Travelling While Black

Ugh. Another post on race…

Unless you are Black yourself, I bet you didn’t know that Black people have to be incredibly careful about where they travel. I know people think we Blacks make a lot of noise about ‘every little thing’ and we should ‘just get over it’ but it’s actually very difficult to do so when we still have to think twice about such simple, everyday matters.

I’ve realised lately that people don’t think these sorts of things happen in the world anymore because they haven’t actually experienced them personally.

In the Black community, we call this ‘ignorance’ and accuse people of purposely seeing only what they want to see. I think some people do do this (haha @ ‘do do’) but I honestly believe that there are many people who do not choose to be ignorant at all; they have just simply never been in a situation where they have had a personal – or even vicarious – experience of racism. It wasn’t until one of my Welsh friends asked me “what was it like growing up as a Black person in England?” that I knew this wasn’t feigned ignorance at all but a genuine question. How could I be angry at that?

I know race is an insanely sensitive topic that people feel uncomfortable talking about but this is exactly the reason why I want to talk about it. I feel that it is with meaningful conversation – where we seek first to understand rather than to be understood – that we can break down racial barriers and tensions and actually move forward.

So I’m here providing content on my personal experiences of travel across the globe and how the colour of my skin has affected them. Purely FYI. Just so you know. Just so you are aware. I’m not writing this to incite a revolution…

England:

Of course racism exists in England but, to be fair, there are so many people from a wealth of backgrounds that we are used to seeing difference (especially in London, where I come from). There are places in England that I’ve been to, like villages further up North, where people have definitely second-glanced. But for the most part, nobody even bats an eyelid. That’s not to say everyone in England, let’s say, ermmm, appreciates the diversity but they are still inhabitants of a relatively diverse nation.

Once you leave the UK shores, though, you realise not everyone is used to seeing you (which is fair enough!). Unfortunately, in some places, people don’t like what they see at all. Thankfully, I haven’t been to too many of these places but in my travel naivety, I have ended up in a few which I will list later.

There are some places – irrespective of whether you have done extensive research or not – you just know, as a Black person, you should never set foot there.

red and white do not enter signage
Photo by Jens on Pexels.com

DISCLAIMER: I have no problems with people from the countries I will mention at all and I hope no one will take any offence from what I write. I’ve met many people from these places outside of their countries and have experienced no issues but I’m aware that these people may not reflect the consensus of their country of origin. Likewise, there will be many people who live in these countries who do not behave in these ways at all; I appreciate that we are humans and so we are all different. These experiences and views, however, not only represent my own but many trusted sources of well-travelled Black folks (who I will refer to as WTBFs).

Russia:

I make no plans on going to Russia in my lifetime. I don’t think I’d even venture there in transit. My trusted WTBFs who have been there have mentioned that some Russians (not all) have no tolerance for Blacks and they are not afraid to use violence to demonstrate it. I’m afraid it’s a no from me.

A shame really, because the pictures of Russia are absolutely stunning. I’d love to get stuck into the country’s rich culture and heritage, visit their historical sites and, of course, go vodka tasting… Unfortunately, I don’t think this will happen anytime soon.

Poland:

Poland is somewhere I doubt I will ever grace with my presence for similar reasons to Russia. Trusted WTBFs reported that the kind of stares they received from some Polish folk are the kind with hatred behind their eyes and I, for one, am not here for it. A crying shame as I’ve heard Warsaw is a wonderful holiday destination. After learning about the atrocities of WWII as well, a visit to Auschwitz would be #1 on my sightseeing list- but I wouldn’t risk my life for it.

India:

India is a place I would actually love to visit because I’ve noticed many similarities between their culture and my own. I lived with a second-generation British-Indian girl at university and we noticed how similar we were, sharing many values and attributes. Even the flavours of some Indian foods and the way in which they are cooked remind me of some African staples. However, there is something about how some Indian people stare at me at airports that I do not like. Bearing in mind that the airport is where you would typically find the country’s most well-travelled people, let’s just say the stares are not the most welcoming.

In addition, the caste system prevalent in India is something I find very disturbing. There is no way I’m going to spend my Pounds, Cedis or Dirhams in a country where people think I am despicable because I am of a darker shade. I’ve gotten used to the stares generally but there’s a difference between curious glances and stares which convey offence that we have been forced to breathe the same air. Thanks, but no thanks.

