Travel as a Black Woman : A Journey of Exoticism, Discrimination and Burden
Growing up in a mostly white town in the Midlands, where my brother and I made up the entire black population of our primary school, it’s fair to say that I’m used to being the “different” one because of my race. From the constant, predictable questions about my hair to the frankly racist ones, like whether my family had a water well in our back garden so we could feel “at home” (because obviously everyone in Africa has to fetch water from a well), I’ve had pretty much every stereotypical question thrown my way. When at 16, I started going on solo and group travels with my white friends, I was naively disappointed to find that even when going on holidays, which were meant to be escapes from reality, I would always be the “other”, the odd one out, and have a starkly different travelling experience to my white friends. While I can’t speak for every black woman (much to the dismay of the many people who have asked me for the “black women’s consensus” on certain topics), reading up on other black women’s experiences while travelling shows that this is a widespread phenomenon.
Maybe its because of the historically racist and sexist construction of political and social institutions that continue to perpetuate colonial values and further oppress black women to the point that we are one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups in the world.
So what is it like travelling as a black woman?
You Experience Exoticism at a New Level
If I got a penny for everytime someone has attempted to take a photo either of me, or with me, without my consent while on holiday….
While I’d like to think that they’ve just mistaken me for Beyoncé, it’s more likely to be because they want to show their friends or family the strange black creature that appeared on their shores. From entitled drunk white European men, to families in a rural spanish towns or kids running up to take a snap in China, it happens everywhere. If it’s not photos, it’ll be stares or whispers about the black tourist, or just outright bewilderment, like the child who came up and asked me why I was so black in the south of Spain. While many have obviously seen black people before, often they’re intrigued about how a black woman could be a tourist instead of a maid, nanny, illegal immigrant or prostitute. I’d like to think that the world is beyond these stereotypes, but it’s very much evident that perceptions of black women continue to be built from hyper-exaggerated representations.
Then there’s the hair...
There’s the time I lived in Paris, rocking a fro, and hosted a house party with my flatmates. The first thing one of our guests (a white male, obviously), who I had never met, says to me? “Hi, I don’t know your name, or anything about you but I want to touch your hair”. Or the time I was interrailing through Central and Eastern Europe with friends, and some (again, white) men sat behind us, reached out, and stroked my braids before I could react. Or the countless times I would go out while on holiday and just suddenly feel some grimy fingers running through my hair. I’m not an animal. This isn’t a petting zoo. In the words of Indie.Arie: I am not my hair.
And don’t get me started on the catcalls. Or the advances from men.
While this is something that all women face when travelling (or simply while existing everywhere), I’ve always found that the catcalls and advances directed towards me are racialised and taken to a new level. There’s the shouts of “Oye Morena/Negra” , the men who describe their previous experiences with other “dark chocolate women”, or those who feel the need to let you know that they’ve never been with a black woman. When travelling as a black woman, you’re often fetishized to an extreme level.
The Not-So-Random Checks
Everyone knows that random checks aren’t really random. The Guardian reported that “ethnic minorities are up to 42 times more likely than white people to be stopped by police” at airport security or border control. While as a black woman in the UK, I’m significantly better off than Asian people (who get searched 25% of the time in the UK, despite making up just 5% of the population), discrimination in “random” security checks has rung true in my experiences, and it’s definitely not a coincidence.
On a trip to Iceland, with my group of white friends, guess who was stopped at security for a “random” check even though none of the machines had flagged anything up? Or again, when travelling from Madrid to Paris (there’s no passport control between European/Schengen states), guess who was held back by police and asked to show a passport, while the white passengers, including the friend with whom I was travelling, waltzed through the exit with no checks? At this point, it’s getting boring. Everywhere you travel as a black woman, you can expect random checks, you can expect the ominous gaze of the security guard that lingers on you as you peruse the stores, or the police that literally follow you to make sure you’re not terrorising their city. Oh and if you’re a black woman, remember not to laugh too loudly, otherwise you might get kicked off trains. Because being a black woman and a tourist is basically a crime in itself.
You will be ignored. You will be invisible. People automatically assume you’re broke.
For centuries black women have been invisible. We’ve been erased from civil rights movements. We were left out of the mainstream feminist struggles. We’re removed from public discourse, from media representations, from pretty much every aspect of society. So it’s not surprising that we’re sometimes literally invisible or denied when we travel, especially when white tourists are also around. People assume that we’re poor, that we won’t be able to afford the little “treats” while on holiday, that maybe our white friends clubbed money together so they’re poor little black friend can come along on the holiday too. Like the time a black woman used her loyalty points to upgrade her and her white friend’s plane ticket to first class, and was sent to the back of economy class while her white friend was seated in first class. Or when Oprah was told she wouldn’t be able to afford a handbag in Switzerland.This behaviour isn’t just in the West. In my travels to South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania amongst other African countries, I’ve always noticed that not only were my family and I almost always one of very few other black families in holiday resorts, but that white tourists were almost always treated slightly differently to us, as if they deserved more respect simply because they were white. It will take more time to undo the racial hierarchies and stereotypes created by centuries of the slave trade which silenced black women and years of formal colonial rule which rendered us invisible in history.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Even though I’ve had these experiences while travelling, they don’t outweigh the the positive and enriching encounters. I’m not going to stop travelling because people can’t deal with their racism and sexism. The more encounters that people have with black women as tourists, the more their unrealistic hyper-exaggerated images of the illusive black women will be dispelled. So I guess the solution is keep travelling.
Article by Chanju Mwanza