Being a White Woman in Ecuador Made Me See My Privilege, but It Also Brought Prejudice
Settling in Ecuador was never a part of my plan. I wanted to live somewhere in Latin America, sure, but Ecuador never even made it to the list of possibilities. When I stopped in Ecuador on my way to Peru, though, I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The people welcomed me home and the culture sucked me in.
Within a few months, I had a steady job, a group of friends, an Ecuadorian boyfriend, and a pretty decent second language all tucked under my belt. And just like that, Guayaquil, Ecuador became my new home.
Though I was completely unaware of my privilege at the time, it quickly became obvious to me that my skin color was the primary drive behind everything that happened to me in the months that followed.
Being a White woman certainly had its unearned privileges that helped me along the way. But it also came with a few, equally unearned, drawbacks. Being a young, White, single woman in this Latin American country made me acutely aware of how systemic racism and stereotyping was indeed a factor in both my successes and failures.
On making friends.
First came the friends. Everywhere I went it seemed as if people were eager to be my friend. People were kind to me for no reason other than because they wished to be. I had never done anything in particular to gain friends, they just sort of showed up.
Friends showed me the bus lines and helped me apply for my residency visa. They let me sleep in their homes and they invited me out wherever they went.
It wasn’t just their unending hospitality, though. It was an eery sense that everywhere I went there were people eager to hand me their phone numbers and show me around.
Finally, I asked my trusted Ecuadorian friend if everyone was truly that nice all the time.
“Oh, no,” she said, letting out a bitter laugh. “It’s just because you’re the gringa in town. Everybody wants a gringa friend.” She continued playing with her phone, never breaking her gaze to glance my way.
I stared at her, dejected.
“But why?” I asked. “What have I done that gives them those things?” I pressed her for answers where I knew there were none. She set down her phone and turned toward me.
“Because you’re like the exotic zoo animal that everybody wants a picture with,” she told me. “People want to be seen with you, not because they want to be your friend but because they want to show their friends that they are hanging out with an American. Guys want to date you not because they actually like you, but because White girls are rumored to be easy and just by being seen with you, he will look like he’s getting laid.”
Though her explanation was a bit simplified and even had a touch of bitterness, she was onto something. My fair skin and light hair meant that people trusted me and were even eager to help me.
I could easily chalk this up to the incredibly warm and friendly culture of Ecuador (which, by the way, it is).
The truth is, though, that this trend rings true back home, too. I’ve never been denied help when I’ve asked for it and I’ve never been suspected of making a dirty deal. While I definitely have a friendly side to me that has helped me make and keep friends, I could see then that being a White woman had helped me further along than my charming smile, alone.
On finding a job, and an apartment.
A few months later, I began searching for a job. I sent out a few applications and within 24 hours I had three full-time job offers. It was by far the easiest application process I had ever experienced.
Essentially the only thing I had done was mention that I was from the US and that I was also, coincidentally, looking for a job. Before reviewing any kind of resume, my education, or even my visa, I had been whole-heartedly welcomed into these positions.
I called my friend, once again, to share the news. She kindly congratulated me and then we quickly got to talking about the credibility of the companies that had just hired a complete stranger with virtually no vetting process.
Once again, the topic of my Whiteness came up. Simply by being a White, single woman they had believed me when I told them that I deserved the job. They believed me when I assured them of my degrees and that I was legally in the country.
None of this necessarily had to be true, but it didn’t really matter. What they saw when they saw my skin was that I was good enough just because I could stand on my own two feet. Warranted or not, they opened up opportunities for me that had very little to do with my actual qualifications.
In fact, finding an apartment proved to be just as easy. The landlord required nothing but a copy of my passport, assuring me that he trusted that I had the funds to pay rent each month. It didn’t matter that, truthfully, at the time of signing the lease I had less than $1,000 USD in my bank account and no job, yet.
My American passport and white skin granted me many opportunities because my Whiteness equated wealth and reliability, when I offered, in fact, neither of those things.
On being easy.
A few months after that, and well into my monogamous and steady romantic relationship, my Whiteness garnered some attention, once again. Rumors in my little town had spread that I was sleeping around.
The very idea that I would know enough people to be the subject of rumors seemed ridiculous to me. Add to that the fact that I didn’t even know enough men to have the luxury of sleeping “around.”
Yet, the rumors persisted.
The same rumors seemed to swirl everywhere I went, too. A weekend at the beach, spent with my girlfriend, turned into the chisme that fueled the rumors among my beach friends.
Even now, in my current post as a bartender in a small mountain village far from any debauchery in the entire country, men take my polite smile as a cue that perhaps I owe them a sexual favor.
In a weird clash of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a White woman here in Ecuador, it is assumed that I am loose in my morals and indebted to the men around me.
Torn that such rumors could exist about me, I asked a few other White extranjeras I had met along the way if they had the same problem. Though I felt as if I were grasping in the dark for some kind of explanation, they all confirmed my suspicions. Like me, each of them had been the topic of gossip for the better part of their time here in Ecuador. The gossip almost always had to do with their promiscuity, whether it was true or not.
Just like the color of my skin opened unearned opportunities for me, it also made me the subject of nasty gossip that was equally unearned. This lesson wasn’t lost on me, though. Perhaps being the victim of a stereotype proved to be the most eye-opening lesson of all.
On being White and also a woman.
Every day I watch as the culture around me struggles with its perception of my identity. It seems as if Ecuador is unsure whether to offer me the world on account of my Whiteness, or to throw disrespectful power moves at me on account of being a woman.
Being cornered in a bar by a drunk man simply because he is intrigued by my fair skin, tall stature, and the vagina he presumes to be between my legs is a dark reality. At the same time, benefitting from unearned privilege for those very same attributes is an unfair advantage I likely have all over the world.
So what can a White girl do?
As the old adage goes, awareness is the first step.
I won’t pretend that this stereotype doesn’t unnerve me, for both the good and bad that has come of it. I also won’t pretend, though, that I’m a sort of victim of it all, undeserving of the good that Ecuador has brought, as well as maybe some of the bad.
The problem is that I have lived nearly my entire life benefitting from many of these stereotypes without so much as batting an eye. Nobody has ever questioned my motive or wondered if I was capable of achieving something. Only here in Ecuador did it become painfully obvious to me how these stereotypes existed.
While White Guilt doesn’t necessarily help level the playing field among all of us, awareness can certainly help us head in the right direction.
As for my personal awareness, the beautiful and robust country of Ecuador has certainly gotten me there.
What’s been your experience with privilege and prejudice while traveling? Share in the comments!