6 Things Every Black Woman Needs to Know Before Going Abroad
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that traveling abroad is a wonderful experience that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy. But for black travelers, going to countries with people who may not understand the concept of diversity calls for special considerations.
I’ve traveled solo (or not) pretty extensively (you can read all about that here). So, as you can imagine, I’ve had some amazing experiences. But I’ve also had some less-than-amazing ones.
Here’s what you need to know about what black travelers may face abroad.
1. You may feel on display.
Being stared at by the locals is not a unique experience for most travelers, especially when visiting more homogenous countries with people who don’t look like you. However, sometimes the reaction can be just short of voyeurism, or treating a person like they’re a celebrity walking the street.
Recently, a friend shared an experience with me about when she studied in Madrid.
The host family she stayed with was not expecting to host a black person. While my friend was getting settled, she overheard her host mother on the phone, talking about how surprised she was that my friend was black. She then told the person on the other line that they should come by to see my friend.
The host mother went on to place several other calls to individuals to talk about my friend being “pretty for a black girl,” and inviting them over to see her as well. She even wanted my friend to meet her nephew.
Naturally, my friend had no desire to be put on display like a panda at the zoo, and made up an excuse that she had plans with friends and could not meet the many people coming over.
Confronting the host on the insensitivity she was showing might have worked, but it might not have. Realistically, she probably didn’t have the cultural awareness that many (not all) people living in more diverse places do.
I had a similar experience when I stayed with a host family in Barcelona as a teenager.
Except the family was not as friendly. They did not eat with us (every day serving us dinner after they had eaten, which I and my roommate, also a black girl, did not eat) and they didn’t speak with us much. Initially they seemed a bit shocked at our presence, and didn’t know how to handle us. My roommate and I made every effort to communicate and bond, but it wasn’t a comfortable experience overall.
Limited exposure to and ideas about black people were at the root of these problems, and any anger displayed would have overshadowed the real issue.
Sometimes, the best thing to do in a situation like this is to show another side of what people expect, while still maintaining your dignity. We can’t force people to do better, but we can lead by example.
As former First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” We left that host family a bouquet of flowers on our last day.
2. Your hair may be a head-turner.
One of the most common standouts for black travelers, after skin tone, is hair.
Curly hair, locks, and braids can be unique to some, and the desire to touch is understandable. It’s the not-asking-first-before-you-touch that is a problem.
When a child touched my friend’s braids on the subway during a trip to Barcelona, my friend grinned and bared it, even though the parent did not correct the child. But when a grown man (who I did not know) proceeded to walk up to me and attempt to put his hands in my natural curls one night out in Ireland, I did a boxer’s duck and scolded him.
Aside from sanitary concerns, it’s also a personal space issue. My hair is still part of me, and putting hands on a person without asking can be seen as rude (if not an assault).
There are also, annoyingly, those who assume that the hair on a black woman’s head cannot be her own.
This is the result of media stereotyping black women as only ever wearing weaves and wigs.
This happened to me in Phuket, Thailand last summer, while I was out to dinner with two other black travelers, who were also women. Our waitress told us that she liked our hair, but implied that it was not our own.
One of my companions corrected her and said that our hair was ours.
“Right, because you bought it,” the waitress said, smiling.
Again, my friend corrected her. This time she looked at us in disbelief, still smiling. My friend then asked her if her hair was not hers. She laughed, telling us that of course it was.
The belief that black women do not have long hair is a curious one. Acknowledging and educating those who choose to subscribe to limited understandings of us can take patience. But while part of the experience of traveling is to expose yourself to different ways of life, it’s also to share your own culture with others.
That said, we should never have to tolerate feeling like we’re on display, or being treated like a sideshow.
3. You might get called names — but not the ones you think.
This is not unique to traveling abroad, and I can certainly face the reality of being called a racial slur in my own country so I won’t focus so much on those particular words (though I have admittedly been the victim of such name-calling while abroad).
Instead, I will mention the ones that may not seem negative to those making the comments. If anything, they fall in line with what we know as microaggressions which, while frequently a product of ignorance, can often have the same effect as using an explicit racial slur.
On my travels, I’ve been called Beyoncé and Shakira (still don’t get that one). I’ve heard friends called Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Obama. I even had a friend of a deeper brown shade get called “Chocolate Man” many times when we were out and about in Bangkok. After a while, he started to feel uncomfortable.
None of us look like these people, except for the fact that we are brown skinned. Perhaps the people shouting these names see it as a compliment, or simply do it because they don’t know what else to say when seeing someone so foreign to them.
I can say that no one being called these names takes them as compliments.
The reality is that people of color — especially brown and black travelers — are often looked at as objects, as opposed to unique individuals with feelings.
Once, on a trip in Malaysia, I had a travel mate return the race-based celebrity name-calling to the local in question.
