I don’t remember how the subject even came up – I believe one of the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers I was having lunch with in Piura, Peru, asked if I had been pinched yet by total strangers since my arrival in Peru. She said in Peru, there is a superstition among some Peruvians that if they pinch a black person it will bring good luck to the person doing the pinching. Seriously?
Apparently, several African American Peace Corps volunteers based in Peru routinely experience this assault on their person in Peru. It may be something black or mixed race Peruvians are accustomed to or simply tolerate, but for blacks from the United States it’s not a welcome gesture, nor is it a compliment, as some of my own white friends recently suggested when I asked their opinion on this practice.
I generally try to keep an open mind when it comes to the customs of other societies. That doesn’t mean that I embrace them all. There are some things that are just downright wrong – or illegal – and I cannot morally support. This pinch a black person for good luck thing I immediately found offensive – then I took a step back to think about it – and after much thought, I am still of the mind that it’s offensive – not a compliment – an assault and deeply rooted in racism. An how did I reach this conclusion? I know my history.
Some people don’t want to hear it, but the fact is black people have a history of being treated as property – as a thing to be had rather than human – nothing more than a tool to be used. In addition to being enslaved to provide others with free labor, we as a people were subjected to a whole slew of indignities – we were “boys” and “girls” no matter our adult status. We were treated as less than, not to be respected. And as my dear friend Darlene pointed out in a Facebook discussion as to whether or not randomly walking up to a black person you don’t even know and pinching them for good luck is offensive or a compliment, there was a time when in the United States rubbing a black person’s head was said to bring good luck to a white person. Thank goodness such racist nonsense has faded away with slavery in the United States. But now I am in Peru. And in 2011, I can’t even sit quietly on a street corner without someone stepping up to pinch away.
A day after my Peace Corps pals told me of this pinch a black person for good luck thing, it was far out of my mind as I sat on a curb watching the world go by in the center of town. I had just done a lot of walking and was drinking a just-purchased bottled water. It was an extremely hot day in Piura despite the fact it was officially winter. My mind was on my trip south to Lima and a bunch of other things I had to do to make the 15-hour journey happen. Then without word or warning it happened. A woman walked past me, pinched me on my upper arm, and kept going without stopping. My reaction scared the crap out of her and I am now glad it did. Next time she’ll think twice before she goes around pinching a complete stranger if only for their skin color. I asked her why she did what she did and got a nervous smile, nothing more. I raised my voice to be heard over the hustle and bustle of the area, as the gap between us grew. I yelled how would she like it if I walked up to her and pinched her. How would she like it if total strangers kept doing that to her for the rest of her life. She quickened her pace. I stood up and started walking in her direction. How would you like it if your children were pinched by random people on the street? She turned the corner and vanished, but not before she took one last glance at me. The smile was gone. Good.
Now, some of you might think I overreacted. Think what you may. If you believe I should put up with strangers pinching me all day, for weeks, for months, for years, for the rest of my life, I’d like to lend you my shoes. Walk in them and talk to me as you lay dying. Tell me how much you enjoyed the experience and that life of being treated with such blatant disrespect.
Peru, is a beautiful country with a great history. I am by no means picking on Peru. Racism exists in other places, in my own United States. I’m sure I will come across other practices – other superstitions – that are just as offensive to me, if not more. But this experience is here and now, front and center. It’s one that took me by surprise. And I, for one, am not going to allow this assault on my person anywhere. Nobody should.