As I write this now, a man has plonked himself down on the couch next to me, asking me if I’m new to the area, and what time this cafe closes.
I can feel my body tensing up, my eyes quickly darting down towards my laptop because I can’t be arsed for the next line of questioning, which I know will inevitably be related to my race.
It always goes this way and I won’t know what to say. Or he won’t accept my answer. Answering where are you from? will satisfy the curiosity. But it won’t make the discussion any less awkward for me, because I don’t have an answer for why I really look the way that I do and I don’t know if I ever will.
My trip to the Dominican Republic in March 2017 came at just the right time. After almost two months of living and working on the Corn Islands, off the coast of Nicaragua (which was slowly gnawing at my soul and driving me to insanity), I was craving a more frenetic pace of living with access to more than one nightclub.
I still wanted a culture infused with Latin and African influences, but I didn’t want to spend too much money or get island-fever ever again. I needed people and space and a city in which to breathe — even if it was going to be more heavily polluted air than I was accustomed to. So I booked a one-way trip to Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s once-dangerous capital, knowing relatively little about the city or the country I was planning to spend a month in, but excited all the same.
Untangling the politics of black hair is tough – and trying to explain it to those who have never experienced the intrigue, the questioning, the barrage of unwanted comments, the weird looks and the uninvited hands being plunged into their own hair…is even tougher.
As my acceptance of my own curls has grown over the years, naturally so has my understanding of how to take care of them as well as my knowledge of black hair. I owe a significant amount of credit to one of my best friends who I met at University; a British-Nigerian girl who got me started on the path to really understanding my hair, aged 20. (Thanks Abi!). Because it’s only now I realise four years later as I’m on a quest to find out my own roots, (literally), that I realise all that time spent disparaging my hair was probably down to the fact that I was trying desperately to fit in with what surrounded me and denying my own self in the process.
Since sharing my identity issues and story about being raised white as a black woman at the end of 2016, some fairly interesting things have happened to me (nearly all of them good). Although I was scared about addressing an issue that had plagued me for years, and worried about the potential backlash I’d face from family members or strangers, pouring my heart out on the internet turned out to be the best decision I made last year. Here’s why:
“You’re not black here. The locals won’t call you black“.
These were some of the first words uttered to me by a (white, European, male) island inhabitant when I arrived on Big Corn Island.
“You’s a white gyal,” another friend who was born and raised on the island his whole life, told me on the bleach-white sands, one blisteringly hot day.
I remember looking at all the other people, similar in shade to me and I felt… un poco confuso (a little confused).
Why could I not be black here?!
When people ask me why I travel, maybe I’ll direct them to this post (which I’ve put off publishing for days) rather than offering up some vague explanation about “finding myself”.
“Finding myself” in relation to my travels make it sound as if I actually left my right leg in Medellin, or something. But “finding myself” is exactly what I’m trying to do.
Because after 23 years of thinking that I knew my ethnic background — of thinking that I knew who I was — I have found out news that changes everything, but at the same time, nothing:
I am (probably) black.
That statement in itself might look ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t know me. To anyone who has stumbled across this post, seen a couple of my photos and thought;
Is this girl crazy? She’s very clearly not white. ~Insert Specsavers joke here.~
But for the longest time I grew up believing that I was. White, that is.
What nobody tells you about grief and dealing with the loss of a loved one is…basically everything useful.
When I went to write this article, my keyword research suggested that a lot of people want to open up an online dialogue on the topic of death (there are currently around 22,000 monthly UK searches for the word ‘bereavement’ on Google and predictably, very little advertising competition). This is probably because culturally, British people aren’t the best at discussing our feelings, are we? And also, death doesn’t really sell ads. (Films – yes, but ad space, no).
In this country, I really think the ‘keep calm and carry on’, stiff-upper-lip mentality, borne of the war-time era to encourage strength and survival, is now stifling our most difficult discussions and making them harder. I witnessed it when my Dad got sick, with friends and family who lost the ability to ask about the most important thing in my life – which just so happened to be death.
So after years of pining over the melanin-heavy photos of AFROPUNK festival online and wishing that I had; 1), a Brooklyn residency. (So that I could stroll on over to the festival, then stroll on back to my apartment/house and pass out.) And 2), a fly outfit. (For the photos). I finally got myself together and actually made it to AFROPUNK, 2016 in New York City.
The annual celebration of black music, culture, fashion and activism takes place in Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park for a weekend. This just so happened to be about twenty minutes from where I was living; meaning the pass-out at the end was quick and easy and painless. Just as I’d always envisaged.
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.