Western Privilege and Anti-black Racism in Panama

By Guest Contributor Aliyya Swaby

Residents of Colón, Panama, have been fighting to get the government to renovate their dilapidated colonial-era buildings, with little success. Images by the author.

In late September, I moved from New York City to Panama City to start a freelance journalism project. For two college summers, I had traveled in Latin American countries and did not see many people who looked like me.

In Ecuador, a friend told me I seemed more “French” than “Ecuadorean” black, because I wasn’t too aggressive. As I walked around Peru’s inland cities, men called out “Chincha,” the name of the predominately black coastal city.

I thought I would feel more comfortable in Panama, where the skin color gradient includes darker shades of brown. After all, my West Indian immigrant parents belong to the same diaspora as many Panamanian black people, whose ancestors were imported by the U.S. government as laborers on the Panama Canal.

But the reality is more complex. I recently found blogger BlackinAsia’s posts on being a black Westerner abroad, and immediately zeroed in on this quotation: “We inhabit a liminal space which is difficult to dissect, but that’s why a more nuanced analysis is necessary — with “Westernness” bestowing on us some privileges abroad (e.g. diplomatic immunity) rooted in the global power of our countries or origin, but our “blackness” leading to our oppression due to anti-black sentiments. We encounter and live both while abroad as black Westerners.”

As a non-Latina Black American journalist in Panama, I find this in-between space difficult on a daily basis. Although I share the skin tone and facial features of many Panamanians, I am easily identifiable as a foreigner. It takes people only a glance to know that I’m not Panamanian and usually several minutes of conversation to realize I’m from the United States.

I live with Central American roommates, who regularly consume and fetishize Black American culture. None identify as black. They are more current on mainstream American rap and hip-hop than I am, though they understand none of the English lyrics. (One of them, a Venezuelan girl, was shocked when I explained the backlash to Rick Ross’s “pro-rape” anthem U.O.E.N.O.) They mime exaggerated swagger and sag their pants and ask me whether they’re doing the correct “black” dances.

Based entirely on one-dimensional, dehumanizing stereotypes, their conception of American blackness is neither positive nor complex. But it is still very different than the common conception of black Panamanians, which is less “black cool” and more black indigence, criminality and failure.

Like in the United States, race and ethnicity in Panama correlate strongly with high poverty rates. Panama’s growing wealth inequality is leaving its majority black cities further and further behind. Two major groups of black people live in Panamanian cities: Afro-Antilleans, descendants of West Indian workers on the Panama Canal and railway, and Afro-Colonials, descendants of Colonial-era African slaves. Both are targets of structural and institutional racial discrimination.

I have been primarily reporting in Colón, Panama, where the Free Trade Zone generates billions annually, little of which is invested in the inner city. At the beginning of my project, I spoke with a Panamanian journalist who claimed Colón’s black citizens are merely lazy and self-segregating. They are continually offered jobs and opportunities, but reject them because they prefer to do nothing. She argued that racism was a non-issue in Panama and offered up her own heritage as proof — though her grandfather’s ancestors were African slaves, she is a successful member of the middle class. I asked her about the connection between color and socioeconomic status, and she brushed off my questions.

Colorblindness is a commonly expressed worldview here, as in many Latin American countries. Panama calls itself a “crisol de razas” or a melting pot. Everyone is Latin@, but white Latin@s happen to have more wealth and political power. No one discriminates, but Afro-descendants are disproportionally in poverty and in prison.

Protests in Colón often begin from this central avenue, which intersects all sixteen streets of the inner city.

Panama’s black activists have to take on the double task of proving to society that they exist and that they deserve better. Locally, in Colón, they lead protests against governmental land seizures and human rights violations. On a national level, they are currently collaborating on an initiative to criminalize discrimination, which would be the most comprehensive law of its kind in Panama to date [PDF].

In a country where almost everyone has African heritage, but only nine percent consider themselves black, what does it mean that my roommate recently greeted me using the word “nigger”? He argued it was the equivalent of the Spanish word “negro,” meaning black, even when I tried to explain the difference in the historical meanings of each. And Panama has its own set of slurs tied to a history of anti-black racism and oppression.

