women, ages 63 and 62, immigrated to the U.S. when they were teenagers in the late 1960s, Fidel Castro having assumed power in 1959. They could easily pass as African Americans, though they vividly remember how they were advised not to, in order to escape the brutality facing black Americans fighting for civil rights. That distinction—Cuba’s kind of racism versus America’s kind racism—stuck with them. They maintain that black Cubans have it better in some ways on that front.  

Georgina Rodriguez, 53,—their mulatto, as she described herself, cousin (who was categorized as “white” in Cuba when she was born)—doesn’t want Americans spewing their “racial framework” and “neo-conservatism” all over Cuba. She argues the former doesn’t account for all of Cuba’s ethnicities and the latter will only widen the inequality gap.

The Root: What do you think about how the U.S. and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations?

Diaz: It’s about time. President Obama was correct when he sat down, analyzed the situation and found that it hadn’t worked for over 50 years. And even though the U.S. didn’t get everything it should have gotten, in terms of the democratic rights that should be granted to Cubans, I think this is the first step that needed to be taken towards the overall goal of bringing democracy to Cuba. This idea that ‘If we kept the relationship the same, things are going to change,’ obviously wasn’t working.

Espuet: I’m also delighted. Cuba’s economic situation will improve as the tourism and business sectors flourish. But, I do fear that as travel to Cuba expands, so will racism. 

The Root: I’ve heard that concern. The idea that while Fidel Castro’s socialism didn’t bode well for Cuba’s economy—largely due to the downfall of its benefactor, the Soviet Union—it did break some ground with regard to making race less of a thing.

Diaz: Yeah—I spoke to my grandmother about what it was like being a black Cuban during Castro’s socialist regime and she told me that for the first time, she was able to elevate herself and become a school principal—a position that was not previously attainable for a black woman. She and my mother said that when Castro took over, Cubans were conditioned to emphasis nationalism over race.

I’m not saying racism in Cuba is completely gone—because I don’t think you can ever get rid of racism—but the mentality that socialism brought to Cuba is that there isn’t a black Cuba or a white Cuba; we’re all the same. Communism led to that. Under the U.S. embargo, my black grandmother and black mother say their experience with racism was very little—if any at all.

Ruben: It was one of Fidel’s goals, but it was never quite realized because   there were too many people that benefited from having blacks relegated to second class.

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An interracial couple in Havana City with pictures of Ché Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the wall and a bust of Cuban national hero José Marti on the shelf. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Root: With all that being said, do you all think of yourself as a black Cuban or just Cuban?

Ruben: I don’t feel Afro-Cuban—my cultural link to Africa has been minimal to none. In Cuba, the reference to African culture is not as conscious as it is in the U.S. where blacks refer to themselves as African Americans.

Espuet: I absolutely identify as an Afro-Cuban. I am proud of my African heritage. It is an invisible badge of honor that I proudly wield.

But, I must say that when I first left Cuba at age 14, I self-identified as Cuban—not really black. It took years of learning, exploring, understanding and finally accepting what I truly am: a proud black Cuban woman.

Perez: I’m also very proud to identify as black or Afro-Cuban.

A Cuban takes a break near his statue of Saint Lazarus near the Rincon Church in Havana in 2009. Adalberto Roque/Getty Images

A Cuban takes a break near his statue of Saint Lazarus near the Rincon Church in Havana in 2009. Adalberto Roque/Getty Images

The Root: Espuet, you began to touch on this: As American influences trickle into Cuba in the years to come, is there a concern that the racial progress that Castro’s socialism ushered in will become undone?

Espuet: Yes—I’m inclined to believe that as relations with Cuba and the United States go forward, the rich white Cubans will marginalize the black Cubans on the island. Unfortunately, I don’t see things becoming better for black Cubans.

Rodriguez: Agreed. I mean everyone in Cuba—black, white and mulatto—will benefit from better infrastructure and greater access to goods, food and medicine. The Castro regime will no longer have an excuse for its totalitarian control over people’s thoughts or actions and the Cuban people will finally be thrust into the modern world with Internet and everything. But, there is a degree of wariness with regards to the potential socioeconomic inequalities that America’s kind of neo-conservative capitalism brings with it.

The Root: But doesn’t socioeconomic inequality already exist in Cuba? White Cubans are disproportionately represented in politics; they have the best-paying jobs—they live in the best neighborhoods. Socialism certainly didn’t cause that inequality, but it doesn’t exactly allow for social and civic expressions like homosexuality or freedom of speech either.

