Musings on race, travel, and travelling while black

My thoughts on the intersection between race and travel, as well as my experiences as a black woman who travels.

I’ve been thinking a lot about race and travel lately.

You see, a post I wrote on Italy last week got a lot of attention– namely for my apparent misguided use of the term “pitch black” to describe  the vendors I encountered in Rome’s markets. A few comments on the post itself cited the usage as derogatory, offensive and irresponsible, and a poll of the followers on my Facebook page about the term produced a heated debate 70-odd comments long about othering, objectification, and just what constitutes offensive language when describing black people.

The funny thing is that I was (perhaps naively) unaware of the negative connotations the term has, particularly for African-Americans. I am Jamaican-Canadian: a black kid of Jamaican parentage who grew up north of the 49th parallel. I grew up in a multicultural Canadian city with a staunchly Caribbean upbringing, so I don’t know much about the Jim Crow laws, nor the history of racial segregation in the United States (though this past week I have been learning). While I am not unfamiliar with the spectrum of racial slurs, I’ve never operated in a landscape where the word “pitch” was one — to me it’s always been a word used to describe the depth of the colour black.

caribana

Me playing mas at Caribana, a yearly festival celebrating Caribbean culture and heritage held in Toronto

 

Even though I only intended to paint a vivid picture of the Italian scene as I experienced it, I’ve since removed the term: as some readers pointed out, the description wasn’t essential to the narrative. Besides, I never want to be insensitive, reductive, or want to promote racial intolerance in anything I write.

But the incident reminded me that race is an extremely delicate and, at times, incendiary subject.

And this got me thinking about my race and how it affects my travels.

I am a black woman who travels extensively and blogs about it. As this blog has developed more of a following, I get a lot of questions in my inbox about every aspect of travelling. But one of the most frequent questions I get (usually from those who are black and female, just like me) is whether the people  in x country or y region are racist towards black folks.

The truth? I’m not entirely sure how to answer.

I’m not silly enough to think that our society is post-racial (the recent foolishness involving Paula Deen indicates racism is alive and well in 2013), but I would like to think that most human beings are inherently good.

But I mean, let’s get real: TWB (Travelling While Black) does affect my travels. Beyond the fairly superficial worry of where I would get my hair done when I moved to Mexico and Hong Kong, I’ve already written on a number of occasions about how my dark skin and dreadlocks get me noticed in places where people like me are scarce. (In this post, for example, I struggled with whether or not to feel offended that in Asia people were falling all over themselves to take a picture with me, the black girl with the “funny” hair.)
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My first set of dreadlocks

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Instant celebrity in Seoul, South Korea

 

In 99% of my travels, however, my experiences Travelling While Black have been positive. Yes, sometimes people stare, touch my hair without asking,  request I be in their photos. But if I’ve felt their interest to be borne of genuine curiosity, I don’t mind– though you are certainly within your rights if you do.

But there still is that one percent.  They only incidence of overt racism I experienced while travelling was in Dublin, which I wrote about here. Amongst other things, I was heckled by some Irish men as I walked down the street — they yelled out that I had a big, fat ass and told me to wiggle it so I could “show them what I was working with”. They yelled it out mockingly, in (poorly imitated) Ebonics, so I’m sure of the racist undertones. But it would be unfair and unwise to say that the all of Ireland is racist based on my three days in Dublin. And even if the whole country *were* racist, the landscapes, architecture, and scenery are beautiful, so I would happily go back to explore further if the opportunity presented itself.

Because here’s the thing: I’m not going to make someone else’s bigotry my problem; I refuse to let it stop me from seeing the world.  If something as inconsequential and uncontrollable as the colour of my skin is a problem for you — tough.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where I was made to believe that anything I wanted to achieve in life was possible.  I never had hangups about my dark skin or felt that being black made me inferior to anyone else. I had a mother who taught me that the world was my oyster, and so, as soon as I had the means to travel, I cracked that mollusc wide open and made a grab for that pearl.

