Crossing Cultures: How Race and Gender May Affect Your Abroad Experience by Grant Lewis

Having the privilege of already going to Spain (where I am currently studying abroad) for two weeks when I was Junior in high school, I already had a good idea of what to expect when I arrived in Madrid. The same cannot be said for my time abroad in Argentina. Having spent almost two semesters in two different countries, I have made a few missteps, whether it was awkwardly greeting someone (handshake or cheek kiss? I DON’T KNOW!), or saying the wrong word for something or saying it in the wrong accent. I have also encountered a number of cultural differences that have really made me reflect on how my life compares to the lives of others. Growing up in Iowa City and going to school at Tulane, both fairly liberal, politically correct, and socially conscious places (with obvious counter examples: e.g. the recent KA Trump Wall), I assumed that Argentina (as well as a few of the various countries I have travelled to while abroad in Spain) would also share similar values. While in almost every country the expectations and reality do not match up perfectly, I think the most surprising example of crossing cultures for me was encountering, learning about, and comparing the political incorrectness and racism present in Argentina with that of the United States.

Before I elaborate, it is important to note the difference between intent and effect when discussing the political incorrectness of Argentina. Furthermore, it is important to note the difference between political incorrectness and racism. Merriam Webster defines political correctness as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people” and racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Racism is a universal problem that exists in almost every country in some way, shape, or form, and I believe that both racism and political incorrectness, just like in the United States, are present in Argentina, however in a more obvious and overt fashion. It’s also important to note that obviously not all Argentines are political incorrect and are certainly not all racist. From personal experience, the host mother I lived with was one of the nicest and most accepting people I have met. However, it is clear that both of these things, just like in the US, are very present.

To give an example of political incorrectness, while in the US it is offensive to greet an overweight person as “hey fat!” or an African American as “hello black!” in Argentina it is the complete opposite. In Argentina, one would address an overweight person as “gordo,” and anyone with darker skin as “negro,” “negrita,” etc. From personal experience, when walking somewhere from school with my Asian-American female friend, random groups of people (almost always young males) would yell various phrases such as “Konichiwa” or “Ni hao” at her. They would also pull their eyelids back to resemble the stereotype to get her attention and signal their interest in her, making her very uncomfortable. While people are more upfront in Argentina, and in this instance, likely do not have the intention to harm anyone, the effects of their political incorrectness are felt by their targets, especially when they come from more politically correct backgrounds.

In addition to having an overweight body type and being part of a minority race, being a female draws you generally unwanted attention via catcalls, whistles, etc (also present in the US), deriving from the Machismo culture of Argentina. So while there is often not an intent to offend or make someone feel uncomfortable, it is often the effect. That being said, while being politically incorrect doesn’t always involve bad intentions, being racist does.

The following quote is from an African American student’s entry in the IFSA-Butler abroad blog from the fall semester:

“As a black woman I did not go one single day without having at least 2 or more men cat call me, or someone stare at me. I was warned before embarking on this trip that I might face these things as a woman of color because “there are no blacks in Argentina”. However, through investigation I found out that this was false. Although many in the city do not believe and may not have ever seen blacks or indigenous peoples, they do exist. I saw them, met them, and engaged with them. And I even wrote my research paper on the history of blacks or afro-argentines in the country and the explicit and implicit tactics in which the Argentine society attempted to silence and erase their presence. And even after writing and presenting this paper, I was still questioned about the validity of my findings, even by professors. It was only until I showed photos of this silenced and hidden community that I was believed, and with great shock.”

This quote not only mentions the problems with being a woman in a culture dominated by machismo, it also exemplifies a racism problem that still exists in Argentina, evidenced by an educated professor’s denial of black oppression, as well as numerous examples I found online citing racial slurs and discrimination (e.g. refusal into restaurants, clubs, buses, etc.). This problem stems from a number of factors, including stereotyping, misunderstandings, and lack of awareness, and is not just present in Argentina. The United States also has a problem with marginalizing minorities, via aspects such as access to job opportunities and the criminal justice system, as we learned about through our freshmen required reading, The New Jim Crow.

Tying these experiences into my own, it is very important to recognize that I personally, as a white male, have faced zero harassment or discrimination. So while I thoroughly enjoyed my time abroad in Argentina and love it here in Spain, I am now also very aware that unfortunately ones race and gender, due to the views of others about/against each aspect, can detract from his/her experience abroad. Sadly, people in a less privileged position than myself, especially when visiting a country unfamiliar with their race, often have to overcome struggles that I will never have to face just because I am part of a different demographic.

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