Traveling While … Black Part II (Last Revised June 10th 2021)

UPDATE: This post was originally written in August of 2014. This was a catalyst year for change in discussion of race in America. For some that year might be 2016 or 2020. But for me it was 2014. When I read this now, knowing what I know today, even knowing what I knew just months after posting ... I wish to scrap it. This is an archive of memories, a time capsule so I am not keen on just erasing things from this space. But I will fess up to not liking what I wrote and feeling as if I was trying to make something feel better than reality. It appears as if I am one of those colorblind individuals and my actions later on like marrying a German and living in Europe sort of back that up. I am not colorblind nor have I ever been or plan to ever be. I am hyper aware of my race and its dynamics especially when moving about the world. This ring on my finger or apartment in Germany doesn't give me some sort of pass nor does it shield me from anything. However, perceptions of who I am or what I am about are still problematic even more so today. Instead of challenging the views of someone who was in a different place at a different time please consider the changes in society as well as personal growth on my end. I am mature enough and have had too many experiences to align with respectability politics while abroad. However, I do realize people struggle with this concept even domestically in the bonnet gates and code switching conversations that are happening today. I wish that we could just be ourselves everywhere at all times and not have to stay on code or fit into whatever box. The reality is that is impossible for so many but as I now proclaim to be a global citizen I move different. But hey even Oprah couldn't get into the Hermes store in Zurich. You feel me? 

Allow me to generalize for a moment - which type of Black traveler are you? Are you the first in your family to go or do anything rather - i.e. finish high school, go to college, get on a plane? Are you the affluent type who has always traveled and you are numb to the experience of travel and or being a "Black" traveler ? Are you the nomadic gypsy in between jobs and school taking a hiatus or leap? Are you the hard worker who rewarded yourself with a once in a lifetime opportunity? Maybe you are none of the above but who are you anyways? What do you convey as you go about the world with a suitcase? Sadly, the first thing you would be is your color. It is your first impression and everything else is secondary - thats life. Just imagine, what if race and colorism don't play a role elsewhere? What if your nationality always proceeded you? Which would you rather be judged by? I'll tell you when you're getting on the Paris Metro, who you are speaks louder than words and may have nothing to do with your being Black.

What I've found is people will try to figure you out. Again Black people are everywhere but they are people of different cultures and nationalities. So you may get stared at by your "own kind" but they are trying to place you. On the trains I had hoped that if I was perceived as something or someone I wasn't and people would attempt to engage me based on that. I wanted people to speak to me in other languages or attempt to find a common bond like my natural hair or the use of an iPhone. However, those things made me stand out as an American. It was sort of a "game over" to inclusion especially so on the train or shopping in a store. Most of the time I was treated like royalty as if the "native" people had something to prove to me. I sometimes felt that people were trying to impress me. I also sometimes felt like people would make an effort to ignore me. I had to remember it wasn't all about my race or color but more about me being an American. I found that attempting to speak the language or align in someway threw the negative stereotypes of being an American to the wayside. I don't think people are fully aware of any so-called Black stigmas but they do think all Americans are a certain type of way. I have said it is easier to accept that the stigmas are out there here. However, it is best to try to break those hurdles and stay true to yourself. Remember, you cannot be defined by regional vernacular or implied/imposed class just because of your color. I guess that is the fun part. You can be Black and equally considered human. To even explain the opposite experience to someone overseas it all becomes so trivial and confusing. You yourself may rethink what it is in America we try to box people in or out by. 

Representation of country is really more important than race. Unless your race is specifically of topic (and I doubt it will ever come up) you will mostly be questioned about America. Know that anything negative going on with your maker will be considered while overseas. So walking into a place oblivious to current affairs could be a problem. You want to stay abreast of whatever is going on at home politically because everyone else is quite aware. They may not mention it but will show it in their actions towards you. This is where it gets tricky because if something is going on with race relations in America you could stand out like a sore thumb. For me the Trayvon Martin case weighed heavily on my decision making and behavior while traveling. I was personally torn with my association to a country that appeared to be in utter turmoil over race. America already has issues with crime and guns but now we're having a battle over something as small as color. That struck a chord within me - I was a walking representation of what is wrong in America! I could be perceived as trying to avoid the problem by traveling or being an aloof American with no ties to my own culture. I could be looked at as an absent fighter for what was right and a defector of my own country for the wrong reasons. I could have been showing this outwardly and I did see how my being there at that particular time was negatively received. I'm not sure if she felt it but I sure did. That totally could have been on me. Personally, I was embarrassed to be an American.

