THIRD WORLD FIRST HAND

As an intrepid American of some means, I had the privilege of traveling to somebody else’s country for a couple weeks. The country I traveled to was Panama. They have a big-ass canal there. And even though it is big, the ships being built today are bigger – so much bigger, in fact, that the Panamanians are building another canal, one that is over half again as wide as the one they’ve had since 1915.

It costs between a half-million dollars and a million to travel through the canal, one way. The price is calculated according to the size of your ship. A little sailboat is a lot less. A guy swam it for 36 cents, but that was a long time ago. Suffice it to say, the canal makes a shit-load of money, around 3 billion dollars a year, 2 billion of which is plowed (supposedly) back into the canal operations budget. The other billion is given back to the Panamanian government.

Panama has 4 million people. If you divided a billion dollars amongst 4 million people, that is $250,000 PER PERSON. This begs the question – if every man, woman, and child (there are a LOT of children in Panama!) is worth $250K, then WHY is everybody so effing POOR? I find this a question worth thinking about. Judging from the fabulous wealth on display in downtown Panama City, or the rim of the island Contadora, most of it goes to the Panamanian version of the 1 percent.

At the same moment they are living in dire poverty, most Panamanians are deliriously proud to be Panamanian. The flag is everywhere. Futbol is something of a national religion. Television soap operas are assiduously followed by men and women alike.

Hmmmm… tons of money going into a relatively few pockets, while the majority of the mindlessly patriotic population is distracted by TV and sports. Kinda reminds me of home, actually.

Then there’s the “brown” element. Everybody in Panama is brown. You might be a brown indigenous person (they do have tribes and reservations there, even though proportionately, the Spanish were even more thorough in eradicating the natives than the Europeans were in Norte Americana). You might be a brown person of African descent, since so many slaves were imported to do the work that the natives could’ve done, if only they weren’t dead. You might be a brown person of mixed heritage, like Spanish (who, incidentally, are white people), hobnobbing with the locals. And, even if you are a white person, you either take a tan or burn up. White gets diluted quick in Panama: the only really white folks I saw were foreigners.

What does this mean, when everybody you see is on a sliding scale of kinda brown to pretty much brown, to really dark brown, to a nice plummy black? In Panama, it means that nobody cares what the damn hell color you are.

In the USA, every single encounter we have with other people is freighted with color. If you are white and regarding a black person, a ton of stuff runs through your head immediately: all the Fox News racist broadcasts, all the negative encounters you’ve been told about, all the riots and burning and looting etc. If you are black, then a whole lot of similar stuff goes through your head when you encounter a white person: a whole burdensome history of murder and lynching and marginalizing and redlining and profiling. Even white people encountering other white people has a dimension of race: is this person racist? Do we share common ground here? And the same with blacks, I am pretty sure, as they have issues of race too, even within their own communities. It is the thing that takes up a lot of room that nobody wants to discuss. It is stuffed into our faces and it intrudes into all of our comfort zones, yet we hardly ever talk about it. It leans annoyingly into every conversation, like an irritating, unwelcome eavesdropper. It doesn’t matter whether you are sympathetic, or aware, or thoughtful, or interested in the topic – it’s there anyway. In America, practically everything eventually boils down to the color spectrum, unless you are a member of the privileged dominant white class, which means you can avoid thinking about it even though you should.

Panama was a breath of fresh air. The freedom and the relief were tangible. Nobody has to walk the line of being “black enough” or too much of a “n- lover”. Nobody has to THINK about it, and it is SO LIBERATING. We have NO idea in this country how we’ve been made captive to this stupid color thing. I wish we could just GET OVER IT and judge people on merit and not their light-reflective qualities.

Which I doubt will happen soon. We have way too much time on our hands for that.