(I hope that my travel stories will continue to inspire people to see more of the world, regardless of their colour, nationality, economic background, or creed.)

Has your race ever been an issue when it came to your travels? Have you ever been reluctant to travel to a place because you feared persecution or discrimination because of your racial background?

Links to posts on race and travel on “Oneika the Traveller”:

 

 

41 Comments

  • Kyle says:

    Your posts on race and travel have always been insightful to me. In Chile when I was there the first time (15 years ago) people came up to me on the street and touched my hair without asking. It doesn’t happen anymore but I remember how uncomfortable it made me. And I got a lot of people in Asia wanting pictures. I think it’s just very weird being singled out or a physical attribute that you can do absolutely nothing about. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have the historical connotations that go along with that, as in your case.

  • Melissa says:

    I was just speaking with a co worker about this the other day. She stated that she was weary of traveling to some European countries due to the way she has heard they treat minorities. I reminded her of the BNP in this country and instances of public transportation racist abuse that always finds it way to the media lately. She said she rather deal with it in her home country than abroad. Fine, and I take that on board but she is older so I think this would be more of a worry for her than me.

    Personally if I really want to visit a place then I will go, and as you say not make someone else’s problem with my skin be my concern. I’ve had mostly positive travel experiences but a few race based instances similar to you. When I was in Rome this Japanese woman and her daughter tried to get me in their pictures and thought I didn’t notice. Eventually they asked if I could be in the picture (I kept moving just as they had framed me in their shots) and I obliged, it didn’t bother me. In Japan I stuck out like a sore thumb people would talk and wave to me or comment as I walked by. The only negative one and even that wasn’t that bad was in Prague, I was walking down the street and this woman clocked me and something about her face changed, as she passed me she said ‘boo’ into my ear. I kinda laughed actually because it was just so stupid. The only flat out racism I’ve experienced abroad was in England, Kent specifically. I spend loads of time in Kent though and will continue to, its the garden of England!

  • Alyssa says:

    Hey Oneika, you explained the situation and addressed the issue head-on, which is admirable! I’m Jamaican-Canadian as well, and though nothing hurtfully racist has happened while travelling, it definitely has while in Canada–especially when I was younger. I think it’s pretty cool you don’t let anything stop you from seeing the world. I often think about it but hopefully when it comes down to it, I won’t let it deter me!

    As far as travelling, it was interesting going to places where I fit in! Martinique, St Lucia, Dominica…I didn’t stand out unless I was with a group of people more obviously foreign. That also had it’s positives and negatives.

    Thanks for this post.

    Yours in Travel,

    Alyssa

  • Alyssa says:

    Actually, I just remembered while in London a couple weeks ago, I was looking for a place to eat in Hampstead and walked into the Flask. While I was looking at the menu this man said to me, “I almost never go to pubs!” I said, “Just for the occasional lunch, then?” He replied: “Yes, and to meet a beautiful coloured woman…”

    I thought: Is this pub actually a time machine to the 60s? Oh my!

    • Chanelle says:

      I lived in Scotland for 4 years and that is the term they use for Black people *rolls eyes*. How old was the dude? I find that middle age (45 up) white Brits use it. A generation thing perhaps?

      • Alyssa says:

        Yeah, he was middle aged. My (British) partner’s mum said it too once… I laugh when I feel uncomfortable, and when I’m referred to as coloured–in good nature, that is–I usually just furrow my brows and smile. I should probably start explaining, but usually people already seem unsure if they should say it…and I’m just like, say black or better yet, nothing at all!

        On the flipside, I’m okay with “people/person of colour.” It puts the person first and it’s the academic term we used when I was in university.

        Yours in Travel,

        Alyssa

  • Charie says:

    I am glad that you wrote about this subject. I’ve always had a love for all things Indian. However, I have been scared to visit because of the staring and the preference for fair skin. Many people of African have reported mixed experiences.

