Racism.  It’s out there.  It’s all around.  But what is it?  
I mean, I know how scholars define it and I’ve listened to many people in the US and Ecuador talk about it.  But what does it mean to me?  For this post, I decided to go out on a little limb and discuss the affects of racism on my life in the US and the effects of race on my life here in Ecuador.
In the United States, I came from a family who would never claim that they had racist tendencies, but I learned quickly that it was best to identify with our own color.  A door to door salesman came to our door once and I remember, at a young age in the 1970’s, listening to my mom berate him through the chained crack in the door.  She told him in a quivering voice that he didn’t belong here, and then she shut the door quickly in his face.  I had never seen my mother act like that before, and so I ran to another room to look out the window at who she would treat this way.  He was black.  I started to get the picture.   
In the 3rdgrade, the school district closed my beloved elementary school and I, with about 10 other white kids from my neighborhood were intentionally bused to a predominantly black and Latino school.  I learned quickly to keep my head down and my mouth shut.  I was the minority.  I hated it.
In 6thgrade, I brought home a story I was supposed to read about Martin Luther King, and my mom gave a full monologue about the kind of rubbish the schools were peddling.  “Don’t believe any of it”, she said, “he was a trouble-maker.”  I remembered the salesman.  I remembered her palpable fear.  We fear what we don’t know.  It all became more clear. 
My senior year of high-school I asked to have an end-of-the-year party in our big basement.  As we were making plans, I boldly informed my parents that I had friends of many colors.  I was inviting them all.  And, furthermore, as my parents, they were going to be nice to everyone.  Nothing was said.  We had a great party.  
When I became a teacher of the elementary grades, I made sure to make a big fanfare to my family about how I was teaching children of all colors, of all backgrounds, and of different legal statuses.  How I needed to learn Spanish so that I could communicate with my immigrant families.  And how, throughout the year, I tried really hard to acknowledge and celebrate their cultures, their traditions and leaders from their communities – especially, that “trouble-maker”.  My parents never said a word.  
And then 2008 came along.  And thanks to George Bush, Jr., my father was no longer a Republican.  Now, what was there to do?!  They had to vote for HIM.  There was no other choice.  And after watching HIM on the news for many months, and feeling like they were getting to know HIM, they had to admit, HE was intelligent, and charming.  HE was from Chicago, and ofcourse, the icing on the cake, HE had a lovely wife.  And so, in their late 80’s, my parents voted for Barak Obama.  It was a change – a conceptual shift – that I wouldn’t have believed was possible so many years earlier.  

After my father died, I found a book in his collection by a lawyer and black activist.  It turns out, my father had donated to his cause.  
Now, so many years later, I’m living in the small, and fairly monocultural country of Ecuador.  There’s of course the variety of Indigenous groups who often wear their traditional clothing with pride, the Afro-Ecuadorians who are descendants of slaves, and the lighter-skinned Spanish-blooded Mestizos who don’t look or dress like either of the others.  And everyone else, such as a Gringita, is the tiny minority.  I now know intimately what it feels like to be different, and to be stared at by everyone in the room.  I’m hyper-aware of my skin color, and every moment of every day I make choices based on whether or not I think it will be appropriate or comfortable for me to enter a room or walk down a street.  My white privilege in the United States did not prepare me for this reality.  It’s exhausting. 

But everyday, I get up and face it again, attempting to speak the language and integrate into a culture that I often don’t understand.  To do this successfully, I have to do a lot of observing and listening, and when I just can’t help myself any longer, I try to frame an objective question to probe a little more deeply; always hoping to find the key to my confusion.  And so it goes with the issue of race; observing, listening and probing to learn more about how Ecuadorians maneuver through this issue.  