Right now America and it's Black citizens are going through it. The few Black people I know who are in the midst of traveling have expressed their frustrations via social media. They are experiencing an influx of negative media around the Michael Brown situation in Missouri. The reality is most of the time you are looking at news that has been filtered and diluted and reached it's final destination misconstrued. You must also understand traveling Black American's are watching this content in a different language and or represented differently. We spin news here but overseas its fairly broken down for what it is. No matter what language that sort of news is in - it is always told as it should be and right now the major headline is that we are having our own race war at home. There is also the situation in Iraq and the hostage killing in Syria. These things put American's at the forefront of negative attention while traveling. In some cases, the news alone can be dangerous. Your attitude about it is what carries. Surely, we had some things to say about the goings on last year but we kept the debate and emotions confined to our room. When out and about we always put our best foot forward. 

So what if it isn't about the above? What if things really do boil down to race? In Spain, I was taunted a lot about the tone of my skin. There was no explanation, just a lot of men bombarding me with compliments related to my color. Instead of being snippy about it I just took the compliments and went on with my day. In Italy, I found myself being ignored and equally ogled. It is public knowledge Italians are a bit off when it comes to women, dark complexions, homosexuals etc. You also have the religious aspects of Catholicism so other religious parties could be ostracized. I never let it get to me and I just took in the experience of being there. After all, that is the most important part of traveling. You're seeing things, gaining a new understanding and exposing yourself to new cultures, traditions etc. No matter where I went or what I did I never experienced the blatant, subtle racism I encounter daily in the States. I found that most people we're respectful which could have been because I was female. I did see plenty of lone Black, American men in Italy and they seemed to be really enjoying their time there. Now I have heard stories of people with a dark complexion being mistreated in places like Brazil and Switzerland. I've also heard stories of a strange cult following similar to what I experienced in Spain in places like Japan. Again, it's about your attitude and if something doesn't feel right you have options. Don't patron a restaurant that forces you to wait an unduly amount of time, don't haggle with hotel staff that isn't understanding and don't buy something in a store where you are ignored. A lot of times in America, we put up with these experiences or act out when we feel oppressed. I won't get into peoples decisions to do one or another because that is purely situational. Just know that you have the advantage as a traveler. You can assertively address anything and you also have the privilege to leave. 

Long story short, traveling while Black can be an easy experience - if you set out seeing that way. It can really be life altering to see that in most places your race isn't a factor. You will see that your nationality and awareness of what goes on in your country is more important and held in consideration. If you go with an open mind and know that most race issues are left behind at home - you can travel and forget all about that noise. Staying open minded about gaining a few new experiences and learning different ways of life helps. When I immersed myself in that I had no indicators of my race being a problem. I was treated well and graciously accepted the opportunity and temporary luxury. Hey, we have our own hang ups about taking on new experiences and it's built on what happens here when you normally put that effort forth. I'm here to tell you it can be overcome in a few days worth of travel. It is also very refreshing to bring the new found perspective back home. You can and will get jaded when you figure out all of the above is a stateside thing. You also become a better human when you have been exposed to something different. There is a beauty in being well-traveled and having gained acceptance of all types of people.

P.S. An ethnic blog recently did a piece based on this same subject even entitled the same. I was really put off because I wrote these entries before theirs. Sadly, their blog was way different. They made a huge emphasis on white privilege and how it trumps everywhere. It created a really negative dialogue in comments and I'm sure a great many decided not to travel after reading. Let it be known by someone who has had the experience, that sort of mentality doesn't help. It really does goes both ways. If you travel with that thinking you will feel everyone that is different has something against you. You will basically go into the unknown thinking you know it all and build up your own wall. There's that expression of blocking your blessings and acting as if there is a cloud hanging above you based on the color of your skin will do exactly that. The gift of travel - anyway you can do it - is a great blessing. So please don't let that mentality steer you away from getting what you deserve. Just get out there - be it backpacking, train hopping, jet flying, first class, sisterhood, paid group or fell swoop! The more we make ourselves available to new experiences, the more we influence others perspectives. We promote traveling, tolerance, diversity etc. 

No comments: