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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?