Being a Black American Woman in Athens
What it was like being American in Athens
What it was like being a woman in Athens
What it was like being black in Athens
Personal stories about racial tension during the trip
Beside a statue near the Ancient Agora
Being black. Being American. Being a woman. Three very different things that can overwhelmingly affect an experience abroad, especially when they intertwine. However, it really depends on where you go—or more specifically—the social or socio-political situation of where you go during the time you go there.
That said, I’ll cut right to the chase: Even though Greece is a very ethnically homogeneous country, I didn’t feel any significant discomfort about being a black American woman in Athens. When I say that, though, what I mean is that inhabiting this specific intersection didn’t seem to garner me the attention I’d received in other places, like Morocco or even in the U.S. However, I did feel a difference when it came to each induvial quality before they intersect.
So, that’s how I’ll proceed: I’ll talk about each of those identifiers individually throughout the post. Spoiler alert, though: My experience with one inspires much more commentary than the others.
Tourist selfie at the Aeropagus, adjacent to the Acropolis
Some young men, presumably Greek, shouted “American! American! American!”, pointing at each of us as we walked down the street one evening. By “us” I mean me and two other female students.
While walking in the market late morning, I had a restaurant owner shout across the street simply to ask where I was from.
However, whenever I get asked this question abroad, it’s usually because of my blackness, which is why they’re always surprised to learn I’m American.
One of the American students helped an older disabled woman off the bus. The woman asked where she was from and the student said she was from the United States. However, the woman didn’t understand, so instead she said she was from America, and then the woman nodded her head.
I later observed something similar in other countries. The United States is more commonly referred to as “America”, as if we singlehandedly lay claim to the entire North American continent (or possibly both American continents). I’m not surprised, though; the political & pop culture powerhouse of the U.S. does tend to overshadow our other continental neighbors.
Being a woman
Posing at the Aeropagus
The gender population in Greece has been almost evenly split between male and female for the past few decades
Sex & sexuality was very present in Greece, or at least, more present than in the U.S. (and undeniably more present than in Qatar). It was interesting because on one hand, a lot of places and posters in Athens seemed to cater to a male audience unproportionally to a female audience. But on the other hand, the openness of sex seemed split 50/50; women seemed just as sexually liberated as men when it came to, well, everything.
Western & Southern Europe has a history—and definitely a present status—as being more sexually open than the United States. Greece is regarded as one of the most sexually liberated countries in the region and it’s also very forward-thinking when it comes to LGBT+ rights. I learned that “same-sex activity” has been legal in Greece since 1951, and since then, a variety of gender and sexuality rights (and revisions) have been continuously given to individuals in Greece as recent as 2018.
There are some other Greek islands that are more popular than the mainland for their LGBT+ scene, but Athens itself was very queer-friendly.
Generally speaking, sexism didn’t seem to be a huge issue in Athens. However, here’s a simple article about the way the overall European debt crisis has effected women in Greece (and how it all connects to traditional gender roles in the country). The article is interesting food for thought, I’d say.
I’d read about a few experiences of catcalling in Greece but, generally speaking, catcalling (and unwanted touching) didn’t seem to be a big problem. It seemed more like a situation of a few bad eggs sometimes tainting the bunch as opposed to it being a social norm.
My face when I think about talking about race . . . again.
Greece is majority Greek. In 2018, 91% of its citizens were Greek, 4.5% were Armenian, and most of the other top few were a mix of people from other European origins. This means Greece was—and as of 2019 still is—almost entirely white.
A significant reason for this is due to population exchanges between Greece & Bulgaria (in 1919 after WWI) and Greece & Turkey (in 1923 after the Greco-Turkish War).
Not including myself or the students in the group, I saw seven black people in Athens over the course of eight days.
There was a group of black African men performing in Monastiraki Square a few nights. Dancing and playing music, they usually garnered a big audience, and it was always the job of one of the men to walk around and ask the crowd for money. When he approached me, he playfully urged, “C’mon my sista!” and though I would have loved to have spotted him a euro, it wasn’t in the budget. He moved on, no problem, but it was cool to be reminded of the black community that exists worldwide, especially when we’re a minority.
Long story short, racial tension in Greece wasn’t a huge problem. The worst that will happen as a black person is that you’ll probably get stared at a lot.
At the time of the trip, I was going to remove my long overdue yarn twists and install some bantu knots. However, a black faculty member suggested I not do that, probably because they thought it would be better for me to not look too black (and bantu knots highlight the sculptural of black hair more than extensions). They probably figured I’d already attack enough attention as is and to attack more attention would increase the likelihood of potential problems.
Like anywhere, though, there is racial tension to be found in Greece—both casual racism and the occasional extremist group—but it was nowhere near that of the U.S. at the time.
Being Black in Athens: Story Time
Story time! Here’s a flower.
My direct experience with racism during the trip
I’d like to believe the entirety of this situation was a one-of-a-kind incident that doesn’t happen often—neither in Qatar nor on school trips—but because it did happen, I’ve got to talk about it.
Enter the apparent racist: He was white, he was European, he was an expat, he was a student, he was in his late 20’s/early 30’s (I think), he was a he, and his name was a clerical error.
