Are African-Americans treated better than Africans abroad?

Do African-Americans get preferential treatment over their black African counterparts when they travel? If so, we need to acknowledge it.

I feel very strongly that “Travelling While Black” is a phenomenon.  So much so that I have a whole section on my blog dedicated to it.  And I even made a video about how travelling the world as a black person is different.

But there’s one thing I haven’t discussed explicitly on this blog, and it’s how different segments of the African diaspora experience international travel.  Because in the 13 years since I truly started exploring internationally, I have come to realize that all black travel isn’t created equal.

What do I mean? In my opinion, African-Americans are treated better than their black African counterparts when they travel abroad.

Black Americans’ and Canadians’ glowing reports (including mine) of how they are welcomed with open arms in Thailand, Russia, and Italy contrast sharply with harrowing accounts of racial persecution in those same countries from some black African nationals.

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At the Royal Palace in Bangkok, Thailand

And I myself have experienced some of the preferential treatment firsthand. Time and time again I’ve been racially profiled when going through immigration at the airport– most often in my beloved Hong Kong, sad to say.

But here’s the thing: as soon as I unsheathe my little blue Canadian passport, all suspicion and interrogation fall away, and I am waved on through. The questioning is dropped even faster as soon as I open my mouth and they hear my accent: the broad vowels and distinct Hollywood-movie intonation seem to quell any doubt they may have had about my provenance.

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Me and my passport in Toronto Pearson Airport

There’s another thing. I am profiled way more when I wear my “ethnic” headwraps, and far less when I’m decked out in what I call, the “full American”: name-brand basketball sneakers, jeans or sweats, a hoodie.

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Participating in an African culture fashion show in Monterrey, Mexico

For, at least in my estimation, when I present as “American” the reception feels way warmer and welcoming (sidebar: for the purpose of this article, America as a geographic and cultural region includes Canada, hence why I’m referring to myself as African-American).

Can you see why I’ve come to the conclusion I have?

This conjecture is both sensitive and controversial.  A fairly frequent topic of conversation in the black travel groups I’m a part of (see my article 5 Black Travel Groups You Should Know to see which ones),  the mere suggestion of one subset’s privilege over the other’s takes the intensity of the dialogue from 0 to 100– real quick.  Suffice to say, things get heated.

Because, really, it’s hard to admit that factors outside of your control (i.e. your nationality, the passport you carry, the way you naturally speak) cause you to fare better or worse than a fellow brother or sister on your jaunts abroad.  After all, we’re supposed to be part of the same struggle, right?

Examining American/Western privilege on the road

When travelling, being a national of a Western country, or at least appearing to be one, comes with a set of perks that can often transcend race.  I think that most people, if not all, would agree with me on this point. For, when you present as American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian, for that matter), nobody assumes that you’re over-staying your visitor’s visa, or engaging in another unsavoury practice readily assigned to nationals of developing (or woefully misunderstood) countries. You’re assumed to be educated, to have a decent amount of money to burn, and to be a boon (not burden) to the economy. Essentially, you are a model tourist.

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New York City

But here’s where I may lose some of you. I believe that this Western privilege extends to melanin-rich folks like myself– our accents, passports, and carriage shield us from a part of the anti-black racism we could face abroad.

Now, while the red carpet isn’t exactly being rolled out for me, I’ve noticed that my presence in certain places is celebrated– not scorned– simply because I “won the birth lottery”.  While I’m grateful to not be a (frequent) victim, I’m also conflicted, because it’s feels unjust to be able to benefit from this while some of my African counterparts languish.

My sentiments are echoed in this article on The Root.com. In it, a black American who moved to Thailand, with her family, notes that African-American expats there are “treated like gold, especially when compared with the black African immigrants who live and work in Thailand and are treated like, well, less than gold, and at times like s–t.”

She expounds further on this privilege in the article, relating an incident where a local officer was immediately nicer to her and her family upon discovering they were American:

“That’s not the first time,” Stew explained, “that someone has mistaken us for an African” and then dropped their attitude or condescension once they realized that Stew and her crew were, in fact, American.  

“We’re treated better. … We’re treated better,” Stew said twice, as if it’s an idea that she still can’t comprehend, or a guilt that’s just too hard for her to swallow.