Rodriguez: African Americans have more equal rights “on paper” than Afro-Cubans, but that hasn’t eradicated racism in American society or its institutions like the police. Look at Ferguson and Trayvon Martin for instance.

In Cuba, the races live side by side much more than they do in the U.S. There is far less de facto segregation in Cuba. Families are so much more mixed and so racial hatred in Cuba doesn’t run as deep as in America, because everyone has a black grandma cooking in the kitchen unseen. So I would definitely say that there is more racial equality in Cuba than in the USA in many ways.

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Afro-Cuban musicians entertain tourists on the streets of Havana. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Root: There’s poverty in Cuba. Black Cubans—who were always marginalized—have felt that Will their financial wellbeing improve if the embargo is lifted and American dollars start to trickle into Cuba with more ease and less restrictions? 

Diaz: Definitely—I’m looking forward to the economic benefits. Most black Cubans aren’t receiving financial help from relatives abroad—like white Cubans do—because remember blacks didn’t leave Cuba at the time of the Revolution. Castro’s policies appealed mostly to the poor, so they stayed. Now that the channels are opening up, someone like me, a black Cuban, can go back to my island, open up a business there, or open up a business here in the U.S. and help my black Cuban relatives.

Rodriguez: Affirmative-action policies will certainly benefit black Cubans.

The Root: What do Cuba and the U.S. have in common when it comes to race relations? What are some of the differences?  

Rodriguez: In terms of similarities, a white or light-skinned Cuban would definitely prefer their children not to marry a “negro” because there is the idea that their descendants are going to take a step back socially—atrasarse.

The Root: I suspect that’s how colorism works here in the U.S.

Rodriguez: But people are very understanding of attraction, lust and love. So interracial couples happen a lot in Cuba and it’s definitely not a taboo; people don’t stare at you and your kids don’t get stigmatized.

The differences: The day-to-day experience of the average black person in Cuba is far less scary than in America. Black lives are not endangered in Cuba simply because there is far less crime and guns are illegal. 

Perez: Yeah, I don’t recall being threatened in Cuba, nothing like the racism here in the U.S. Now racism does exist in Cuba, but again, it’s just different. For instance, when I was a child, I wanted to take ballet lessons at a school in Havana but I knew that was a dream that would never come true because of the color of my skin and not having the right connections.

I also remember looking through the holes of the gate to this exclusive tennis club and dreaming of one day to be able to participate. That was also an impossible dream at the time, but I guess that as a black Cuban, I conformed and accepted our place in society.

A Cuban prepares popcorn for Saint Lazar

A Cuban prepares popcorn for Saint Lazarus pilgrims in Havana, Dec. 2009. Thousands of believers gather annually to fulfill vows made to Saint Lazarus (also referred to as Babalu Aye) for the worshippers of the Afro-Cuban religion. ADALBERTO ROQUE/GETTY IMAGES

The Root: What has it been like being black in Cuba, versus being black in the U.S.?

Espuet: When I first came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 14, race and ethnicity were not questions I thought about at all, but I definitely faced them in the U.S. It was confusing because friends of the family would tell us that being a black Cuban in the U.S. was tantamount to being white. We had a “pass.”

If there were any racial incidents, just let them know you are Cuban and you’ll be O.K.’ they would tell us. What?! This was completely new to me.

Perez: I pushed back against that when the U.S. census tried to identify me as Hispanic only. I made the correction and added “black.” My identity as a black Cuban became even more prominent when my kids—who were growing up in the U.S.—identified themselves as Afro-Americans.

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Sira Perez at age 17 in Kingston, Jamaica, 1970. She had just gotten off the boat from Cuba and was en route to the U.S. COURTESY OF SIRA PEREZ

The Root: What is Cuba’s perception of America’s race relations, especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Espuet:  Back then, I remember being glad that because of my nationality, no one would come after me with dogs and water hoses—a fear I had before leaving Cuba. In the 1960s, there was widespread propaganda in Cuba about how African Americans were being treated in America. I remember telling my mother that I was afraid to go live in the U.S. She had to assure me that we were going to New York, and things like that didn’t happen there. But, racism here in the U.S. is alive and well and rampant. It saddens me to think that in this day and age, it is still a dominating issue among Americans.