As for the following places, I have visited them personally, as have many WTBFs. The reviews are mixed. I personally would need some convincing to return but maybe my negative experiences were down to the specific locations and the time of year I travelled.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Turkey:

Everyone says Istanbul is phenomenal. But my sister and I ended up in a place called Alanya which is nowhere near the country’s capital. As soon as we left our apartment, people couldn’t believe their eyes. We would walk by the beach and people would stop in their tracks and stare at us from one end of the strip to the other. When we would eat out, the door person would try to put us on the table outdoors or closest to the window in order to attract customers as if we were in the red light district in Amsterdam. When walking back to our hotel one night, a guy approached us -thinking we were prostitutes- and attempted to lure us onto the beach to have his wicked way with us.

We would get stopped by the locals, who would boldly come and ask us for pictures as if we were animals in a zoo. Kwasiakwa. We were so uncomfortable throughout the trip that we spent most of it in Starbucks, on the top floor, right at the back, away from prying eyes.

This place is cancelled for me.

Portugal:

Everyone says Lisbon is phenomenal. But 11 of us 20-something year olds ended up in Albufeira, a popular location for British young bucks or, shall I say, White-British young bucks (we just didn’t get the memo). To be fair, most of the local people seemed okay.  The problem was mainly with other tourists, many of whom came from parts of Eastern Europe. The stares we got could have been because we were Black, or because we were a large group, or maybe a little bit of both.

I remember us going for a swim at our hotel’s pool; we all got in and every one in there got out. To have a completely full pool completely empty upon our arrival struck a cord amongst us impressionable teens: we were not welcome. This was not London. The world was not cosmopolitan. And we would have to deal with it and become incredibly selective about our travel locations moving forward, unlike some of our counterparts. Like many other race issues which affect us, this was something we would just have to get used to.

The icing on the cake was when we were on the way back from a night on the razz and a Black Portuguese guy thought it would be a great idea to approach us and tell us he thought “all Black girls are ugly.” I have no idea why he felt that he could disrespect us in this way but he did (and was duly cussed out for it). It spoke volumes to me about what this young man had been exposed to growing up in Portugal but I was not about to delve into this when I was supposed to be enjoying my holiday. I just hope he understood that this statement included his own mother…

Again, this place is cancelled for me.

Then there are the places where I have been pleasantly surprised by their reaction/lack of reaction to the colour of my skin.

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Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

Kos, Greece: The locals were so welcoming; people would notice my mum, sister and I and smile warmly. It was an absolutely stunning island and I would definitely recommend it.

Cebu, The Philippines: the Filipino people were so lovely – some would beep at us from their cars and wave frantically as if they had just spotted Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

Florence, Italy: I was initially nervous about going as I’d heard some horror stories but my experience was a really positive one, especially when a waitress told me how beautiful she thought ‘my people’ were.

In Berlin, parts of Switzerland and parts of Thailand, no one even batted an eyelid.

In summary, people will always stare at something they perceive as different. As much as I’d prefer not to get stared at at all, it’s unreasonable to expect that. Being a privileged Black person, I understand that in some of these countries I am the first Black person they have ever seen in the flesh.

They even stare at me in Ghana!

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even mind the stares if they are from a place of curiosity or novelty or amazement. We’re kind of pioneers in that respect and I don’t mind paving the way. That being said, even if it’s a kind stare, I don’t like it when people stare for too long. What are you waiting for me to do? Roll my eyes into the back of my head?

I think it’s sad that many of the negative stares come from the fact that the Black people who live in these countries are poor. Some of these Black people are forced into unthinkable circumstances in order to stay alive. I cannot tell you how many countries I’ve been to where many of the Black women prostitute themselves. It absolutely infuriates me.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know exactly where I’m going with this. Ultimately, I blame our African leaders. They bask in the wealth of the nation whilst their people struggle to make ends meet and have no choice but to leave because there are few opportunities in their home countries. So they emigrate only to be subjected to inferior and/or degrading work and disrespected. If our own leaders don’t care about us, why should people from another country? The worst thing is, these ‘leaders’ are aware of how we are perceived but are totally indifferent. How they are able to sleep at night is beyond me.

