I know at least five black people in Ukraine right now.
One of them is me and the other are also Peace Corps volunteers in my group.
Benny keeps saying that he sees black people in Chernihiv, but I have yet to see any.
Let’s talk about Benny. Benny is the only guy in my cluster of five. He has to deal with four fierce, strong-willed women who aren’t shy about speaking their mind (aka complaining) on a regular basis. He also gets to hang out with four fierce, strong women who happen to also be awesome. He’s lucky of course.
Benny is African-American. Since I am half-black, I’m obviously much lighter than him. In fact, I am often the lightest in my family. That includes my mother who is, in fact, white. (My host parents refer to her as “Mama vanilla.”)
Before coming to Ukraine, I thought I had mentally prepared myself to be the darker than pretty much everyone I interacted with for the next two years. So far, I haven’t faced many challenges.
Part of that I think is my location. I live in a tiny village where, as I mentioned before, everyone knows everyone. Everyone in the village knows where I live and who I live with, so they stare, but they also know who I am. I’m not that unusual. I think that it also helps that I’m A. not the first volunteer of color in the village and B. not the only volunteer of color in the village.
On Sundays, Benny and I hang out. We go into the city, run some errands and usually eat somewhere. We call these “minority hangouts.” I think simply recognizing that our experience of the next 26 months will be profoundly different than many of our fellow volunteers is something important to both of us and it has been very refreshing to be able to talk to him about things.
The other, more selfish, reason that I love these “minority hangouts” is that people ignore me. When I am the only person of color in a group here, whether we’re at a restaurant, walking around the city, or even on a marshutka, I get stared at.
All the time.
I’m kind of always vaguely aware that I’m being watched. It’s usually fine because as soon they notice that I noticed that they’re staring, they turn away. Kids don’t have that inhibition, which can be fun.
When I hang out with Benny, people don’t stare at me at all. They’re all looking at him. Which, selfishly, is nice to not be the one stared at. At the same time, Benny is way more popular than me in the village. After class, students ask to take selfies with him. I don’t get selfies. I’m not black enough I guess.
We find out our site placements next week. At that point, I’ll find out where I’ll spend the next two years. We had an interview last week to express any wishes that we had about that and I mentioned that I would love to be placed in a village about the size I’m in now.
Benny expressed it best when he said “It’s good to be black in the village.” He meant it lightheartedly at the time, but being a person of color in the village, I don’t feel like the odd one out, I feel like I belong. The people of this village have taken me in, my host parents protect me, other people look out for me.
It is definitely good to be black in the village.