The Spanish word “chombo” is somewhat equivalent to “n-gger” — it refers to dark-skinned English-speaking black people from the West Indies. In 1941, then president Arnulfo Arias wrote a new constitution proposing to deport this group and take away their Panamanian citizenship. Even today, many Afro-Antilleans avoid teaching their children English, giving up part of their heritage.

As a black American abroad, I am privileged in being more easily able to separate myself from a one-dimensional stereotype of blackness, in ways a black Panamanian might not be able to, sometimes regardless of class or educational level. My parents were born in Jamaica and Trinidad, but here I am primarily American. It’s unlikely anyone would use the slur to describe me. But an Afro-Antillean Panamanian professor at the University of Panama told me students sometimes call her “chombo” as she walks down the halls.

The United States plays a significant role in anti-black racism in Panama. During the construction of the Panama Canal, the U.S. implemented a version of Jim Crow in the Canal Zone to control their ethnically diverse community of laborers. Black laborers were put on a lower-paying “silver roll” and were excluded from quality housing facilities, schools and social clubs.

Many older Afro-Antilleans have spent decades in the United States. Some chose to leave for economic purposes, for example, in Colón as the city slid into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. Unable to flee, poorer Colonenses were left in the city center.

I have had trouble navigating this history while conducting interviews, because many Panamanians who self-identify as black have perceptions of race heavily informed by their time abroad. I could easily prioritize viewpoints just because they seem familiar or similar to my own. But I know that many approaches to racism in the United States would be ineffectual in this country’s context.

Generally, being an American journalist reporting on marginalized groups in a developing country is complex and difficult, irrespective of my race. Journalism is an elastic medium, guided by a set of ethics rarely policed on a higher level. When proposing my project last year, I was not required to get permission from the Yale Institutional Review Board, while a sociologist or anthropologist would have been.

Dominated by white, upper-class men, traditional journalism in the U.S. is often seen as “objective,” since it reflects the worldview of people considered to represent the societal norm. Just as important as striving for impartiality is determining how to integrate a wide variety of worldviews. Media outlets are beginning to value gender and race diversity in their staff, but still have a long way to go.

My identity and experiences give me insight into certain topics absent from mainstream media. But my blackness does not erase the power disparities inherent in my reporting in low-income Panamanian communities. When I choose to report on an issue, I am putting other people’s stories into my own framework. I have to be careful about the way I represent a culture that is not my own.

Last month I met the wife of a sociologist I have been trying to contact for weeks. She told me he might never respond to me — Western academics are constantly traipsing into the country, taking the information they need, and then leaving with it. Sometimes he never hears from them again. And even if he does, he rarely benefits from the information transfer.

I think about that often, and it can be paralyzing. But I’m trying instead to use that knowledge to be more intentional about the way I carry out my research in the next several months. Though I have limited resources as an inexperienced freelancer, I want to find ways of interacting with people and ideas that are not one-sided. I can’t be an expert on other people’s lived experiences, but I can work to record and present them in a way that is informed and responsible.

Aliyya Swaby is a freelance writer in Panama, reporting on race, poverty, and urbanization on a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship from Yale University. She is blogging her travels at aliyyaswaby.com and new to Twitter at @AliyyaSwaby.

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  • Tracy Glover Williams

    The author’s insights are wonderful. Having had many friends that were from the Caribbean diaspora, I well remember the complicated (and sometimes) painful discussions that we had about race. The reluctance to self-describe as black/Afro is quite widespread, no matter the mixture/blend of the nation. But American Black culture is much admired. Best was a friend’s grandmother from Belize. Such a beautiful dark-skinned woman- she repeatedly made sure I understood she was Spanish.