  • This is a really articulate and honest post, Oneika, and I think that it’s great that you took the debate about the word “pitch” and explored it further instead of trying to pretend it didn’t happen (i.e. simply deleting the word and not commenting on it).

    I’ve definitely had some “othering” experiences while travelling – as a white, blonde woman, I have attracted unwanted attention all over the world, especially in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. India and Egypt were especially trying. I felt it a lot while living in Japan, actually, a feeling of people wanting to look at me, touch me, and take my picture. It was strange, of course, but I’ve rarely ever been offended by any of it: as you said, people are curious, just as I am. The only time I really feel uncomfortable is if I was approached by a group of men, but perhaps that’s a subject for your next article regarding females travelling.

    Once again, great post. -Brenna xx

  • The last thing I think about when planning my travels is my skin color. Although I do ask other Black people for tips and advice when travelling to a non-black country so that I have some expectations of what to expect. I can tolerate a lot of things, so I don’t take a lot of small issues as a big deal.
    I had mixed reactions from locals when I was living and travelling around China. But I never made the local’s ignorance be my problem. Many people around the world have never come into close contact or seen a Black person face to face, so the reaction they give you might feel awkward or rude at times, which is okay. \

    themanecaptain.blogspot.ca

  • Naomi says:

    ‘I’m not going to make someone else’s bigotry my problem; I refuse to let it stop me from seeing the world.’

    Wow. That is such a powerful statement; you NAILED it. Thank you so much for sharing this – it’s a testament to all travellers who sometimes encounter, as Brenna said, ‘othering’ experiences. I’ve had people try to surreptitiously take my picture or touch my hair, but I feel that’s mostly all harmless. The only truly offensive instances were in Morocco, where I had men make comments to me on the street including, but not limited to, such gems as ‘Bonjour, salope!’ It took me a long time to reconcile my feelings for the country – did I enjoy the trip because of the things I’d seen, the kindness I’d encountered, or did I hate the trip because of how unsafe and objectified my foreign female friends and I felt every day? In the end, I realised that every country has its assholes, and just because the assholes there were particularly vocal, didn’t mean they could take away from the friendliness and hospitality that others showed me. You’re completely right – we can’t make other people’s bigotry our problem. And we can’t let it stop us from seeing the world.

  • Stephanie says:

    The debate on your facebook status proved that race and what constitutes racism is a very subjective matter.
    I’m currently travelling in Asia and I stand out like a sore thumb. On buses people stare and I even had a woman on a bus grab my arm to look at my white skin. It doesn’t bother me personally because I feel that they are being curious rather than racist.

  • Colleen says:

    As an Armenian(-American), I was hesitant to travel to Turkey, given our cultures’ history of not getting along, to put it very mildly, but I’m glad I went. Border crossing officials questioned me for a few minutes on why there were three Armenian visas in my passport and why I wanted to come to Turkey, but otherwise no one else bugged me about it the whole time. I’ve found my dark hair and eyes helpful in blending in while traveling through Asia, especially China. Although when I told people I was American they wouldn’t believe me. “Why is your hair like that?” they’d ask. They seemed to expect all Americans to be blonde? I just used it as an opportunity to explain how the US is a melting pot and to share my family’s immigration story.

  • Roni Faida says:

    In all of my travels I have never been insulted, treated badly, or abused because of the color of my skin. I didn’t see the debate about your use of pitch Black but I can only imagine. Because we have never really dealt with all the crap that was passed down to us through slavery, we (Black Americans) still have so many issues with color within our own race.

    My experience of traveling while Black is similar to yours. People always stop and want to take pictures of me and it doesn’t bother me at all because I realize that in their country they don’t get to see anyone that looks like me. People aren’t being offensive, they are just curious and I’m ok with that. Great post.

  • Roni Faida says:

    Oh, and to answer your question…no. I do not think about my race when I think of going somewhere because I know that my Black skin is viewed as beautiful in other parts of the world and I always look forward to the treatment I get when I travel to another country.

