Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Black Peace Corps Volunteer

By Shervin Stoney

Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean (Dominca) Group 84

Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Dominica has caused me to be more aware of my race than I have ever been in my entire life.  While I was born and raised in the Caribbean, I am very different from people here in Dominica.  I am an anomaly.  I am a black Peace Corps volunteer
.  I am certainly not the first black Peace Corps volunteer to serve in Dominica or the Eastern Caribbean.  As a matter of fact, there are two other black Americans serving on Grenada and St. Lucia from my class in addition to a current black female volunteer serving in Dominica.  Nevertheless, we are enough of a rarity that many people are still surprised at the color of our skins.

Two of the first conversations I had with members of my community after arriving in Grand Bay were regarding my race.  The first individual asked me if “they have black Peace Corps volunteers now?”  I responded with a keen “yes.”  The second encounter was not a question, but rather a statement: during an introduction, a young fellow told another individual, “ignore the fact that he is black, he is still Peace Corps.”

While these are the most distinct conversations in my memory, they are not isolated happenstances. Similar conversations have occurred on other occasions.  The difference from then to now is that my understanding of what the Dominicans are saying has changed.  At first I did not understand how to process what was being said to me.  I have come to realize that they appreciate that I was born in the Caribbean, but even more so that I am black.

I am not suggesting in this post that at any point in my life I thought I was anything but black; but you are more aware of something if it is constantly a point of discussion.  My race never was a point of conversation as often when I was living in Jamaica or the United States.  The most common comment I receive now is, “I am happy there are black Peace Corps volunteers now.”

To be honest, when I discovered I would be serving in Dominica, I was expecting to integrate easily and blend in with the crowd. But the opposite as happened because, while I am assimilating well, learning about the culture and making friends, my integration has varied from my initial presumptions. As the statement goes, “I stick out like a sore thumb.”  My race makes me stand out from past and current volunteers because I am not “fair-skinned.”

In the mid-90s the Peace Corps director began to focus a great deal of resources on recruiting minorities.  This was to ensure that the Peace Corps represented the entire nation as a whole and not just the "fair-skinned" race.  The importance of recruiting volunteers that are not only black, but represent every facet of the American racial spectrum is more relevant today ever.  We are living in such a globalized world, but Americans maintain a limited view of the world while the world also continues to have a limited view of the United States.  It is what America is projecting in movies, on television, and in advertisements, that people around the world see. The Peace Corps serves the role of a cultural exchange program that allows for real conversations all around the world about the different faces of America. It enables the expansion of cultural understanding, not only to its volunteer corps, but to people across the globe. 

No comments: