Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do. There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take.
This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black. It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well. The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony. While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away. Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge). And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us. Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad. It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class. But that’s a whole other thing.
But back to the story, and the risks involved. This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe. This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job. This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act. In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible. Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive. I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.
So this leaves me with some dueling priorities. Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street. Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit. I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences. The Cubans will. And then there’s the guilt. If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now. Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help. Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.
I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,” into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested! and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!” Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions. I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night. But after they left was the real trouble.
After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained. And they did what I would have done. They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through. It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying. Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends. Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops. Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.
Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel. The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day. I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another. When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students. And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine. But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself. And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.
So yes, I tell them not to swim off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it. I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square. I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.
But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.
I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress. No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night. First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help. But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping. Driving and walking alone is harder. I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system. But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone. It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone. When I could have my independence, I took it. There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal. If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.
I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that. I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively. I always know where the exits and the cops are. I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.
So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested. And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures. I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time. But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more. The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined. I just don’t know how to tell them that.