  • Terri says:

    Hi Oneika:
    Great post and great question. Speaking from a Black American perspective, the funny thing about terms like “pitch” black and such is that they carry a sting because they are used as derogatory terms within my own community. As one of the earlier post mentioned, there is still much unresolved deeply rooted psychological remnants regarding color as a result of the economics of slavery. I can tell u that if u came to live in America u would probably be confronted about your dark skin mostly by Black people. So your insight into this very sensitive subject is what makes your post so poignant and i appreciate your honesty.

    To answer your question, i have not really given consideration to my race when traveling and i have found that the way i am treated is usually based more on me being American rather than my skin color. I can say the only negative experience I encountered as a result of my skin color was in Berlin and the thing about that incident is I was with a group of white Americans and none of them said anything, it was a German woman who came to my defense so i still have love for Germany 🙂

  • Alida says:

    We have been living and traveling abroad for the past eight years. We leave in a fews days for London, Paris, and then 2 months in India. It’s always an adventure that’s for sure. Being black and being in an interracial relationship just adds more flavor to the mix. We draw attention in some countries while in others we are nothing special. Here in Belize no one gives us a second look but in Russia I was photographed frequently and everyone in our neighborhood knew who the American couple was and which flat we lived in.

  • Nicole says:

    I’ve read stories about white people usually with freckles and blondish hair, who go to Asian countries and people want to tak photos with them. They’re usually flattered. I don’t know why they’d be flattered, though. it’s pretty much just racism.

    I think I fit in pretty much everywhere. But my husband and I went to France. He’s Asian. We got a few stares. But one person kinda did a “bleh!” When they saw my husband and a spitting motion. The spitting wasn’t at him. But it seemed like the dude was hating on Asians.

  • Before booking a trip, I always do a quick Google search to see how black people are treated in a particular country where there aren’t many black people. I do this for safety considerations and to get an idea of the types of issues that I may encounter. In fact, I recently cancelled a trip to Bogota because after booking, I read lots of negative things about how black people are treated there. Does this mean that I’ll never go to Bogota? No – it’s just that my husband and I need a quick getaway and I don’t want to spend my time and money to go somewhere where we’ll have to deal with a bunch of nonsense about the color of our skin when all we want is a quick, relaxing getaway. Also, in Germany, my family and I were eating breakfast with a group of other black tourists, and a German tour guide approached us and asked, “What is this – a colored convention?” So ignorant. But by and large, TWB hasn’t been much of an issue.

  • Rhona says:

    Great post! As you know I am a fellow black Canuck (Bramptonite here) and proud of it. I love to travel and fortunate enough not to really experienced anything uncomfortable while travelling. In Germany I was stared at a lot in Berlin in unfriendly ways (which I thought strange as there are loads of black people there) but nothing else has happened. Like you, I refuse to let other peoples small mindedness stop me from enjoying passions in my life and that includes travel. Girl, keep travelling. Love your blog as you know.

  • Sista Voyage says:

    I won’t say that I fear traveling to certain countries based on the color of my skin, the shape of my body or the texture of my hair, but I will say that I am MORE COMFORTABLE in countries where I don’t stand out as much.

  • tess says:

    If anything, BEING a Black American should give many the fortitude to be “TWB” anywhere in the world.

    Traveling to places where you think you’ll “fit in” I think, is the reason many of us don’t travel far enough.
    But once I got out of that bubble, I realized through traveling, that there are more brown people throughout the world than less, and where there isn’t, therein lies a fascination about them (good, bad or indifferent.)
    So who am I to deny them the right, to satiate their curiosity?! haha!

    But that’s just one to grow on. Keep that passport (and these posts) moving Oneika!!!

    Cheers,
    Tess

  • Cynthia says:

    Well Done Oneika!