“Obama!” someone shouted out while we were walking down the street. “Jackie Chan!” my friend shouted back.
While it was an uncomfortable moment, it did shut the perpetrator up. That’s one method of handling it.
My overall rule is, again, to go high when others go low. Most of the time I ignore these shouts or simply say “No,” without smiling, and keep walking. I pick my battles when it comes to educating others.
4. You may be oversexualized.
I wrote a term paper in college (not so long ago) discussing the sexualization of black women in music videos from the 1980s through present. It was a surprising theme that was all too easy to find.
I’ve always known that music and TV are some of the easiest international exports, and can be the first thing a person learns about another country or culture. If all you see of an ethnic group are “video girls” dancing half naked in rap videos or fighting each other in tight clothes on a reality show, your opinion is likely going to be very limited.
It’s no surprise that I experience race-based sexual attention in almost every country I visit. These can range from not-so-harmful comments — like being called Morenita and Negrita in Barcelona (which is not meant to be offensive in Spanish), or cat-called by men on the street in Italy — to having my butt grabbed in Malaysia, or being straight up propositioned by white male tourists in Rio de Janeiro and Jamaica. And I’ve learned that these experiences are not unique to me.
My hope is that these offensive encounters will decrease as we move towards a world with more diverse media representation and travel abroad by people of color.
In the meantime, I ignore the cat-calling. (Though I will admit that I did hit that man who grabbed me in Malaysia once (ok, twice).) I’ve become more vigilant since then.
5. People may assume you can’t afford things (and more).
One thing I had to reconcile when traveling to certain countries is that being followed around a store isn’t necessarily indicative of a racist salesperson. In some countries, this is simply a part of customer service.
However, there are absolutely encounters that are very clear racism. You may recall Oprah’s incident in Switzerland where a store clerk would not show her an expensive bag because she assumed Oprah could not afford it.
A friend recently told me a similar story about her visit to a shoe boutique in Israel.
She tried on a pair of boots and liked them so much that she wanted two pairs in different colors. When she asked the saleswoman for a second pair in another color, the woman let my friend know that the boots were expensive — in a tone and manner that indicated she did not think my friend could afford them.
The price was on the shoebox, so my friend was well aware of the cost. She asked the woman if she made it a practice to tell customers that shoes were expensive when they didn’t ask the price. The woman admitted that she did not, but said she thought my friend was African, not American. My friend let the woman know that what she said was inappropriate. She also told her that she should stick to ringing up shoes.
Another friend told me a story recently about visiting a country with some classmates and not being serviced at a restaurant. The waitress took the orders of all her classmates, but not my friend’s. She was the only black person in the group. In the end, my friend had to get her professor to put in her order because the waitress refused to take her order.
The concept that black travelers are there as poor immigrants instead of vacationers is still prevalent, though this is starting to change. The bigger issue is that people are quick to make assumptions about others based solely on the color of their skin.
And regardless, all humans should be treated with decency and respect, no matter their financial situation.
If you do find yourself in a situation like the ones described above, call attention to the issue and take it up the chain if you can.
Personally, I don’t patronize places that don’t cater to me in the same way they do other customers.
One thing I alluded to above is the treatment of people from Africa compared to the treatment of people, of any color, from other continents. I have heard many a tale of Africans being discriminated against in various countries, and I have personally experienced people — as my friend did — treating us differently once they discovered we were American.
People from African countries traveling for leisure is still a foreign concept in many of the countries I’ve visited. And the belief that African people are visiting a country to commit crimes or engage in sex work is still popular.
I see so many people from Africa studying, vacationing, and living quite well abroad in European, American, and Asian countries. On a recent vacation to Thailand, the locals kept asking my friends and I if we were from South Africa. I can only assume this was because they were starting to see more vacationers of color from that country.
Although these stereotypes may not affect me directly as a person who grew up in the United States, they do affect me as a black woman.
My most important takeaway here is this: If you witness discrimination, speak up and say something. The biggest power we have in this world is empathy. Show support for others regardless of whether you were directly affected or not.
We all have a duty as people of the world to treat each other with respect, and stand against those engaging in discrimination.
6. You may be loved.
Despite what I have encountered abroad, the one thing that keeps me going is the positive experiences I have had.
With those stares and attempts to touch my hair, I’ve also been told I am beautiful, and have made some friends who enjoyed talking to people they didn’t typically get to see.
In London and Ireland, I’ve shared drinks with wonderful locals who were nothing but respectful and friendly. In Thailand and Malaysia, I had many good experiences with customer service, including those selling goods in shops and tour guides who looked out for us. In Italy, I had only positive experiences with locals, who were all quite charming. In Amsterdam and Brazil, I was often mistaken for a local and chatted up.
The world has its good and bad, but you’ll never know until you step out and see it. And I can guarantee that the good you encounter will overshadow anything else.