 

Writing about travel through the lens of Black American privilege

I’m a black woman who travels. The majority of my readership comprises black people who travel, or hope to travel at some point. They, like my other readers, want to know about the destinations I visit.  But they also have a keen interest in what my experiences travelling while black to a particular place are, so they can inform their own travel choices.

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In Lalibela, Ethiopia

But every time I post about how well my black skin was received in x country,  it is important to consider the diverse factors that potentially affected my experience there (like nationality, accent, sex, physical stature, etc).

It’s also extremely important to consider residency status in a country or status.  Because visiting for four days is completely different from living in a place and attempting to integrate.

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In Hong Kong

For example, I had an excellent time when I spent a week in Russia earlier on this year,  but this article describes how African migrants have been victims racial abuse running the gamut from verbal to physical.

And I lived in Asia for nearly 5 years, travelling to India once, and mainland China on many occasions.  My experiences were extremely positive, but this Washington Post piece details the rampant racism African expats confront as they navigate South and East Asian societies.

So. Does African-American travel privilege really exist?

If you’ve read through this long post, you’ll know that I feel strongly that it does, and that the first steps in remedying the issue are to acknowledge this bias exists in the first place.

But here is where I fall back and ask for your feedback. Do you think black westerners are treated better black people from Africa abroad? Why or why not?  

And for those of you who identify as Afro-British, Afro-Caribbean, or Afro-Latino, have you experienced any bias or preferential treatment when you travel due to your cultural origins? 

 

 

25 Comments

  • CAROLYNNE says:

    I am quite a bit older than you are, 67 yr. I would like to share a few experiences with you in my hayday as a Pan Am FA in the ’80s. I flew to Africa quite a bit and saw black on black prejudice. Liberia was very bad- the former American slaves that were sent back to Liberia were wealthy and treated the locals with distain- that’s probably why they had a 12 yr civil war. A lot of corruption in the gov’t because of this history. Nigeria had tier level prejudice, the richer you were the more to take advantage- altho I have several colleagues who I worked with or went to college with who appeared to have no prejudice against any blacks in States. At this time, we were flying to South Africa during apartheid, and it was painful to watch a black African man try to check in the 5 star hotel we were staying in- we just stood behind him and gave the deskman a really hateful evil eye. And I was treated rudely by some South Africans because I looked just like an Africaner! We’re talking 25 years ago, so with the www and cable, etc I think that really helped with communication and relations quite a bit.

    • Jade says:

      Carolynne, regarding your truly baseless points. Please tell me, is there anyone of these forementioned example that does not happen in modern-day America? Black Americans are constantly bickering and fighting each other over the most ridiculous things. What about ” colourism” between the black American community where they despise one another simply because one person has a lighter skin tone than the other? And to your point about Nigeria having ‘tier level’ prejudice. Is this issue exclusive to Nigeria alone? Isn’t America notorious for its classism issue? Why are you scapegoating these countries while completely ignoring the point of the writer. People like you are why this issue has become very important to discuss. Rather than have a sensible conversation, you have gone completely off topic. Sad and pathetic.

  • Sarah says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful article! Discussions like this one is one of the reasons why you’re my favorite travel blog – you balance articles about beautiful locations and foreign cuisine with articles about what it means to travel and how that intersects with race, nationality, and identity.

    While I myself can’t speak to African American vs. African national abroad, I am multi-racial and multi-cultural, and therefore am sometimes perceived as white/English speaking/American or Latina/Spanish speaking/not American, depending on the situation. In terms of which gets me better treatment, it depends on the country – in Israel there’s more privilege associated with appearing American; in France, it’s better to appear “Spanish.”

    Travel privilege based on perceived nationality is a real thing. What always gets me though is that I’m the same me either way! Strange to see how superficial and oft-changing labels have such a huge effect on treatment abroad.

  • Alyssa says:

    100% with you on this one – privilege is always contextual and extends well beyond race/class/gender.

    Just a few weeks ago, I was returning to Martinique (where I was conducting MA research with a working holiday visa) from St. Lucia. Of course, Martinicans & those with EU passports were waved through a separate line. Afterwards, they gave priority to people with residence. I stayed and waited with the passengers who required additional screening, documents, questioning…

    I walked up to the booth and handed over my passport. The officer, smiled and said “Oh, Canadian! Why didn’t you just come up earlier? … Well, thanks for waiting.” I shrugged and smiled back, but the truth is: the whole situation made me slightly uncomfortable. I had an inkling that my passport would have gotten me through but I also wasn’t a resident and didn’t just want to go throwing my ‘lottery ticket’ around.