    It was such an inspirational post and you really (as someone else said) NAILED it! Because when you think about it, letting someone, anyone determine where you travel, what you do with you life, or what you eat based on a prejudiced opinion is truly ridiculous. At the end of the day (like, again, someone else said) life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% of how you respond to it. And I choose to respond in the positive.

    Sure race has come up as an issue at time when I travel, but I don’t always think it the color of my skin or even because I happen to be African American. Sometimes its because I have freckles in a place where people don’t see freckles as a norm, or it maybe that I am several inches taller than the average person in that country. I think when you start seeing every little word, mistake, accident, action or even just rude people as a “race” issue then its you who has the race problem, not them. Lol, I was born and live in Texas and I still get people who want to touch my from here in the USA! But you know what? I don’t get offended, I understand they are curious, and I want to be apart of creating respect among all people, so I just smile, tilt my head down so they can reach it, let them grab a quick feel:) and go on about my day.

    Because part of my reacting positively is making the choice each day to judge people on “the content of their character and not the color of their skin” (and we all know who said that, or should google it)

    Keep writing&traveling Oneika and I will keep reading&traveling!

  • Arianwen says:

    I stood out like a sore thumb in South America, being pale skinned and moderately ginger! Of course I was hassled more by those who approach tourists, but it’s never been an issue. Good on you for not letting some negative experiences get in the way of your aspirations!

  • Oh. If you hadn’t mentioned it, I wouldn’t even have noticed you are black.

  • Robin says:

    Like you, I try not to let people’s bigotry affect my travels. I haven’t had any extremely terrible racial incidents while traveling – I did have an older white woman negatively react to me while in Dublin (what’s up with Dublin??). Thankfully, nothing worse has really ever happened. Although I don’t let the bigotry affect me, I am careful in choosing where I travel – there’s no reason to go looking for a fight by going somewhere that I’m not wanted. For this reason, I don’t know when I’ll be able to go to Russia (I’m dying to go!) or travel back to Athens. I wish I had the privilege to just go anywhere in the world and not worry about these things, but traveling while black is real.

  • Nailah says:

    Sure, I’ve had the occasional comment or rude look in some countries overseas, but that happens right here in the USA too, so I try not to let it bother me too much (though of course it does sometimes). I liked your line: “I’m not going to make someone’s bigotry my problem”. Well said.

    More often than experiencing overt racism, I find I’m treated well because I’m a tourist with some money, but I find it hard to stomach how others (usually with darker skin) who are in a country as workers are treated. As an example, I love spending time in Beirut, but the way some locals treat their domestic help… it is simply awful at times.

    For me, I accept that people may be curious or may have had little to no exposure to people of different races. I don’t mind the stares or curiosity most times. What does drive me nuts is when you find someone staring at you, you smile a friendly smile at them and they just keep staring or frown and turn around. That’s when I start to feel as if they don’t even think I’m human with feelings and a personality. Oh well…it makes me stop and shake my head, but it doesn’t keep me from making my way around this beautiful planet.

  • Kyomm Aman says:

    Great post Oneika! I couldn’t have put it better. When I travel, its to places I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Some may call me naive but I never really think of whether or not the natives are known to be racist. I am an Ugandan- no biggie. While visiting Pearl Harbour, I noticed an Asian lady ‘secretly’ taking photos of me! A couple of weeks ago, my friend and I asked someone to take a photo of us at the Westminster Bridge and an Asian man took photos using his phone, I was puzzled till I read this, now I know why! Thanks

  • Chanelle says:

    Very good post! This makes me want to talk about experience of being ‘othered’ in Indonesia especially in places outside of Central Jakarta. I have been stared at and I am probably in a dozen Instagram photos. What gets my goat is when people take pictures without asking on their phones or try to do it in secret. Depending on my mood, I either pull a silly face and laugh about it or flick the bird.