An Afro-Cuban dancer perfoms, on May 27,

n Afro-Cuban dancer perfoms, on May 27, 2009, in Havana during the Wemilere festival, the most traditional event aimed at keeping the African roots. STR/GETTY IMAGES

The Root: Do you think black Cubans will become more racially conscious and want to exalt their blackness—for lack of a better term? Bring more awareness to their African ancestry?

Ruben: I don’t think America’s social influence will affect black Cubans. Cuba has been exposed to tourism and has had contact with the developed world for 20 years; that exposure hasn’t triggered a renewed awareness of ethnic identity. Nor has racism has become stronger or weaker, in my opinion.

Diaz: I do think there would be a rise in black culture, but there wouldn’t be a movement to create a Black History Month in Cuba, per se, because again Cubans were conditioned to put nationalism before race. Black Cubans wouldn’t do anything to separate themselves, but more so, to bring more awareness to black culture and to celebrate it.

Black Cuban public figures, like Celia Cruz for example, will be celebrated. If a democracy is put in place and restrictions against certain kinds of activism are lifted, people that need to be celebrated in Cuba are going to be celebrated. And a lot of those people are going to be black Cubans for sure. African culture is in the food and it’s in the music—and those are the two most important things in Cuba. {Laughter}.

The Root: Is that level of racial consciousness a good thing or a bad thing?

Rodriguez: I prefer the racial framework in Cuba and other Latin American countries because there are more options than black or white—an attitude that I think the USA needs to adopt now that there are so many bi- and multiracial people. Notice how Ruben in Cuba rejects the term Afro-Cuban, while Elia and Sira in the U.S. accept it? In my opinion, that’s the U.S. racial framework that Elia and Sire have learned to apply.

*Ruben is a pseudonym. He lives in Cuba and would only speak to The Root on condition of anonymity.

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Root TV: He’s Black, “Illegal” & Torn Over Obama’s New Immigration Actions

Jonathan Jayes-Green bravely came forward to weigh in on how the president’s recent executive actions on immigration will affect his life, and why it is imperative that we connect the dots between the distrust that black citizens and black undocumented immigrants have for law enforcement.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article and Root TV segment was published at The Root on December 15, 2014.

Jonathan Jayes-Green immigrated to the U.S. from Panama when he was 13, but it wasn’t until his senior year in high school, when he began to fill out college applications and financial-aid forms, that he realized how much of an impact his status as an undocumented immigrant would have on his ability to attend college and climb the ladder in America.

But for Jayes-Green, the college process was just the tip of the iceberg as he considered how differently and cautiously some undocumented immigrants have to go about living their lives in the United States. Jayes-Green is Panamanian, but in America he’s a black man first and foremost. And even though Americans tend to think of immigration reform as an issue that largely affects Hispanics, there is a sizable population of black undocumented immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa who are now living, learning and working in the U.S., just like Jayes-Green. They, too, will be affected by President Obama’s recent executive actions that will shield nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

In The Root TV segment above, Jayes-Green speaks with The Root’s Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele about his experiences and sheds light on the similar concerns that black citizens and undocumented communities have about being unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

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Root TV: What Nigerians Thought About #BringBackOurGirls & Americans Wanting to Help

The fervor for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has dwindled and Diana explores what Nigerians made of the world’s fascination with the abduction crisis and whether foreign help was welcomed.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article and Root TV segment was published at The Root on November 28, 2014.

From the vantage point of Nigerians, it must have been an incredibly overwhelming experience to go from being a nation with a decent amount of obscurity, to being at the center of a worldwide social media campaign in just a matter of days.

That’s what happened seven months ago in April, when insurgents from the Boko Haram terrorist group stormed into a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria, in the middle of the night and abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls. The subsequent #BringBackOurGirls Twitter hashtag was born soon thereafter and went viral. People from all over the world held protests, tweeted and crafted Facebook posts expressing outrage and remorse for the families that were experiencing the unthinkable.

But like most humanitarian causes that spark international outrage, the fervor for the movement has since died down and Nigerians are still contending with the conflict, but with fewer outside voices holding their officials accountable and demanding results.

In the Root TV segment above, The Root’s Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele speaks with Chika Oduah—an independent journalist working in Nigeria—about what this entire experience has been like for Nigerians, especially their being at the forefront of the philanthropic cause that was “en vogue” for the better part of 2014. In May, President Obama sent 80 military personnel to the region to assist Nigerian officials with the search—but what did Nigerians think of all the foreign interest and help? Watch and see.

