November 29, 2016

What It’s Like To Travel The World As A Black Woman

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Unsplash, William Stitt
Unsplash, William Stitt

I know what you’re thinking: Wait, black people travel? Scratch that. Do black people even have the money to travel?

Well, I have two answers for you:

1. Fuck you.

2. Yes, black people travel, but not enough!

I know you are probably expecting me to tell you stories about how I was chased around town with a pitch fork, or threatened to be hanged, or even belittled with some racial slurs, but unfortunately for you, I am not, because none of that happened. Sorry to disappoint!

If anything, curiosity, ignorance (lack of knowledge) and a lack of more black travelers were my only “problems.”

I have to admit that I am a very unique person compared to the average traveler. Besides the fact that I am traveling while black, I am a tall (6’2) woman with dreads who’s dating a Caucasian. Yes, I am dating a white man who makes me look even darker when I am standing next to him, which is all the damn time.

With such uniqueness comes great responsibilities and acceptance. Yes, there were times when I was the only black person in town, maybe even in the country, but that might be too much of an exaggeration. Or is it?

And yes, I was stared at, pointed at, laughed at, and even asked to take pictures, because of how different I looked compared to the people they were used to seeing. Hell, one kid even called me negra! But of course, we can’t forget the people who would randomly touch my skin and hair in amazement.

At first, I was pissed and tried hard to ignore it, but then it hit me. I can’t blame them. C’mon you can’t get mad at them, because they never had the chance to be exposed to our awesomeness.

Think of it like this: Imagine you see an exotic fruit somewhere and you have never laid eyes on it before or eaten it. It looks weird to you, so you start to wonder, how does it taste, how does it smell, why haven’t I seen this fruit before? So instinctively, you touch it, you smell it, and finally you taste it. Then you pass the judgment of whether you like it or not. Now replace the fruit with a black person. Do their reactions start to make sense now?

If not, let me break it down a little further. I have come to believe that people’s reactions are due to three reasons:

  1. Not enough black people are traveling
  2. Curiosity
  3. Ignorance (lack of knowledge)

This is a call to action for more black people to travel as far as they can and as much as they can. We need it to be known that not only are we black and proud, but we are black and we are here too.

Evita Robinson, the creator of Nomadness Travel Tribe said it well: “We may be the only black people in India, but we in here. We may be the only black people in Tokyo getting all the looks, but we’re still in here and if we aren’t there yet, we will be soon!”

Not only am I asking black people to travel more, but also for the black people that do travel to educate those that are ignorant and to interact with those that are curious along their journey.

After I told the kids I used to work with that I was going to travel the world, they said, “Are you crazy? Black people don’t travel.” We need to stop this misconception or “taboo” dead in its tracks.

We should feel obligated to travel, to show locals from different countries that there are more than just white Americans and Europeans in the world. We need to be present, we need to teach, and we need to indulge those curious by our mystery.

By simply doing this we can decrease the stares, the hair touching, the name-calling and even the awkwardness that is felt when someone sees a black person. Most importantly, black travelers can eliminate the ignorance that is so prevalent.

I know you are probably thinking, how can we stop people from staring, calling us names, and petting us like we are zoo animals?

For people that stare

Smile and wave at them. You might even want to throw a “hi” in there! When you do that, you force the person to greet you back. This could possibly open the door for a conversation. All conversations start with a simple “hi” or “hello.” A “hi” and a wave can do wonders. It can show others that you’re not a weird, scary alien, but rather another human being that’s also welcoming.

There will be kids that are deathly afraid of you, because you don’t look like anyone they have ever seen before. What you do is acknowledge them, wave, and gesture “hi” in a playful manner.

One little girl, who looked about 5 years, old saw me and hid behind her mother’s legs and tightly shut her eyes as if I was the monster hiding under her bed. However, her curiosity was stronger than her fear, so she opened one eye and looked at me again.