    I’ve been aware of it for a long time, this passport/nationality privilege, but that was one of the more poignant experiences of contrast I’ve had in recent memory. Surely my reception would have been incredibly different had I handed over a St. Lucian or Jamaican passport.

  • Evan says:

    This is a fact not so much discussed but it’s really happen! My girlfriend and I we had same really hard moments in Greece, my girl she is from Africa and I used that lie sometimes to home owners that I’m living with a African-American during negotiating for rending a home in Athens! We changed 5 homes during our 2 years stay in that Greece because of discriminating issues! Never mind, we live actually in Germany where things are much better, I never needed to hide my girl’s origin! I’m still looking to move forwards (that moving desire is always following me!) but generally in Europe and in Balkan even more, African-Americans are traded much better!.. Nice topic, keep going on it!

  • Selina Barua says:

    This is an interesting topic and worth digging into deeper. I would say that yes African Americans = to white Americans when traveling abroad or close to it. However, I think that the problem gets even muddier for visible mixed-raced blacks from the US or Africa because especially if you are in Latin America you automatically fit the prototype for being identified as an Afro-Latina/o. Therefore, I’m never perceived as a US citizen. I’m tannish brown and I’m automatically perceived as a Colombian in Chile–not to mention sadly the negatively that comes with that label–and being of color, I would say more so. I notice how it seems easier here at least to me, how another tall African-American man who looks almost undoubtedly American in dress, attitude and demeanor. I have Afro-Latina heritage and so I just have that look and sometimes dress tropical,plus I’m short and very curvy. These things seem funny how we are perceived by several factors, not only skin tones. I feel like if you came down here and looked like Oprah or Whoopy Goldberg or other than tall and white of course, you would be automatically labeled American and treated as such. I feel some think I’m another struggling Latin American seeking better opportunities here in Chile, when in fact I’m from NYC, attended a private college in upper Manhattan and have a degree in English. Yet, it’s even assumed I don’t really speak English. So I think there are truly several factors involved. If I was in parts of Europe they might think I’m from the Horn of Africa. I’m been perceived as Ethiopian and Somolian several times in Northwestern US. Like you said that passport upgrades your status instancy. I agree it’s even harder when you are of African descent and speak no English or heavily accented from another country. Yet if you black and possess that UK accent people might welcome you right away as an exotic African. I have a NYC accent for real and folks here don’t even know what to call it. But after listening to native New Yorker Donald Trump, I get connected to him. I say no more. Lol

  • Dee says:

    I’m so glad you’ve brought this up because I keep talking about this with my friends. I’m Nigerian, but I moved and lived in the US for 13 years before I moved to the UK a year ago. I sound American (with a hint of something else) but I’m not a US citizen and I carry that green Nigerian passport. For certain, the response I get when I speak FIRST before I show my passport is 100% different while travelling. If I show that Green passport first, it’s interrogations all the way. I’m used to it now and I always make it a point to have my stuff ‘together’ but is that really necessary?

    When people speak to me first, and then find out I’m Nigerian but that I spent almost half my life in the US or that I live in the UK, I essentially get a ‘pass.’ It is unfortunate, but this is real life.

    • Milka says:

      I totally agree with you on that. I’m from Congo, lived in France and now in the London for almost 5 years. I still have my Congolese passport. When I meet people and speak English or French with a “French” accent, they’re always very nice and welcoming. When I introduce myself 1st with my passport and say I’m Congolese, most of the time it’s a completely different story, not always but most of the time, especially at airport passport checks and other border control. Thanks Oneika for the very good article on a rather forgotten and still important topic.

  • ESSEN2KINGSTON says:

    Anecdotes from a JAmerican…

    While studying abroad in France on a Jamaican passport–but with US green card, letters from my uni, banks, and hosts–I markedly remember the more *thorough* questioning, tone, and body languages of the officers upon entry and re-entry. For context, I’m closer to the old school sort that tends to dress up for traveling–although not quite Sunday best.

    The robust nature of the questioning changed after schooling and becoming a USC though only months later. Smiles, small talk, and “how long will you be staying Mr…” was the new norm. I’ve certainly gone more casual in travel gear since then too.

