Traveling While Black
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of [wo]men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain
As I walked in front of the historical Spanish Steps just taking in the beauty of Rome while being just a drop in the pond of 1000s of other travelers surrounding me, I never felt like I was that black girl, even though in hindsight now that I think back to that moment I don’t recall seeing any other black faces within close proximity to me. Although there was no one else who looked like me, I wish there was. Not because I felt alone, but because one of my biggest hopes is that more black people take the time to explore the world and realize there is more out there than the city they’re from.
Despite having grown up in predominantly white areas my entire life, I never really felt the pressure of being the only black person in any setting whether it be academia, professional, or personal. I honestly never really thought about race until I was well into my teenage years. When I discovered my love for international travel I was simultaneously finding my love for black people. Attending Spelman College, which is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) there was a huge focus on learning more in-depth knowledge on the African Diaspora. The president at the time, Dr. Beverley Daniel Tatum, also had an initiative with a strong focus on international exploration. With those two ideas being taught to me on a daily basis, I quickly started to explore who I was within my race, while simultaneously wanting to know who I was not only in America, but in other countries as well. I wanted to see others who looked like me, yet weren’t from where I was from.
Throughout my childhood the only large interactions with black people I had, were with my family; which is why I couldn’t wait to discover all types of black people i.e. the African Diaspora and what all it entails. My first international experience was to the Dominican Republic and I absolutely loved it. As soon as I walked off the plane I was greeted by locals who looked just like me. What do I mean? They were brown skin with curly, kinky hair and they could honestly be my cousin. What separated us? Besides the fact we were obviously from 2 different countries? Language. I was in complete awe that someone who looked just like me didn’t speak any English. From that moment on I became greatly interested in where other black people resided within the world. Having this experience of seeing other black people opened the door to self-exploration.
Depending on who you ask, others have had “negative” encounters being black while traveling abroad, however I have had the complete opposite experience. I have heard stories from different friends telling me how they are stared and pointed at when they go out, have been asked to touch or pull on their hair, or asked to have pictures taken with them. I do understand how those experiences can make someone feel uncomfortable; however I wouldn’t deem them as “negative” per se. I would classify them as teachable moments. The reason people are reacting as such is because 9 times out of 10 they genuinely probably have never seen a black person up close in person and admittedly want to learn and see more. This is the time we [black people] can help dismiss any stereotypes that they may have. I personally know when I travel I try to meet as many locals as possible just because I want to pick their brain and learn more about them, their country, their lifestyle, etc. So doesn’t it make a little sense that they too are just doing the same thing? One thing I say all the time to myself is: cultural differences and I keep it pushing. What do I mean when I say that? I live in New York City, aka the mecca of diversity and different cultures; it’s just one big melting pot. All the time I encounter people from all over the world and they may do something and I immediately think ‘wow that was so rude,’ but then I have to check myself and remind myself that they may not be from here and maybe where they’re from, what they just did isn’t considered rude. They too could just be a jerk, but I’m going to go with the former lol.
As a self-proclaimed avid traveler, the sole purpose of my travel endeavors are to break stereotypes and to open other people’s minds while simultaneously opening my own. Throughout the world black culture is often imitated, however people who have never interacted with black people before only know what they see on TV, sports, and in music. In my native country of the United States, about 36% of Americans have a valid passport and of that number about 3% are black. Over the past few years there has been a huge influx of black travelers which has been very exciting; however we have a ways to go.
Living in a country where you are naturally the minority in many aspects of your life, African/Black Americans have the upper hand when traveling internationally because we already know what it feels like to not fit in with the majority. So when we travel to places such as Asia where there is not a strong black presence or to Eastern Europe and everywhere in between, this isn’t the time for us to retreat into our shells, but to help break stereotypes that many people have about us because the only exposure they have to our culture is through what they see in the media. At the end of the day stereotypes, prejudices, and racism all have strong roots in beliefs that are largely perpetuated by the media, however usually have no bases in fact. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that these beliefs will maintain their stronghold until presented with a reason to believe otherwise. For example, a local may believe the stereotype that all black people are mean, violent, or loud until they meet the outspoken friendly black girl with wild curls who genuinely just wants to pick their brain and build a relationship and offer them the opportunity to do the same. And once that connection is made, the stereotype then has to be reassessed in lieu of this new interaction.
When I was traveling through Europe with my friends, I went out one night in London and went to the club. Me being the gregarious person I am I ended up speaking to several people in line. Of course as soon as I opened my mouth I was asked about my accent and if I was American. Once we got past the “where are you from” part of the conversation it quickly turned to what was happening in America. Every person I spoke to knew in-depth what was happening in America. Our media is one of the strongest in the world, so when someone’s only outlet to black people is via media then I cannot blame them for the misconceptions they have. However, I will to the best of my ability try to course correct what they believe to a more honest reality.
In a world where black travel is on the up rise, it’s our time to get out and see the world. Don’t go just for the stamp in your passport, but so you find a piece of yourself along the way and most importantly go set the path ablaze for others to follow in your footsteps. In the words of one my favorites Maya Angelou, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”