I seized the moment and waved at her and said “hi” in a playful manner. At first she didn’t buy it. I did it about three more times before she eased up and unclenched her mother’s legs. Then I started making funny faces. Kids love funny faces and acting silly. By the time she and her mother left the store, she was making funny faces with me and waved bye as she left the store.

To her, I wasn’t the black giant with Medusa-like hair anymore. I was the big girl making silly faces. And it all started with just a wave and a smile. These small gestures can also make a person seem more pleasant, nice, and approachable. So smile and wave at the next person who stares at you and who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend.

For people that call you derogatory names

This is where the education part comes into play. Don’t just ignore the name-calling or call them an inappropriate name in return. That doesn’t help the situation or prevent it from happening again. Let them know that it’s clearly not okay to call you that and why. Obviously do this in a nice way. After explaining why, tell them your name and kindly ask for theirs and say, “Nice to meet you.” This gesture shows them that you are a person and not a color or a name.

I know this is easier said than done, especially if you can’t speak the native language of the country you are in, but give it a try with gestures. Anyhow, how would you know if they are calling you names if you don’t know the language?

For people that touch your hair or skin

Now this can be the most annoying thing at times — people invading your personal space and having the audacity to touch your hair or feel your skin without permission. There are times where you might feel like you are the main attraction in a foreign country.

I have come to the point where I understand that they need to touch and feel, as it is purely done out of curiosity. No ifs or buts about it.

I do, however, believe that touching someone’s hair or skin without permission is rude. Sometimes you feel like you are in a damn petting zoo, but you don’t have to feel that way. You have the power to say no, regardless of if you speak the language or not. Shaking your head side to side is a universal sign for “no” in almost any culture.

Communication is the key! If someone reaches out to touch your hair or skin, tell them you don’t like it and why. If you are someone who doesn’t mind, that’s great, but let them know that it’s polite to ask first.

Onieka from Onieka The Traveller stated, “My general rule is the following: if you ask me I take no issue. I find it hilarious that my dark skin and crinkly hair would cause such hoopla. I also take no offense to having my picture taken when I feel the person/people asking me lack the education about/exposure to black people and are thus wowed by seeing one in the flesh.’”

And you know what, if too many people are asking to touch your hair, feel your skin, or even want to take pictures with you, start charging. That way you can fund and sustain your traveling journeys.

Hey, it’s hard out here sometimes.

But really, take the time to educate people while you have their attention and curiosity, because that is when they will remember things. Curiosity is not a bad thing. In the words of Dr. William E. Kirwan, it’s “the heart of all of our strivings to understand the earth, life, and the people around us.”

So when someone is curious about you take the opportunity and use it to your advantage. Tell them about your unique skin and hair and ask them why they are touching you. Start a conversation.

Well, I don’t speak the same language so I can’t educate or indulge the curious. Wrong! You can. You may think it’s impossible to educate and indulge the curious if there is a language barrier, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Think about it, we live in a world where we can use a phone to have an entire conversation via Google Translate with someone from a foreign country. You don’t even need Google Translate or any form of technology for that matter. Gestures were used to communicate with people way before words were even invented.

And if you’re still not convinced that language barrier isn’t an issue, learn the damn language! I am sorry, that was a little mean. You can just learn the words that you need to have the conversation, such as no, I don’t like it, photo, hair, skin, why, nice, human and so forth. For example, someone who is allergic to wheat will make sure to learn and know how to say wheat in various languages, so they can avoid getting sick.

Nothing is impossible if you really want to do it. Especially if that something helps people embrace, love and get to know your race.

So now that you have no more excuses, I want you to understand that when you choose to educate the ignorant, feed the curiosity, and travel more, you make it easier for the next black person traveling in the same area.

You most likely will be one of their first interactions with black people, so you have to make sure you make a good impression. The first impression is always a lasting one. And maybe because of you, the next black person won’t be viewed as an alien but rather as a person. Maybe even a nice person because they will remember the interaction they had with you.

Loving and accepting a person can be a visual and learn-able thing. It’s up to us to teach others. So to all my black people, travel more, educate more, and indulge the curiosity of others. TC mark

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