Over the course of one hour, the barber would give me three haircuts. I looked like a cross between Lionel Messi and Lionel Richie.
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Finding a good haircut became my monthly goal in each country. There were a lot of misses, to the point where I just started buzzing my whole head bald throughout South America, but there were some success stories as well.
A brilliant South African man in Prague gave me shaving advice for my type of hair I should be using a single blade razor. I have tried, and failed, to explain why a good barber means so much to me. Look at it this way: At least a few times every year, I meet someone who has literally never even touched someone with dark skin in their life. I just get to be.
The always drunk group of people start to go through the usual pop hits and karaoke standards until someone gets bold drunk enough to throw a rap song into the queue.
Is this the day a white person drops the n-bomb during a song? Either way, it always ends the same way: With glances towards me, an awkward pause, and then everyone quickly yelling to skip to the next song. And every time, I wonder: I miss the old Kanye. But sometimes, the exact opposite of all that happens. Maybe someone drank too much. Maybe they got so comfortable around me that they forgot to see me as a Black Person and just started seeing me as their friend AKA White. The Racism You Expect. I did not have high hopes for Eastern Europe.
But then again, they voted Leave.
There you are, racism! It was a crash course of all the usual hits: Cab drivers refusing to pick me up, being overcharged at restaurants for no discernible reason, and being accused of shoplifting and almost dragged away by a mall cop. It sucked, but it was almost nostalgic.
Home is where the annoying everyday racism is. A weird amount of people I met during the year went out of their way to tell me that I was the first Black person they ever talked to at length. So, let that one sink in. One woman in London told me that after we had talked at a party for, I shit you not, 20 minutes. If she had only possessed the temerity to sit through an entire episode of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air , Will Smith would have had me beat by two minutes.
And for some people, the realization that they have access to a friendly and non-threatening Black guy triggers something inside them. Nowhere in my job description is it listed that I have to spend my free time walking people through their First Racial Interaction, so these impromptu interviews got less fun as the year went on. I literally went around the world and never encountered subtle and overt racism like the kind that came from some of the Americans I travelled with.
None of them put on a hood and told me to go back to Africa. These moments would always sneak up at me over dinner or drinks.
It started with someone asking a well-meaning if fucking baffling and tone-deaf question about my racial identity, and then talking over me as I tried to explain my view. It was them drunkenly assuring me that racism was in my head, or a result of my attitude. It was someone insisting that they had hung out with me at a club the night before, unwilling or unable to see that they were talking to a completely separate Black Guy.
It was being told, over 20 agonizing minutes, why my relationship with my biological father is typical for African-American males. Well, in my third week here in Barcelona my phone was stolen. It was a guy from a neighbouring country to where my family is from in West Africa. That night on the beach when he stole my phone he came over to my friends joking and laughing. Fast forward and a few moments before he said goodbye, he grabbed my phone from my pocket and ran away.
You guys are not the same. A few weeks after the phone incident I went to Las Ramblas which is the famous shopping street here in Barcelona just to take a walk. As usual there were lots of African men on this strip selling false merchandise. I stopped to talk to a few of them and ended up spending my entire evening out there with them. We talked about the different reasons for which we had come to Spain. Many of them had come as young teenagers to work.
I came for graduate school. We talked about what we did for a living. They sold fake goods on Las Ramblas Monday to Sunday, in some cases morning till night. I babysit 6 hours a week. They asked me where I was living and consequently how much I was paying to live there. I found out that a few of them were living together in an apartment outside of the city with no light or heat.
Throughout our conversation we would continuously have to move around as the police would come and make the guys tie up their mats and move their pitches elsewhere. In these conversations, on this night, I understood what my mom had said to me weeks beforehand.
While I was in class writing essays about immigration, they were out in the streets of Barcelona living that reality. Every law and policy I was studying was actually impacting their lives.
I missed going to the malls and also seeing black people shopping at the same stores as me. Or walking down the street in my neighbourhood and seeing my black neighbour also leave his or her home. Or going to the bank and having my cheque deposited by a black man or women.