Howdy! We’re launching a new mini-series called, “Voices.” Although every group of people has its own struggles that often come attached to their identity, today we’re exploring the reality of traveling while Black.
Although the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed for systematic change for over seven years (in addition to the activists who’ve been doing racial justice work for decades and centuries prior), the last few weeks have been particularly informing and introspective for all racial backgrounds. With different global conversations happening around Black identity, traveler and entrepreneur @glographics shared an Instagram post about traveling while Black and white privilege in the context of travel. This post’s 400 comments made it clear that many Black folks, like myself, have had some shady experiences while simply trying to enjoy a sunset in Barcelona or grabbing a bite to eat in Sydney. Like, damn… can we just exist?
In order to keep this conversation going, I reached out to over a dozen Black travelers to find out the microaggressions that have tainted their travel experiences and that need to stop being said. For those who aren’t familiar with the term “microaggression,” Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum – psychologist and former Spellman College president – describes them as “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities,” CNN reported. In simpler terms, they are comments (or actions) towards a person of a stigmatized group that usually convey a negative message. I specifically say “usually convey,” because microaggressions are sometimes said (or done) with a perceived “kindness.” Despite the intent, they are rude, because they reinforce negative narratives about certain groups of people.
Here’s what we, Black people, unfortunately hear during our trips:
I have never sold any merchandise when I travel, so I don’t see how this question should even be directed towards me. In the same breath, they mistake this Black body I call home for something that can be rented for a moment. Then, they tell my white friend, “You are so beautiful, and I want to treat you like a queen.”
“How do you know Spanish?/You speak Spanish so well.”
I feel when people question my fluency or comprehension, they are erasing my blackness and the experience of Black folks who are not from the US.
View this post on Instagram
As we continue diving deeper into what white privilege means, I wanted to extend that conversation to the context of travel. I’ve been to 80 countries across 6 continents and my experiences are littered with isolated moments that remind me that no matter my education, qualifications, or income, some will always relegate their opinion of me down to my Black skin. Many abroad have told me I’m the first Black person they met, which means the implicit biases and conclusions they’ve drawn about Black people came from movies, music, and media. Before I was denied service at restaurants in the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Italy, I could see them going down the list pictured above to figure out whether I was worth the risk. First, they see me as Black (bias: poor/uneducated) Then they assume I’m an African immigrant (bias: outsider, not one of us) Then they assume I’m a foreign sex worker (bias: I’m there to solicit my services to patrons) Then they assume I’m a local sex worker (I once worked a campaign where the sponsor put me in a high-end hotel, but one staff member started yelling and shooing me away until I pulled out my room key and she looked shocked and eventually, apologetic) It isn’t until I finally open my mouth and they hear my accent — ohhh AMERICAN TOURIST! (bias: she got dat guap 🤑) Then and only then, am I treated like a fellow human, because my green dollars now override the threat of my skin color. This can happen in the span of 10 seconds or 10 minutes while I’ve seated myself at a table and every waiter refuses to serve me. I raise my hand, speak a few words of the local language, but no explanation except the one I give myself when I see the entire establishment only has white guests and I’m clearly out of place. Do they think I can’t afford to eat there? Do they think I’ll dine and dash? Does my blackness ruin the image of the clientele they’re trying to attract? White privilege is not having to google the destination’s treatment of your race beforehand. And when they ask where I'm really from, it's hardly curiosity and mostly a need to know which box of stereotypes to put me in so they can judge accordingly. Privilege is everywhere.
Calling a Black person “brother or my man.”
These are in-group words used between Black people to claim kinship. I’ve just met you, there is no kinship and the claiming of familiarity and intimacy not only scream the fetishisation of Black bodies, but you’re overcompensating as you attempt to connect with Black people to only show those around us and your digital ecosystem you have an “in” with a Black person.
Like, damn – can we just exist?
“You don’t sound Black.”
How do people think Black people sound? What are you implying with this statement? Black people are multi-dimensional. Your perception of us is not our reality, and you would know that if you opened your heart up for us.
“How do you speak English so well?”
It’s not a compliment when phrased this way. I am sorry I went against your expectations that Black people are “uneducated”…
“You’re so pretty for a black girl”
Do we REALLY need to explain this one?
“OH! You’ve been to [insert any country]”
There’s a twinge at the “oh” that hints at surprise that you ever stepped foot on a plane. There’s layers of elitism, classism, and of course, racism that reveals that the person didn’t ever imagine Black people would enjoy traveling to any degree.
“Are you mixed”
You don’t have to be “mixed” to be considered beautiful.
“Wow, why would you go so far, by yourself, that’s crazy of you”
First off, I’d like to state that there is a history of Black people facing discriminating dangers while traveling, as anti-Black racism isn’t just an “American thing,” and that the wealth gap between Blacks and other races in the U.S. is large and has a historical systematic racist origin.
This means that traveling while Black has always been limited and dangerous, and with that said, there’s the understanding as to why people, including some Black people, will be astonished of my solo travels, usually non-Blacks are baffled that I can do this, while some Black people question why I’m doing this.
Growing up and watching the Travel Channel and reading travel magazines, I never, if rarely ever, see any people of color and especially no Black people going off on adventures, hiking, exploring history abroad, or indulging in other cultures. Despite social media being able to spotlight the many profiles of Black travelers, showing the world that we, too, are about that life, I still face the shocking and pondering reactions that I like to hike and visit old monuments.
Being followed around in stores.
It’s messed up that some people will assume you’re stealing just because you’re Black. I had the money to get over here, why would I steal a £3 bottle of nail polish?!
“What do you do for a living?”
Often asked when amongst white tourists who do not receive the same question.
“You’re American though! Not African.”
Implying that being a Black American has higher social currency than being an African in Europe. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment present in Europe towards Africans.
“Oh, I didnt think nor know Black people traveled.”
This is messed up because I think people expect Black people to never leave where they come from… in my case, the south side of Chicago. I also don’t think they expect Black people to be able to AFFORD to travel or to find ways/resources to travel.
“You’re so pretty for a black girl!”
This one comes from those nights out in the clubs/bars in foreign countries…
What’s sad about this is that the men who use this line ACTUALLY think it’s a compliment. It’s really not. What this says is that you automatically view black women as ugly or undesirable, and I’m the “lucky one” who doesn’t fit this narrative for you. Beauty, especially in regards to Black women, does not vary on a scale of how close we are to society’s accepted European standards.
*This microaggression was brought up above, but it is explained here just in case someone didn’t get it the first time.
“You’re so skinny, does your mother feed you? You live in such a developed country like Canada!”
This is really f*cked up because you might think you are making a funny joke but fail to see that you’re for one insulting my family and accusing them of neglect, perpetuating the false narrative that Black people are poor and cannot afford basic necessities… and you are being very insensitive towards any struggles I may be facing in regards to my body image.
Actually, the title of this article is an understatement. We aren’t tired, we’re exhausted!
*Some statements have been edited or modified for clarity purposes.