Sometime in late fall of 2009, a very good friend and colleague invited me to a resource fair that her organization was to participate in. It was late fall, I remember, because D.C. had not yet frozen over, and it was still warm enough to go without gloves. I woke up in an urban mood and had ditched the usual slacks and blazer for a more casual look: blue jeans, knee boots and a sweater. For the slight cold, I wore a black parka and a brimmed hat. Big, gold hoop earrings complemented the look.
The event was held inside the gymnasium of a neighborhood community center, which sat in the middle of Sursum Corda housing projects, the site of 14-year-old Jakhema Hansen’s murder four years prior and my weekly home visit to a 45-year-old bedridden woman who was being exploited by her family because of her lifelong housing voucher. I stopped to text my supervisor to let her know where I would be. It was a precaution implemented a few months earlier because of the raging gang war. Sursum Corda’s cul-de-sac was a scary reminder that, if something went down, there was only one way in and one way out.
When I entered, a table of chatty white women in pearls was positioned near the door of the gym. One of them noticed me, said hello and directed me to a sign-in sheet. When I finished writing my name, she handed me a paper with the word "goals" printed at the top.
I stared at the paper for two seconds, trying to make sense of what I was being asked to do. When it finally dawned on me, I smiled politely. "Oh, I'm not a client. I'm a social worker."
A second of confusion passed across her face.
"Oh, I'm sorry! You don’t have to sign on this sheet,” she said lightheartedly as she directed me to another sheet labeled "providers." She busied herself collecting brochures and business cards to add to a bag while I added my name to the growing list of clinicians visiting for the day. “Are you just here to check out some resources for your clients?"
"Yep.” I half-smiled, half-stared when I took the bag from her, deposited it to my purse.
“Great!” She extended her arm to direct me to the next stop. “Feel free to walk around!”
“Thank you.” I moved to the mouth of the gym where two white women greeted me.
“Good morning!” they said sweetly, in unison.
I smiled and opened my mouth to form the reply when one of them said. "What goals will you be working on today?"
This time, through gritted teeth and a full stare: "I'm not a client, I'm a social worker."
* * *
On my fifth day in Belize, on a sweltering June afternoon in 2011, I decided to treat myself to coffee and ice cream — a treat for surviving another summer day in the Caribbean. From the restaurant’s entry, I noticed two black women sitting on the veranda. Hell bent on making new friends, I chose a table next to theirs and pulled out the only book I’d brought for my six-week stay, "Standing at the Scratch Line," by Guy Johnson. I was on page 17 and terribly disinterested, reading the paragraphs on the page over and over. I couldn’t tell if it was the plot or the heat that kept me from reading further.
It took only five minutes for the ladies to notice me.
“Hello!” The older of the two said, smiling at me. Her accent was northeastern American. She had thick salt-and-pepper hair that was cropped around her brown face. Her skin was smooth and blue turquoise earrings dangled from her ears.
The other one smiled.
“Hi! How are you?” I lifted my sunglasses and let them rest on top of my head, squinted at the brightness.
“We’re good. You’re American? Where are you from?” The older lady asked wiping a coffee spill from her white tank top.
“I’m here from D.C., volunteering for the summer.” The waitress set a bottle of water down and I turned my head to give my order. I looked back over, and the other woman was staring off over the balcony, disinterested.
“Aaaah, I love D.C.! Where are you staying?”
“I’m with the Robinsons,” I said, pointing to my home for the summer: A two-story house built by the hands of my host parents. On the upper deck was my room, with a private bathroom and a view that overlooked all of San Ignacio.
“Oh, you here with ProWorld?” the other lady said flatly, with a heavy patois accent. She barely made eye contact when she asked the question and then let her eyes drift to her purse while she fumbled around inside for something.
“No, I’m here at Mary Open Doors. It’s a domestic violence agency run by Anna Silva.”
The woman glanced me over in silent annoyance. “Anna Silva, huh? She Belizean?”
I’d come to know ProWorld quite well, just in the week I’d been in the country. It was a service conglomerate that sent hundreds of volunteers to Belize to fill gaps left by the underfunded systems that plagued the country. Similar to organizations in the U.S. like AmeriCorps, Lutheran Social Services and Habitat for Humanity, most of these volunteers are young, privileged and educated. And white.
Just like their American counterparts in poor, urban neighborhoods, Belizeans met these service organizations with bittersweet feelings of contempt and gratitude. It’s hard to live where do-gooding white folk come and pick up where your community falls short: new playgrounds, community gardens, freshly painted schools.
And yet, there I was battling a kind of privilege I never realized I had: restraining myself from correcting Belizean children, controlling my irritation with my host family because there wasn’t enough bacon for seconds and wearing inappropriate clothes to court (a dress that landed way to far above my knees). It came out in my fear of drinking lemonade made with tap water from the house of a woman who lived in a tin shack and my outrage of a criminal justice system 50 years behind the U.S., that allowed a child sex abuser to be in the same courtroom as his eight-year-old victim.
So, I couldn’t be mad at the Belizean woman who was visibly annoyed by my presence, as I had been with the group of white women who mistook me for a client. Perhaps their misperception of me was based on how I was dressed. In the end, they were only there to do good, because others hadn’t. They only wanted to give back because of some internal mission to save or help or manage their white guilt. The same guilt I felt meeting a client whose English wasn’t strong enough to communicate her needs or watching my host family piecemeal dinner toward the end of the month while they waited for the monthly allotment for my stay. I empathized with the Belizean woman’s irritation and appreciation of me, in her country, coming to help "their people" — those unfortunate products of their environment, poor and needy.
Ajia Meux is a graduate student in Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication studying strategic communication. She is a graduate of Howard University's School of Social Work.
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