New Orleans

STUDENT VOICE: How a New Orleans high-school junior learned about race and gender — in North Africa

‘I realized that we need to come together to combat sexism, racism, colorism and other forms of discrimination’

Mervian Smith

Mervian Smith

I recently spent three weeks in Morocco with a group of young women from New Orleans and Atlanta.

We were there to engage in academic enrichment and to foster sisterhood. We rode donkeys on top of mountains and camels on the beach.

We connected over couscous with our host families and learned the ways of bargaining. But we also went to Morocco as a group of mixed identities of women of color. Three weeks of facing harassment in another country were the main source of culture shock, which influenced how I reflected on my studies.

We, the darker girls, noticed that we were harassed more frequently and with more hostility than the girls with lighter skin tones. Initially, we assumed that being African-American was the reason for our harassment. But we soon learned that it was our darker skin tone, which resembles the complexion of people from sub-Saharan countries. In Morocco, there is active discrimination against people from this region.

Thus, I found myself once again a victim of colorism.

Even though harassment exists in the United States, we tend not to notice it as much because we adapt to our home environments. Traveling to Morocco caused me to realize that women and men are not treated equally around the globe, and that gender equality is worth fighting for on a global scale. Societal beliefs trained me to think my biggest barrier to success was my race. However, my experiences in Morocco helped me understand that all black women face at least two barriers to success: being black and being a woman.

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Audre Lorde wrote, “Refusing to recognize differences makes it impossible to see different problems and pitfalls facing us as women.” While attempting to develop a sense of sisterhood, we hoped that our group, made possible by the Women’s Global Empowerment Initiative (WGEI), could establish a strong foundation in expressing our emotions and creating connections. Initially, I felt that our goal was to demolish the boundaries of race and class, by highlighting that all women are united by the fight for women’s rights. However, this optimism did not take into account our experiential differences, as the street harassment we encountered varied.

Since many Moroccans have fair skin tones and some consider themselves Arab or Berber rather than African, we, as dark skinned black women, were often referred to by epithets such as “Ghana” and “Rasta.” These terms were misnomers, since we are just black girls, with braided hairstyles and unique, rainbow-colored outfits.

That this discrimination stemmed from a mixture of sexism and colorism initially made it challenging for the lighter-skinned girls in our group to understand. This misunderstanding made them believe we were being overly dramatic about our experiences, when in fact we were just frustrated about the colorism that we face globally.

During our stay, the nonprofit organization Dar Si Hmad facilitated a panel for us to speak with young Moroccan women. I expected for us to have hardly anything in common, due to my assumption that Moroccan women’s freedoms are limited compared to ours.

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We were surprised to discover so many similarities in dating and family experiences. This discussion showed that women across the globe share feelings of enslavement, stemming from patriarchy.

Two women described how they were treated differently when visiting France, and a debate ensued. It occurred to me that they may have been treated differently because one might have worn her hijab more than the other. While I do not know for certain, I began to understand that religion plays a part in discrimination as well. I realized that you can be fully dressed or hardly dressed, and you will still be oppressed by someone simply because you are a woman.

Just when the thought of systematic oppression deprived us of faith, the ability to build connection approached our doorstep.

The fondest aspect of my stay in Morocco was time with my host family because we connected naturally. Our bond was unbreakable. In a house full of girls, we felt like free spirits and had lots of girl time. We had the freedom to express ourselves. We felt comfortable in our own skins. Our platform of global sisterhood was becoming a reality.

I wonder how I failed to see sexism as a major form of discrimination before experiencing life outside of the United States. Morocco shined a light on this reality that is also prevalent in America, which I had hidden in the back of my mind. In the United States, Morocco and across the world, women remain less relevant than men and darker-skinned people are viewed as less important than lighter-skinned people. Over three weeks, I spent my time in Morocco analyzing these social constructs that are in need of correction.

We were feminist travelers who took on adventure. We went from hiding our emotions to spilling everything on the table with one another and developing a true sisterhood. Our trip to Morocco was fun but, more importantly, it cleansed our minds and hearts and allowed us to discover new ways of living.

When connecting with other young American women of color, as well as with Moroccan students facing similar challenges, I realized that we need to come together to combat sexism, racism, colorism and other forms of discrimination.

We need to develop a strong sense of community and challenge the status quo.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Mervian Smith is a junior at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans and a member of the 2017 cohort of the Women’s Global Empowerment Initiative.

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Mervian Smith

Mervian Smith is a junior at Landry-Walker High School, in New Orleans and a 2017 Cohort, in The Women’s Global Empowerment Initiative. See Archive

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This was an interesting experience. In Morocco and, in fact, throughout North Africa there is notorious racism toward people from the sub-Sahara. Libya is probably the worst where there is literally a modern slave trade occurring complete with auctions. Americans looking to travel to Africa should really visit Rwanda which has made so much progress since the 90's. I would not recommend South Africa any longer, as things are getting increasingly worst there. South Africa is going the way of Zimbabwe, into catastrophe due to incompetent and corrupt government.

- from David Scott, Apr 03, 2018