As I prepare to study abroad, I have constantly been at odds with one question – what should I do with my hair? Should I tame my wild afro with the straightener? Should I go with a nice weave or sew-in? Maybe box braids or micros would be better suited for swimming in the ocean and hiking through forests. Or maybe, I should just own my wild Afro – which would at least keep the heat of the Central American sun off my shoulders. After all, my Afro is probably the only hairstyle that would actually prosper in humidity. I worry whether my host family will be shocked my curly-do or if I will be comfortable walking around at night with my bonnet on or with my hair in cornrows. Will they like my hair at all? Will they feel the need to touch it grab it, a problem I often face in America, as well? I wonder if my hair will become a nuisance at the beach; whether it will attract sand and ocean salt. And more practically, I wonder how I will fit all my hair products in my suitcase without exceeding the impossible 50lbs weight limit.
However, I know that my uncertainty lies less with the style of my hair and more with the challenges of navigating my blackness in another country. White westerners offer a charm and grace perpetuated by the media that my people have never been privileged to. Their blonde hair, blue and green eyes, and pale skin are recognized in America as the traditional standard of beauty. Abroad, they maintain a sort of mysticism and enchantment – the symbol of “the American Dream” and prosperity. Meanwhile the image of African Americans both abroad and here in the U.S. is much different. At home, people clutch their purses as I walk by and without even hearing me speak, perceive me as “ghetto” and loud. As for other countries, I can recall in how when I lived in Germany as a child, the local Germans would through cigarettes out the window at my brothers and I as we walked home from the bus stop. Whether at home or abroad, African Americans face a certain unspoken challenge – simply being themselves.
I cannot pretend to know what the racial climate is in Costa Rica. After all, in many countries race is perceived much differently than in the United States. Additionally, Costa Rica is home to its own vibrant Afro-Tican culture along its eastern coast. Neither can I hide my hesitation or ignore the limitations that my skin color might very well have. All I can do is continue to embrace my blackness and the unique opportunity set before me – to challenge traditional international views of what it means, and looks like, to be an American; to change the way just one person views my culture whether they be Costa Rican (a Tico/a) or an American. And who knows, maybe they will like my after all.