Now, picture this: It was early evening when I arrived at the Student Center in Education City. Seeing some of my friends, all of whom were black, I joined them at a patio table. As I approached them, though, I saw that they were already engaged in a mildly heated conversation with the guy I just described. The debate boiled down to the guy saying, and I quote, “White people are the superior race” while the black people were collectively saying something to the effect of “That’s some top-notch racist bullshit”.
Thing is, something felt off about this conversation. It didn’t quite sound like a real debate, the kind of conversation where two people try to adamantly convince the other person of their point. But it also didn’t seem like a mock debate, a charged but innocent exploration of a complicated topic. It seemed stuck somewhere in between, like a bad joke or a sly way of expressing genuine racism under the guise of a joke. Whatever it was, though, this was my first interaction with the guy, and I decided to just keep quiet and observe.
Simultaneously, I was waiting for another one of my friends to arrive, a friend who just so happened to be Filipino. When he finally arrived, the guy said something to the effect of “we don’t need any more colors in this conversation”, and it was then that both I and my friend decided it was time to leave.
I later asked the black students what was up with this guy, thinking that maybe—just maybe—that conversation had been some sort of dark humor or intellectual exercise. In response, though, they all simply asserted that he was indeed a racist, explaining that this wasn’t the first time he had said some racist things unapologetically.
As you might can imagine, I didn’t have a very good first impression with this guy. So, when I found out we were travelling together, I thought to ask someone who knew him better if there was something about him that I wasn’t seeing, or at the very least I wanted to follow up on whether or not he was the blatant racist he appeared to be. The “someone” I asked was a black, female, faculty member and they were surprised to learn he’d spouted such racist comments out of his mouth. Apparently, that was out of character for him.
At this point, I really didn’t know what to make of this guy, but what I did know was that I had no interest in conversing with him or being in his company more than necessary. On the first day of the trip, though, he confronted me, acknowledging that my first impression of him was probably not-so-great. However, he didn’t exactly apologize for what was said; instead, he dismissively stated that it was a joke that the black guy started, completely omitting himself from playing any role in the argument. So, in response I said, “Even f it was a joke, and even if he did start it, that doesn’t mean you have to further it, especially if you recognize it’s racist.”
To add, I wasn’t convinced that the conversation I had borne witness to had simply been an inappropriate joke between friends, especially because jokes—even terrible 20-minute long inside jokes—are supposed to be funny. Considering that not a single person was laughing (and that the people he was “joking” with followed up by describing him as a racist) I’m not sure if it counts as a joke.
Throughout the trip, though, I got the impression that this guy was overall just a, shall we say, work in progress. For example, while on the metro he looked at a Muslim woman and her child then said to me, “A few years ago I would have thought they were terrorists, but now I know they’re not.” The comment came out of the blue and I think in response I said, “Oh yeah? Well . . . that’s good?” I didn’t quite know what to say, but after that interaction—and a couple more that followed—it seemed like this guy was in the middle of transitioning from a racist xenophobic halfwit to a tolerable human being. This made me reflect upon that “joke” debate, and I wondered if perhaps he was just trying to explore and exercise his own thoughts in order to reflect on them himself. I wondered if perhaps he was purposefully putting himself in situations to be challenged so that he could get some new perspectives on subjects he had begun to reconsider.
Or, maybe he was just racist. It could go either way.
American baggage abroad
I write more about the idea of “American baggage” and the effect it can have on an experience abroad in the post Boldly Go, but here’s the quick definition: When you apply the issues you’re accustomed to in your home country to your stay in a foreign country. This sort of baggage is usually negative, and, to an extent, you can’t help but bring it with you on a journey abroad, especially if it’s all you know. That’s why the trick is learning how to not let it rule over the entirety of your experience, including your interactions with people. In the case of America, especially as a female person of color, our “baggage” usually encompasses race, class, and gender. That said, the American students naturally brought some American baggage. However, they didn’t apply the baggage to the Greek experience abroad, which was good. What did happen, though, is that all the tensions associated with this baggage swirled around within the group and festered. By the end of our trip, issues of race, “reverse-racism”, political-correctness, over-sensitivity, sexism, classism, harassment, politics, and history boiled over into an hour-long (or longer) group discussion to vent, decompress, and clear the air.
When it came to being black, being a woman, and being American, Athens didn’t throw me any unwanted curveballs. Was I uncomfortable at times? Sure; I had never been in a huge, homogenous environment like that. However, I didn’t get the sort of discrimination that I, as someone with an American POC perspective, would have anticipated. If anything, it seemed like most of that kind of tension came from within the group itself, not Athens. In fact, I had two Greek strangers actually look out for me: A woman on the bus told me to tuck in my purse because she knew I was at risk for pickpocketing and a woman on the subway snatched me inside right before I was crushed by the doors during my first metro ride.
So, in short, Greece was chill when it came to the topic of this post. There wasn’t a sense of “We are the majority; you must assimilate or face repercussions” which is how a lot of countries around the world are. Instead it was more like, “We’re Greek, we have our identity, you have yours, and that’s fine,” but not in a problematic way, not in an “us vs. them” kind of way. Being in Athens was like being an Oreo cookie in a cup of vanilla Dip n’ Dots; I didn’t melt in with the rest of the ice cream, but I also wasn’t expected to.