  • Pingback: Published in Racialicious, Dec 18, 2013. | negrismo()

  • Dhahabu

    No news to me. While visiting in Colombia, i was talking with a native who was an elderly gentleman.
    In our discussion, we got around to race in Colombia. He said it was quite a mixture. But he said, according to stories told, there was a deliberate movement by the government back in the day to “import” more Europeans to “lighten up ” the population …Intermarriage .

  • Gerald Alexander Lopez Castell

    I Forgot to tsay the term moreno equates to black in some ways but its differnet, it got more of an identity and at one poitn in time was the prefered term for Freed Blacks who when freed became Morenos, while in bondage where blacks(negros).

  • Gerald Alexander Lopez Castell

    In many places in “Latin America” the wrong questions are being asked, not everyone identifiesf iwth the term black which in spanish is “negro” some folk identify wtih teh term “Moreno” but it really depneds where you go. I know that in the Dominican Republic, Carribean Colombia and Venezuela and probably even Panama the term Moreno is more common then Negro. Also you want to see when these censuses where taken, for exapmle the racial census for the D.R was last taken in the 1960s , there hasn’t bene one since, racial censuess are an implementation of jim crow u.s laws during their invasions, most countries in latin-america did not keep racial census, specially the more mixed ones.

  • solecism

    I very much appreciated the commentary and will look up your reportage from Panama. I lived there for 2 years in Peace Corps in the mid-1990s, though in Cocle (I never visited to Colon despite my intentions). As a blond, white woman, my experience navigating the racism and color hierarchy was obviously radically different from yours, but I noticed similar issues with regard to attitudes toward blacks and various gradations of brown, plus the imperialism/colonialism of Western academics and the cultural “tourism” of some of my fellow volunteers, and the interesting intersections of racism among Panamanians, fellow volunteers, other Americans and ex-Pats of other flavors, etc. One anecdote that really stands out for me was when one man from my host community wanted to hear all about the “pieles rojas” redskins of the USA–what did they look like, etc. I responded that they looked just like him and tried to educate him about the problems of that racial slur. The indigenous heritage is just as invisible as the African heritage in many cases.

  • Roberto Reid

    Thank you for this article Aliyya and for linking to our articles and web sites which we have been developing for seven years, in a great effort to restore and preserve the heritage of the Black West Indian culture, that at one time, almost had preeminence in Panama’s history and culture over the Spanish rural culture.

    Many of your observations are pretty valid, but I was especially impressed with your experiences with interviewing Black Panamanian academics and the like, who promise support.

    “Western academics are constantly traipsing into the country, and taking the information they need, then leaving with it. Sometimes he never hears from them again, and even if the do reconnect, they rarely send us beneficial information they transfer.” It has also been our experience in our encounters with a string of Fulbright scholars, Doctoral candidates, and university folk, etc., that we have stopped agreeing to interviews with these people- period- as it often winds up being a total waste of our precious time, as we never so much as get a “thank you” or a mention anywhere in their writings.

    We have really worked very hard to bring out this history and culture that is in danger of extinction and we are fed up with being used and not given the support or recognition deserved.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Such a wonderfully informative post! And I’m glad to have learned something new today about the role and concept of race in South America.

  • doobie

    Great article. Fantastic journalism.

  • OG Mally Bieber

    Very well written and interesting article. I especially like your observation: “Journalism is an elastic medium, guided by a set of ethics rarely policed on a higher level.”

  • enviromiente

    I also find it fascinating to think about blackness in Latin America–recently I researched/studied the situation in Venezuela, where the idea of racial and ethnic differences have been systematically erased through a political maneuvering. The idea of mestizaje is the racial mixing that is thrust onto everybody, and blackness loses whatever political value it once had–essentially the discrimination becomes disguised by class. Yet, somehow “coincidentally” most black Venezuelans are also facing extreme poverty.

  • Tim Henry

    Excellent commentary! I am always fascinated with some Latin Americans’ denial of their African heritage. Only 9 percent? Amazing! It is similar to the number of Puerto Ricans that identified as black or Afro-Puerto Rican in the last census.

  • rodrigvm


  • crazygemini12

    This is an incredibly important and interesting read. Thank you for this!