It’s a truth not universally acknowledged, that travelling while black or brown is a uniquely different experience to travelling while white. I’ve ascertained this from countless trips abroad with my white family members and, from my experiences backpacking around South East Asia and Colombia with white friends. Our experiences varied greatly.
Because as most non-white, ‘Western’ travellers will attest, dark skin can immediately denote ‘foreigner’ in a country without very many black people. White people are more commonly associated with travelling for pleasure and black people have to fend off a lot of different stereotypes associated with their travel habits and access to travel. So sometimes travelling while black or brown can be a little strange, to say the least.
In 2014 I endured pointing, staring and more than a few random hands plunged into my hair during a backpacking trip to Thailand and Vietnam with my two white friends. Although they also dealt with a lot of intrusive comments and photo requests, they told me that they didn’t feel as if this attention bellied racist undertones. I couldn’t always say the same. In parts of Thailand and Viet Nam, the archetypal white Western tourist is still something of a novelty, and people of colour even more so, but it’s widely known that darker skinned visitors are treated with more derision than white visitors and sometimes I was a little on edge.
In contrast, last year I spent four nights in Fez, Morocco with my British-Nigerian friend and we were mistaken for President Obama’s family. On numerous occasions. So travelling while black or brown can have its advantages.
I’m always intrigued to discover how the perception of me changes from place to place. And that’s part of the reason I have a very real, fully-fledged travel addiction. I like visiting countries in which the Eurocentric standard of beauty is viewed through a different lens. I enjoy analysing how the intersection of race, class and gender change in a new place. I think about what my life would be like if I was born in a different place, another time.
Travelling dismantles your pre-conceived notions on national and personal identity and helps you re-organise your sense of self. And this is especially true for those travelling while black or brown.
Here are some of the main pros and cons to being black on the road.
Advantage: People are friendlier
Whilst lining up for some Caribbean street from a food vendor in Crown Heights, Brooklyn this year (FYI, she goes by the name ‘Peppa’ and cooks the best jerk chicken) we got talking about my accent. I told her I was from South London and she got really hyped because she used to live in Brixton and obviously assumed I was also of Jamaican heritage. She started talking about all these Caribbean food products that I had no clue about (do I eat this bread? And do I miss a particular drink?)
I was panicking silently in my head because I didn’t know whether or not to play along, or dash her dreams and tell her that I wasn’t Jamaican. But actually it didn’t really mater – we bonded over good food pure and simple. And as a result, I ended up getting six chicken wings (the two white girls next to me got five) plus a free fish cake and an invitation to a reggaeton BBQ. Win.
Disadvantage: The Stereotypes Are Real
If you’re an ethnic minority from a Western country, chances are you’ll have spent tireless hours fighting the pervasive stereotypes around your blackness for years. You’ve probably reached the point where you know that to stay sane is to accept a certain level of bullshit, just so you can get on with your life. But in a foreign country without many black people, expect to start all over again with fighting the good fight. There are lots of people who won’t be able to reconcile the idea that ‘English’ and ‘brown’ can go together.
Last year during Colombia’s Carnival de Barranquilla, (birth place of Shakira, btw) a friendly, gay couple overheard me talking. “Oh my god! How can you speak English?” they exclaimed. “Are there more people like you in London?” Similarly in Co. Clare, Ireland where my Mum’s family is from, I was out clubbing in Ennis, Limerick when a man tried to woo me, Irish-farmer style. “HAY, DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” he barked at me.
Like many black and brown people, I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve had to expand the most commonly espoused definition of a ‘Westerner’ by way of definition of my own existence.
Advantage: There will Be Discounts…
On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, being mistaken for an Afro-Colombian saved me serious dollar/pesos. When buying street food from the vendors in Cartagena I could just about get away with maintaining my Spanish accent long enough to ask how much an empanada was (“cuanto?” – not even I can fuck that up). When I went back to the same vendor with a group from my hostel the next night, I realised that the 17-year-old Canadian kid from my hostel was charged three times what I was. I witnessed this happen to my white friends on numerous occasions. Or, if we were all together, it would happen to me to. So obviously I did what any travelling, social justice warrior would do; I went on food runs by myself.
Advantage: You Won’t Attract Too Much Attention
Western women will always attract the side-eye when moving through lesser-travelled countries. But being a ‘minority’ in a country where other people are also dark-skinned means that with a few tweaks to your clothes, hair, mannerisms and facial expressions, you can blend in a little easier. Shed your flashy iphone, learn a bit of the lingo and depending on where you’re at, chances are you’ll be able to move around undetected. By lessening the attention focused on you, you’re also making yourself less of a target.
Disadvantage: You’ll Attract A Lot Of Attention
I remember an ex once telling me that all the locals stared at his Jamaican Mum on holiday in Greece, as she sat with him and his white father: “They’d never seen a woman that dark on vacation before. They thought she should be selling bags on the beach” he told me.
And last year in Morocco with my Nigerian-British best friend, we couldn’t set foot outside our hostel without someone reminding us of our blackness. Granted, when the locals shouted “Obama!” after us as we strolled around in the 40 degree heat, or our waiter declared: “I like black women!” as he plonked our tagine down on the table in a restaurant, it was more amusing than threatening. But insidious stereotypes like this can make travelling while black uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. As I’m not about to change colour any time soon (and I would like to minimise the risk of being attacked or made to feel awkward whilst travelling alone), I’ll leave most of Russia, parts of China and Korea and a couple of sections of Eastern Europe off my solo-girl travel list for now.
What are your experiences of travelling while black or brown? I’d love to know if any of them are similar to mine…