    My partner and I got married a couple months ago–she’s white German–and I look forward to observing further border-crossing experiences. I’m typing from the airport as she preps to head home for a long weekend; however, I’ll have to wait until after Christmas to recount any perceived reception change in my entry as a husband.

    PS
    Oneika, on a another note, thanks for your Sri Lanka posts! I did embrace some traveling-while-Jamaican love while there for a friend’s wedding during the Olympics. I expected phenomenal food and got nothing less; however, to say the country was a pleasant surprise would be a gross understatement. Genuinely wonderful folks and service from those whom tourism is still relatively new.

  • Kelley says:

    I completely agree with you that passport/county of origin makes a difference. I’ve been living abroad for three years now (going into my fourth). While in Venezuela, I once had my passport taken because they wanted to verify that it was real since it’s a US passport. Whenever I would get stopped in the future, once the guards saw my blue passport they would wave me on without speaking. Here in Indonesia, there’s a huge amount of discrimintation against Nigerians in particular. People do not know my father’s Nigerian, so they stumble all over themselves to avoid making some overarching general comment about how all Nigerians are the ones bringing drugs into Indonesia. In a cab, I once had a man apologize profusely for mistaking me for being from Kenya instead of America. I told him it was OK. I was not insulted. I guess he had the same reaction people have when they mistake you from coming from the States like you wrote about earlier. I love your blog. Thanks for your honesty!

  • Peta Kaplan says:

    Love your video and thank you for the informative blog post!

    To use your terminology, I would say we seek to travel while less white. That is to say, we voluntarily and naturally morph into local dress and thereby at least blur the line of distinction just a tad.

    Take a look at our blog post this week about GENDER BENDING and CULTURE BENDING as we travel the globe. Of course, skin color is not the same as fashion, but I trust you will appreciate the perspective….

    http://www.greenglobaltrek.com/2016/08/gender-bending-culture-bending-part-1-his.html

    Peta & Ben

  • Jade says:

    I love your blog. And needless to say I agree with all you have said, based on my own personal experience.

  • As an African traveler, I must confess that I strongly dislike being mistaken for an African-American when traveling, but it happens lots of times…I’m proud to be African, and somehow do not share in the struggles that AA face within their own country..our struggles while present, are vastly different…that being said, I have been pulled aside to the ‘naughty corner’ of immigration at border points..most recently in Moldova, where despite my sparkly new burgundy dutch passport, I was asked to leave the bus for “questioning” my child in tow. I was shocked! I thought that having a western passport meant that such treatment was safely tucked in the past, but nah..I’m still the dark-chocolate girl with a Nairobi accent, subject to foolish questions. When the policeman asked what we were going to do in Moldova, I blurted out, “We are tourists..on vacation.” The guy looked at me like I was some sort of moneyed alien and after a brief conversation about my belief choices, he let us continue our journey. Many Africans frown on my destination choices with many saying they wouldn’t visit ‘such countries where blacks are treated like that.’ Strange the countries we are pulled aside in..as well Cambodia, to have a discussion about how much money I had, and whether the money was enough to ferry me to Thailand:..like really? Simply because I was traveling on a Kenyan passport. Some of my African friends have their share of horror stories..being pulled aside in Thailand during the Ebola outbreak in 3 west African countries…yet my girl is from Namibia…that’s in South west Africa, so far from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea (the three outbreak countries at that time), and a huge group of Africans held up in Antalya for a weekend, while westerners were allowed to stay in hotels as the airline ‘sorted out the problem.’ With western passports, there is some preferential treatment. I have African friends who travel all the time on African passports, and as such are at the receiving end of the ignorant stereotyping; the narrative of black Africa as dark, diseased, feral, and uncivilized at the back of the narrow minded onlookers…not knowing that Africa as a continent is rising, and that Africa is not a country but a continent with countries, cultures and regions that are so vastly different on their own.

  • I shared a little about the struggles Africans face applying for visas to western ‘developed’ nations in my post about becoming a dutch citizen. Here’s the link: https://africanahgirl.com/2015/10/06/what-does-getting-dutch-nationality-mean/

  • Waridi says:

    Very good topic Oneika! as an Kenyan woman who has traveled quite a bit I can definitely say that there is a difference between how an African American would be treated while traveling versus an African. I have lived in the US for 16 years and have an American passport which does make my traveling much easier.