This is the only obviously racist thing I’ve ever seen in Ecuador, which is really hilarious to me, because some Ecuadorian is very confused about who is considered “white” in this world.  
I bought some white paint.  I plan to paint over it. 
Mestizos, of course, are the dominant heritage so I can’t help but to see examples of their attitudes toward others.  For their part, l see coordinated efforts to honor the other group’s cultures by learning their dances, their songs, participating in their traditions during holidays and, of course, sharing in their fiestas.  During our Peace Corps training, there was some discussion on the part of the volunteers about the correctness of cultural appropriation.  Ecuadorians think worries about this are silly.  To them, the best way to honor another people is to dress like them, dance like them and celebrate such as they do.  And it’s true, at every festival, there are dance groups decked out in traditional clothing trained to dance the dance of the people – of all the people of Ecuador.  
When the unified Indigenous groups of Ecuador recently organized the National Strike, I thought for sure I would witness some division in this society as the more wealthy Ecuadorians might side with the government.  Not so.  What I saw in the ten days of fighting was an enormous outpouring of respect for the people who would leave their homes and farms, and travel days (often walking) to Quito in order to raise their voices together.  I heard over and over again, how “intelligent”, how “organized”, how “brave”, and “fierce” the Indigenous were.  The manner in which they negotiated the end of the strike was a testament to how “articulate”, “worldly”, and “self-less” they are.  How their efforts “united” Ecuador, how “hard working” they are to grow food for the country and how their vision of Ecuador is good for all.  In the circles in which I travel, the Indigenous of Ecuador reap a tremendous amount of respect, even if some of their traditional practices or beliefs are not appreciated by all.

The idea that racial profiling is bad, is also odd to Ecuadorians.  For example, in the time I’ve been here, the museum at the Equator has changed all of its exhibits.  When I visited last, I was taken back at the new exhibits highlighting the people and cultures in different regions of Ecuador.  For each of the four regions, there are huge blow-up photos of people’s faces and text explaining how this group of people generally have slanted foreheads, and this other group of people have narrow eyes or high check-bones.  In other words, its four floors of exhibits helping the reader racially identify the people of Ecuador by how they look.  
Ummmm.  I don’t think that would go over so well in the US. 
So, I live with a family.  I hear them criticizing those who are hanging around the street-corners, looking for a hand-out.  Those with their life in duffels on their back, trying to get somewhere to start again.  One morning, I formed my objective questions at the breakfast table.  

They assured me in their own way, that they are not racist.  They want to support those who are hard-working, who are honest.  They don’t mind that so many Gringos are coming to their country and buying up land, building houses and staying for their retirement.  Gringos are honest people.  They are quiet.  They keep to themselves.  But, it’s true, they wish those Columbians and Venezuelans would go back to their own countries.  “Only 1 in 10 of them are good people.  The rest of them are not honest.  They are not hard-working.  They only cause problems for Ecuador.” 
Ummmm.  With all due respect, I don’t agree.  I explained to them that I’ve spent my life, in my own quiet way, fighting against racism in my own family, in my life, in my classroom, and now with my career as a volunteer.  I talked openly about how there are actually people in the United States who don’t differentiate between people from different Latin American countries, but think that all brown-skinned people are Mexican.  And furthermore, that brown-skinned means that the people are dirty.  And dirty people are lazy, they don’t want to work.  They just want to free-load off the government.  And, ofcourse, most of them are criminals.  Ecuadorians included. 
I talked about the stories I’ve heard from the parents of my immigrant students.  How they walked, swam, ran, cried, and fought their way to the United States to only better their lives and the lives of their children.  I told them of my deep compassion for those who would make that choice to leave their life behind, with only hope for something better.  This includes the Venezuelans. 
Silence.  And then….
You know that Venezuelan Restaurant that we go to for those yummy arepas?  We had never been there before because we didn’t know anything about food from their country.  Then you showed us.  And now, we have met the people who own the restaurant, and they are from Venezuela, and they are good, hard-working people.  So now we go back to that restaurant because we want to support them…
…And, before you came, we were really nervous about agreeing to let you live with us. 
Because all Gringos are more sophisticated.  You live in big, fancy houses.  We always hear that your country is better.  Your schools are better.  Your lives are richer.  We wondered if you wouldn’t be able to live at our standard?  We worried you wouldn’t be able to eat our food.  It’s true, we see other Gringos around town, but as we said before, Gringos move to Ecuador to keep to themselves.  They don’t integrate or try to learn much about us.  
But now, they continued, after getting to know you, and your sister and nephew, we realize we were wrong about people from the United States.  You’re different than we thought. 
You’re just like us.
Open your heart.
I think that’s the purpose of Peace Corps.