African leaders, you need to do better.

Do they realise that however much money they have in their pockets, when they go to some of these countries, they will be perceived in exactly the same way as us common folk?

three women with animal face makeups
Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.com

How can we be at the bottom of the food chain in pretty much every country, even in African ones? The wealthiest people in African countries are the foreigners. When I travel, people are probably thinking “how on earth did you manage to get here?” And then they hear my accent and it all makes sense. What an absolute abomination.

Anyway, rant over.

You already know I’m a massive advocate of travel. I think humans have so many more things in common which unite us than separate us and I am determined to learn as much as I can from whoever will let me. I would love to go everywhere but realise that it may not be possible in this day an age because of the amount melanin in the skin that I was born into. Even though I had no choice over it (and if I did, would choose it a million times over), unfortunately, to the fools of this world, my hue is not welcome in their countries.

It’s a shame that this is still the state of affairs in 2018. I wish I was making it up. Hopefully, though, this gives you some insight about how race affects us in the everyday. These experiences are just as true as they are common. These are our realities.

For now, I’ll settle for the places that may stare, knowing that one day there will be enough privileged Black people to travel to these places without it being so such a shock.

I’ll take a hit for now in the hope that future generations will be able to journey off the beaten track without trepidation.

wooden stairs to beach
Photo by Tembela Bohle on Pexels.com

In the comments section, I’d love to hear about your own personal experiences of travel. Have any of yours been similar/different to mine? Let’s continue the conversation below! xx

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7 thoughts on “Travelling While Black

  1. Living in London exposes me to so many cultures that I don’t bat and eyelid when I see people of different races. You’re right, the world is very different to London.

    I remember being chased by a group of Teenagers in Turkey. It was actually quite scary as anything could have happened. Luckily it didn’t.

    The more of us who travel and the more visible we become in the flesh, the less shocked people will be – I hope.

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  2. Brilliant article Helen. Travelling to India regularly for work (Bangalore), I have found the Indian people to be very welcoming (for the most part). You get a few stares but not the “get out of my country” stare. I travel business class for my work trips and one thing that pissed me off on a few occasions when going through security, the black security officer called the white people sir but when it came to me, he would not call me sir or have the same level of respect for me. My point being, there is self hate amongst some black people too! My wife and I have had people in Macedonia ask us for a picture or point at us and when we go to luxury resorts white people snigger. On our honeymoon a white South African couple looked as if they would die every time they saw us. To our amusement lol

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    1. Thanks Glenneth!
      Do you think the people of Bangalore are more used to seeing people of different races? Is it typical that business people, like yourself, travel in and out of there regularly? I’m glad you’ve had a great overall experience in India but you’re probably the second person I’ve heard this from (the first being your wife lol!).
      Yeah, Blacks definitely can perpetuate this problem (like that mug in Portugal).
      In relation to people sniggering in resorts etc, how do you manage to laugh it off? I really struggle with things like that… Please enlighten me!

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  3. Helen this article is hilarious and although very serious topic you manage to expose it with a comic undertone which is so you 🤣
    Eastern Europe is a very interesting area: me and my sister went to Budapest and we even had CONSTRUCTION WORKERS WHO STOPPED machines and everything, dead silent just staring at us. WE WERE APPALLED. Pictures were taken constantly with us like we were celebrities. But it can also get scary. One evening we needed money out and were surrounded but what must have been like 30 men. There were definitely angels with us cos it’s like they couldn’t come close. Eastern Europe is mad but I would like to visit Prague before I say my forever goodbye to that side of the world.
    Italy is Italy. It’s my country and I can’t hate it. I get stares all the time even from black people so it is what it is. My philosophy is that people have their own preconceptions and they’re not gonna change cos you say so. Unless it calls for me to say something I leave them in their ignorance cos they obviously love it that way. One day they’ll face situations that’ll make them change their mind but that might never happen and it’s fine cos there will always be people like that in the world

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    1. Eastern Europe boy… you did well to even brave it to that side of the world. I can definitely wait. It’s true, we may never see some of these mindsets change in our lifetime and we have to be okay with that. There are enough countries in the world for us to visit where we won’t be discriminated against because of our race, which I’m grateful for.
      I appreciate your comments, Anna! xx

      Like

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