    I am proud of my Kenyan roots but on occasion I have had to hide my nationality from certain individuals just to avoid the usual hustle of dealing with insane people who think anyone coming from Africa is seeking hand outs, asylum or is engaging in illegal activities. Honestly it gets exhausting dealing with the many negative stereotypes people have about Africa and Africans in general.

    Traveling while black and African definitely has its challenges.

  • redanplace says:

    Well Africans and African-Americans are in fact very different, aren’t they? It’s never good to judge by skin color. So they have same melanin-rich skin, it doesn’t mean that the stereotype/people’s opinion on them are gonna be same. And it should be so, cause if all black people are viewed same way, it means people really do judge people right out of their skin color.

    As you mentioned here, there is concern about overstaying allowed visa time. Not trying to be judgmental or racist, but nationally play big part on guessing whether they’ll be model tourist or not.

  • Thanks for the post Oneika!

    Sadly, you’re right!

    I’m British and a person of colour. I’m dark-skinned and have always been treated with a high level of respect. I think firstly, it’s because I’m to be found where there are few dark skinned visitors, clients, customers, etc, so there’s a bit of pleasant surprise!

    Secondly, I’ve been told that it’s the way that I walk!

    Thirdly, I have a plummy accent and speak with a clipped tone (British private education).

    Fourthly, I expect to be treated better than my counterparts, because I am better than my counterparts – black or white and I can be quite an arrogant soul. No apologies!

    Fourthly, because of all the above, they haven’t a clue “who I am” so just in case you know, I get the red carpet treatment.

    p.s. On the rare occasion that there has been an issue, it has come from other people of colour who are shocked at my shade of hue, and that I’m doing nothing about it, but flaunting it!

  • Piper Alize Jenkins-Wellington says:

    If we do I don’t feel any way about it. Call it karma for handing us over to European imperialists as spoils of war and subsequently, slaves. Many of still believe that they’re better than Black Americans for this reason alone.

  • Mark says:

    Wow Oneika, never gave this subject matter much thought, but it is something to consider. Being one who has lived in the USA all my life African American, and one who has traveled international I didn’t notice the treatment difference , thank you for this awareness article, it gives me a lot to think about.
    M.Swint. Please visit my new website at : swinttravelblog.com

  • Philip says:

    This is a great topic, Oneika! I feel like so many of the comments affirm what you have experienced — this notion of “western privilege” but I’d venture to just call it good old white privilege. People of color perpetrating the same internalized biases, toward those from developing world countries.

    I also hear a lot of respectability politics being conjured. Statements about who some people carry themselves, or their speech and intonation, the ways in which they were dressed for the travel occasion. None of these forms of presentations should be required as a recognition of your humanity. And I hope that we as a group of people who obviously look alike, and share similar roots, despite the rift of Middle Passage, that we think of ways to change this treatment. How can we make it easier for those without private school education or bald eagles in their passport?

  • Karen says:

    “For, at least in my estimation, when I present as “American” the reception feels way warmer and welcoming (sidebar: for the purpose of this article, America as a geographic and cultural region includes Canada, hence why I’m referring to myself as African-American).”

    As an African-American I take issue with you referring to yourself as African-American which are those that were decedents of slaves that fought for their freedom/civil rights in the U.S. and are an integral part of the history of the United States.

    Therefore your article would have been correct to title it do “Black Canadians have privilege?” as you are not African-American and keep us out of this discussion as your personal experiences are those of a Black Canadian.

    It is a fundamental problem that I see presented all too often of non-African American others who use the “AA flag” to present some issue or problem concerning AAs and then can revert to their own nationalities when convenient.

    Strangely enough these same groups are typically immigrants to the U.S. and are able to thrive based on the legacy of AAs, yet rarely are grateful for those opportunities.

    If AA’s do have privilege abroad, they have earned it. As every group uses their privilege to their own advantage I see no reason for AAs not do the same and do not see the need of foreign others to take it upon themselves to dissect or call it into question.

    • Ann says:

      @Karen, I hear you. White privileged will continue simply because people of color help to perpetrate that idea. People of color such be proud no matter where he or she was born. It is not my issue if someone does not care for my complexion. Deal with it, because I have to deal with you

      Peace.

  • Ann says:

    I meant should not such.

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