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It’s ‘Civil Suit’ Time. But Do Michael Brown’s Parents Have a Strong Case?

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In light of the grand jury’s decision to shield Officer Darren Wilson from criminal charges, The Root asked a legal expert to weigh in on the civil lawsuit and the civil rights charge that Brown’s parents and the Justice Department could pursue.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on November 25, 2014.

Monday the public learned that a Missouri grand jury found that it did not have sufficient evidence to indict Michael Brown’s shooter, police Officer Darren Wilson.

People are angry and disappointed, but the legal system may not be through with Wilson—or the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department that employs him (although reportedly not for long).

There are “wrongful death” lawsuits that can be filed against Wilson, as well as the civil rights violation charge that the Justice Department can bring against him and regarding the overall conduct of the Ferguson Police Department.

Eric Guster, an attorney and legal expert based in Birmingham, Ala., helped The Root sort through all the pending legal matters that Wilson might find himself embroiled in even after dodging a criminal charge Monday.

1. Even though Wilson was not charged with Brown’s death, can Brown’s parents file a civil suit against Officer Darren Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department?

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Yes. Brown’s parents—Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr.—can sue Wilson for damages in a civil trial, according to Guster. Instead of having to prove Wilson’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—such as is the case in criminal proceedings—they’ll have to prove that there is a “preponderance of the evidence” to hold Wilson liable for damages in the wrongful death of their son.

For context, Oscar Grant’s mother (a handcuffed Grant was shot in the back by a transit officer in Oakland, Calif.) was reportedly awarded $1.3 million—and his daughter $1.5 million—when they filed a civil suit against the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The payment settled a “wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit” filed against BART in federal court by Grant’s family in 2009, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco reported.

2. Since Wilson was not charged, will that influence how strong a case Brown’s parents will have if they decide to file a civil lawsuit against Wilson?

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In terms of how successful a possible civil suit might be for Brown’s parents, Guster explained that it would make things easier if Wilson had been brought up on criminal charges. But even though Wilson was not indicted, it doesn’t mean Brown’s parents should be discouraged from pursuing that route.  

“It’s always easier to have a civil case filed where there is a criminal case as well,” Guster said.

“[Although] the fact that he is not convicted of a criminal case does not necessarily bear weight on the civil case because of the lower burden of proof [needed],” he added.

3. Can the Ferguson Police Department be named in a potential “wrongful death” lawsuit filed by Brown’s parents as well? 

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Yes. Guster explained that he sees two potential culprits in a civil suit involving Brown’s shooting: Wilson and the Ferguson Police Department.

“When a civil lawsuit is filed, you file it against every entity that may bear responsibility,” Guster said. “In a case like this, Brown’s parents would sue Darren Wilson for the death, and the Police Department for the negligent supervision [and employment] of Wilson.”

Money matters in civil suits because a judge decides if the plaintiff should receive an award for his oro her claims. And because Wilson probably doesn’t have a lot of money—like, say, O.J. Simpson did—a suit against the Ferguson Police Department would likely be more fruitful (like the settlement Oscar Grant’s mother and daughter received from BART).  

“In cases like this, you would go after the deep pockets—the city of Ferguson—and anyone else who was responsible for Darren Wilson’s employment,” Guster said.

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WATCH: Let’s 86 the Term ‘Dark-Skinned’ & Settle on Chocolate-Complexioned. Deal?

The Root TV gives a pretty convincing case for why we should start using more descriptive vocabulary to describe different complexions, and stop thinking of white skin as the reference point.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article and Root TV segment was published at The Root on November 19, 2014.

When CNN’s John King used the term “dark-skinned” to describe the individual that he thought was an alleged suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, he was widely criticized for not being descriptive enough and also for using a charged phrase that carries with it racial connotations.

“There are some people who will take offense for even saying that,” King said during the live broadcast in April 2013. “I understand that.”

With regard to his reporting, King turned out to be dead wrong: The perpetrators of that terrorist attack were two white Chechen brothers; but more importantly, the incident revealed how arbitrary the phrase “dark-skinned” can be and the power of language.

In The Root TV segment above, The Root staffers Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele and Diamond Sharp explain why they have a personal vendetta against the term and why more descriptive vocabulary like “chocolate-complexioned” should be used to describe individuals with brown skin tones. Plus, “dark-skinned” seems to suggest that white, porcelain skin is the starting point when discussing skin hues—and that’s not the case.

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