Violence or Fetishization, and Sometimes Both: What It’s like to Travel as a Black Woman
“Your body is your first home. Breathing in, I arrive in my body. Breathing out, I am home.” –Thich Nhat Hahn
And so I am home. I carry home everywhere I go. And in many places, my home becomes my biggest source of danger.
At fourteen, on a Christmas holiday with my family in Dubai, I am stalked by a strange man.
We are at the IBN Battuta; an enormous shopping complex inspired by an adventurer of the same name.
I walk through the Persian court, completely awed by the lavish mosaic walkways, straying further and further away from my equally distracted parents. Eventually I lose them, and when I realize it, the panic sets in.
My eyes frantically dart around my immediate surroundings, searching for my father first: big, very black, and difficult to miss.
Something stirs in the pit of my stomach when my eyes meet those of a stranger. I had noticed him leering at me over half an hour earlier, and throughout our journey I frequently check to see whether he’s still there. Every time I check, he is.
This is no coincidence.
At 521,000 square meters large, the IBN Battuta is one of the largest shopping malls in the world (and the largest themed shopping mall). If you keep running into someone, it is possible, and certainly likely, that they are following you.
He walks towards me, as my legs leaden with fear. From his eyes, two things are clear: One, I have no right to the ground over which I am standing. And two, he can (and just might) do whatever he would like to me with no consequence.
Because if black lives don’t matter, black women’s lives matter even less.
He stands directly in front of me and smirks.
“Hello, bootylicious,” he says.
I’m completely stunned. By now, only two years into puberty, I am uncomfortably familiar with the audacity of men. But my surprise here is mostly with how kitsch the whole moment is. That an Arab man’s only reference point for interacting with a (young) black girl is to quote the lyrics of a five-year-old Destiny’s Child song referring to a curvaceous body is an agitating realization.
When a black woman leaves home to explore the world and finds herself in places where she doesn’t typically exist, there are two things that can happen: One, she is completely invisible. Or two, she isn’t.
If the latter happens, we are perched precariously between revulsion and often violent, racialized fetishization.
And because the way my body looks falls comfortably under the hypersexualized archetype of a black woman’s body, I have experienced incidents just as intimidating as the one I had as a teenage girl in Dubai every time I have traveled. A black Jezebel plucked from the depths of time, the fact that I have full lips, thighs, and ass in a way that is being celebrated on the likes of a newly remodeled Kylie Jenner has made me the subject of much sexual aggression.
I am assumed to be manipulative and lascivious; an assumption which could easily be used as justification for my harassment.
When black women travel, we don’t get to be a trope from a Ryan Murphy movie. We don’t usually get our Eat, Pray, Love moments. We don’t “find ourselves” as much as we find out more and more the value (or lack thereof) people place on us outside of the safe havens we work tirelessly to create for ourselves at home.
What sets in as a result of this stereotyping is a paranoia, a guilt, a self-flagellation, and then a censorship of self.
I tell myself that I’m imagining it. That I’m not actually being targeted because I am a woman, or because I am a black woman.
I do this even when, a few years later, at a hotel in the Drakensburg mountains, I watch a group of groundsmen let a white woman in a pair of tiny shorts walk by without incident. I do this when, a minute later, they proceed to jeer at and try to grab me as I walk past wearing shorts that are visibly longer.
She, the possessor of white femininity which against any evidence to the contrary signals modesty, and I the complete opposite.
So I change my behavior.
I stop wearing shorts — or anything that might be used to justify my harassment — when I travel. I try whenever I can to walk around with friends, especially a male companion, as a deterrent. I text my location every time it changes to a loved one. I watch how much I drink and, more importantly, I carefully watch my drink when I’m out in public spaces. I register my travel plans with my embassy. I tally every black face I see when I’m out in public, and often search those same faces for a sign of solidarity.
I negotiate my safety and wellbeing every day.
On my first solo vacation to Nairobi, Kenya (a few years ago), I feign a friendliness that is so far from who I actually am it feels like caricature. I meet a friendly Kenyan man through a mutual friend from back home, who, during our first conversation piques my interest when he tells me of his and my country’s shared postcolonial history.
When I agree to dinner at his apartment the next day, a familiar panic sets in as soon as I sit down and realize I am to have dinner with only him and his roommate. I struggle to keep up with the conversation as I imagine all the terrible things that might happen to me alone in an apartment with two men in a foreign country.
I know that a white woman on vacation in Africa who meets a terrible fate makes headline news around the world. I knew even better that I won’t.
Thankfully, nothing happens.
I have my mother’s body.
My little sister also has my mother’s body. And this year, she wants to take a trip to Victoria Falls with friends.
I was there last year around the same time. A day after my arrival, I am harassed by an employee at a grocery store as I look for spring onions for a fried rice dinner.
I worry about my mother and about my little sister when they travel without me. We all look too much like each other.
In May of this year, the decomposed body of a woman thought to be Charlotte Nikoi, a UN executive based in New York, is found on Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.
She had been missing for 10 weeks after disappearing during a hike.
The story barely makes the news. A black woman gone missing in foreign lands is not newsworthy.
Though I will never stop traveling, these are the things I remember when I leave home. Traveling is at once a privilege and a provocation when you do it in a black body, even moreso if that body is a woman’s.