  • Marcia says:

    Great post, thanks for writing it. I’ve had something similar bubbling up in my head for a while now.
    I’m Jamaican, who’s live in Spain, Canada, and the US and love to travel. Even though we have Indians, Chinese, Europeans, etc., and my family, like many Jamaican families, has crisscrossed color lines, I never defined myself by my beautiful brown skin or thought about it until I left my country.
    The first time someone threw a racial slur in my direction was in Ottawa and would you believe, it absolutely went over my head. Coming from Jamaica, I was totally unaware of all the names black people were called in the US. It was only when one of my friends — there were three of us — who knew what ‘coons meant responded that the rest of us realized what had happened. We actually had a good laugh about it after.
    I’ve had other experiences, but I tend to ignore them. My color, of which I’m immensely proud, does not define me.

  • Trust me (again) you will regret it if you give up your dreams for someone else. Maybe not at first but it will turn bitter and sour and probably eventually ruin a relationship. I have seen this happen with several friends. How many people regret NOT traveling? Millions. How many regret traveling? None. Unless you get malaria or something.

  • Justin says:

    This post comes at a good time, after I just got done reading this post on the reddit travel community (http://redd.it/1hpjp8) and I was seriously beginning to reconsider my dream of traveling. But then I remembered running into your blog awhile back and a quick google search allowed me to find you again. And with great timing, a post about race and travel was on your front page which was exactly what I was looking for!

    Just wanted to say thanks for this post, been going back and reading your blog and its been very inspiring to me.

  • My husband experienced some racism at Delhi airport once. It wasn’t in your face racism, but still made him feel upset. The border control guy treated him like poo when he showed him his British passport. He was really rude and asked him to go back to transit, without giving him a reason why. When he questioned why and what the problem was he got really angry. 5 mins later he called him back We are convinced it was because of his British passport, as he let all other nationalities (incl. me as a German) through without a problem.

  • Huda says:

    I agree with you, growing up in Canada, you do experience racism and other form of bigotry, but the absence of racial tension and strong multiculturalism can delude it somewhat. As someone who traveled to many cultures and countries, most individuals I encountered are decent and mainly curious about you.

  • AC says:

    Post really inspired me. I’m black and for years have been interested with travel (can’t afford it yet but I definitely know my desired destinations). I was Googling and afraid I’d find examples of people throwing stuff at us in the street, but am very relieved to see they just want pictures for the most part (which I’d be fine with). Thanks!

  • Frank says:

    Great post Oneika. I have a hard time at times understanding the American sensitivity to race and all things race related. Not that Canadians are colourblind, but there seems to be a higher level of intergration (excluding some areas in Canada. I’ll save that for a post someday). But it’s funny how different cultures deal with it; Latinos for example aren’t shy to nickname you based on your physical features (La flaka, la gordita, la pequenita, la blanca, la negra), something N. Americans would never do. As you say, nobody wants to be offensive, but at the same time being overly sensitive can just be a sign of people not being able to cope with the realities that we’re all born in different shades.
    Your stories about being a black woman travelling recall an episode of the Amazing Race where a black woman kept getting asked if she was related to Janet Jackson. We thought it was funny. As someone else said, no problem being different as long as people are friendly – and that doesn’t mean just being black. I’ve been places where I’ve been treated pretty shitty being a white man.
    Good job as always,
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • Shertease says:

    Thanks for your amazing post…and blog! It’s so inspiring. I’m African-American, and a few years back I went to Shanghai. At the time, I had long dreadlocks, and just knew I would get stares or comments. I thought they would be negative, so I sort of braced myself for it in order to not react negatively. I was so surprised. It was more curiosity than anything, and one woman, after staring a long time, said she really liked my hair. Another time, a Chinese woman who was all smiles, excitedly gestured for me to take a picture with her. I was minding my own business, being a tourist, and she just grabbed me out of nowhere. I thought it was hilarious that she wanted a picture. So when her husband took the picture, I pulled her back to take one with my camera. She wanted a picture with me, so I wanted a picture with her! I thought it was all pretty interesting.

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