Your social identities inform how you view yourself and how others will view you. For example, traveling while Black or traveling while a woman. I argue that it’s even more important to be aware of how you show up in the world as you go abroad. The familiarity of your home and comfort zone is gone. You may feel a bit exposed and be the odd one out at times.
As I’m interning in Berlin and traveling to smaller towns, such as Dresden and Potsdam this summer, the nuances of being Black and abroad in Europe are back on my radar. These are experiences I’ve noticed in my own behavior as I travel the world as a Black woman. Keep reading to find out what those experiences are!
You are asked “what part of Africa are you from?”
This one makes my stomach turn more than others, primarily due to the history that comes with being a Black-American. When people ask me this, I’m not as shocked as I used to be. I’m more…sad because I don’t have an answer and other people I travel with do. The question is heightened even more since most of my travels have been in Europe, the home of the colonizers. I’m baffled that people don’t seem to know the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade, with the keyword being Atlantic—–as in the ocean I flew over to get to Europe.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of what we as Black-Americans have been able to create for ourselves in the U.S. I wouldn’t trade my Black culture and traditions for anything. Being asked this question is just a constant reminder of what was taken from Black-Americans and that we can’t ever truly get it back, no matter how many DNA tests there are to take.
You find being Black AND speaking English confuses people
If you are a Black person who knows English, you may notice a difference in how you’re treated once someone realizes you are fluent in English. I’ve seen people’s attitudes change and they treat me better when they find out I speak English and I’m from the U.S. I remember this happening multiple times when I would order food at restaurants or talk to my friends as we walked down the street. People often did a double take and looked surprised at my English abilities, which showed me the privilege of the language and how it changes people’s perceptions of me and where my Blackness comes from. It’s an odd paradox, again given my Black-American history, and I still don’t know how to feel about it.
You are stared at and don’t know if it’s positive or negative
Is this a mix of fascination/curiosity, disgust, or racism? Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish why if you are unfamiliar with the culture you’re temporarily experiencing as a tourist. In Dresden, a little German girl almost ran into a tree staring at me for so long. In Granada, I was stared at and then chased down by a man who said he would take me away from Africa and be my boyfriend. FYI: I would categorize the latter as a negative experience.
However, while teaching in Spain, I taught a 3-year old student who constantly stared and then began crying during every lesson for the first few months of my contract. Naively I thought it was due to his nerves of being in school for the first time. I found out later, it was because of my skin color as I was the first Black-American teacher and person he had ever encountered. My only question was: where did he learn to fear me so early in life?
You have someone ask about or touch your hair
Where are all my natural hair Black people, specially my Black women? I’m the queen of wearing Marley twists or mixing it up with my fro or a headscarf. To other people abroad, my style isn’t their normal so it often causes some conversation and unwarranted invasions of personal space.
In Valladolid, Mexico I hopped off the bus and within 10 minutes a guy tugged at my twists, gave me a thumbs up, and walked away. Questions about my hair while I was teaching in Spain led me to create a lesson on adjectives, including descriptors common in Black culture like “twists,” “braids,” and “afros.” Black hair is one of the biggest cultural differences I face abroad because it draws the most attention. I recommend picking your battles on just how much you’re willing to “educate” someone and when you just want to walk away. Totally up to you.
You count how many other Black people are around
I blame going to a predominately-white university for this one, however it definitely applies to life abroad too. Every time I go to a new destination, I’m always checking to see how many of us there are. I have to know! It can tell me a lot about a destination and if we as a people feel comfortable enough to visit or even live. I also look around for possible Black people to connect with and see where we hang out, eat, etc.
I’m most aware of this in airports. There have been times when I’m checked more harshly than my non-Black counterparts as I go through security. Or, I’m questioned more on why I’m traveling with non-Black people, how we met, or where we’re going. I try to find friendly-looking airport security to avoid these interactions, yet sometimes I can’t escape them.
You represent every Black artist in pop culture and politics
“Aye Obama!!” was all I heard up walking through the streets of Rabat in Morocco. “You look like Rihanna, can you sing like her too?” is what I was asked during a breakfast in Santorini, Greece. As flattered as I was, because Rihanna is Rihanna and Obama was the first Black president…the only thing we share is our Blackness and our relation to the U.S. Chances are that someone along the way will say you remind them of their favorite Black singer, actress, or politician. Most of the time, the only common denominator is your skin color.
You are traveling while Black AND still seeing the world
You’re a boss regardless. Despite all the nuances that come with being Black and traveling the world, including the racism, fetishes, and privileges, you will still live your best life abroad. These experiences do not take away from what you’re achieving by being Black and abroad in a world where we are stigmatized and criticized for existing.
Some of my best memories and life lessons were made as I drank wine in the Spanish pueblo of Laguardia, indulged in a 3-course meal in Rome, solo-traveled in Mexico, and booked cheap flights that required me to stay out all night until it was time to go. I felt the weight of being a Black woman in some spaces more than others, and that wasn’t always fun. However, I don’t regret a single second. Neither should you. Get out and explore while you can.
What have been your experiences while traveling? Can anyone else relate?