When setting off on a new trip there are always safety concerns that factor into the decision-making process of where to go. Is there a lot of crime? What’s the political climate right now? What do they think about Americans?
As a person of color all of these factors are taken into account, but there’s always an additional level of concern. I’m not just worried about whether or not there’s a government travel warning, I’m always worried about whether or not I’ll be welcomed in that place.
Will I be the only black person there, stick out like a sore thumb, and be gawked at? Will I be treated differently? Is someone going to try to touch my hair?
All of these thoughts come to mind when I’m planning a trip, but it’s not just my own thoughts that play a role in pre-travel jitters. The real and well-meaning concerns of others are also a factor.
Prior to leaving for a trip I’m often warned about racism in various places or asked if I will really be okay wherever I’m going. There are some warnings that come from personal experience and some from lingering conceptions.
These concerns stem from a long history of the reality that many places have quite literally been dangerous for our community to travel. It also continues the oral and written tradition of passing along which places are safe and which should be avoided, such as the advice once offered in The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.
In addition to the warnings of others there are also perceptions in my own head that make me nervous about going certain places.
In spite of warnings and reservations I generally travel on. My curiosity about new places and desire to visit other countries usually outweighs my concern about potentially uncomfortable situations. If I haven’t heard any first-hand accounts that are so egregious they would make me want to alter any plans I will continue with my trip.
I’ve had overall positive experiences most places I’ve been, but some places stood out more than others.
Before I went to Ireland I wasn’t sure what I should expect culturally. In my head I pictured Irish people as red-haired, green-eyed, and freckled. How would I fit in there?
While there I stayed with a friend’s family who made me feel like one of their own. And in Dublin I was amazed at the diversity I saw. Walking down the street there were people of so many hues. When I went to see Beyoncé in concert I thought she and I might be the only black women there, but that was not the case.
Ireland really surprised me and opened my eyes. Most of the Irish people I’ve had the pleasure to know seem to have more cultural awareness than even people in the US. It is now one of my favorite places where I will continue to return.
I was also pleasantly surprised by my experience in the Scandinavian countries, especially Norway. In a land of tall, blonde descendants of Vikings, I didn’t know how I would be received.
It’s not like Oslo is the world’s melting pot, but based on my initial expectations I was amazed by the number of people of color I saw there as well.
I was also amazed by the fact that multiple people in Oslo came up to me speaking Norwegian. It was a sign to me that I wasn’t immediately treated as an “other” as I have been in so many places.
Another pleasant experience was in Italy. I received, by far, the most compliments on my hair while I was there. It wasn’t like people were confused by it or treated it like some sort of oddity, it seemed like people just generally thought it looked nice, which was refreshing. AND NOBODY TRIED TO TOUCH IT!
I have, however, had a couple situations that were not so great. They both took place in Croatia, although one occurrence had nothing to do with the location.
In Dubrovnik I stood in front of the Old Town gates trying to determine where to go next. As I looked down at my map I felt someone come stand next to me. Assuming it was a pickpocket I instinctively grabbed my purse extra tight.
As I looked up I saw that a woman had come to stand extremely close to me. She wasn’t looking at me though, she was looking straight ahead. I followed her gaze and saw that a man who appeared to be her husband was holding up a camera.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“Picture,” she said, as she continued to pose without my consent.
“Why do you want a picture?” I asked. She then pointed at my skin and her skin.
“Have you really never seen a black person before?”
At that point she seemed to all of a sudden not understand what I was saying. She told me she’s Polish and doesn’t speak English.
She kept trying to take a picture, to which I continually refused. After looking confused and annoyed at the fact that I didn’t want to be a part of her “Look I found a black person in the wild” photo she eventually walked away.
This woman was from Poland, so I couldn’t blame the situation on being in Dubrovnik, but the next uncomfortable encounter was fully Croatian.
After Dubrovnik I went north to Split. I stayed at a hostel that was about a 15-minute ride outside of the main tourist area.
Since I was on a budget I went to the grocery store to find some things to eat. There’s a moving walkway that leads you inside, and as I rolled along I noticed a man next to me looking at my hair. He made a comment to the other guy next to me who also looked at my hair and said something under his breath.
I couldn’t hear what they were saying and I don’t speak Croatian, but I could tell they weren’t admiring how moisturized my twist out looked. The looks on their faces not only made me feel uncomfortable but also unsafe. I felt surrounded.
I walked into the store but decided to turn around and leave. It was already dusk, and I didn’t want to be out in the dark in a situation where I felt my security might be compromised.
Life Back at Home
These types of situations are really unfortunate and highlight the unease many people of color face when traveling abroad and in trying to decide where to go with a reduced chance of having similar experiences.
The sad truth though is that these examples are not far off from my experience being a black woman in the United States.
While going out to eat at a restaurant in Jefferson, NC my friends and I were made very aware of the fact that we were the only black people in the whole place. It seemed as thought people like us didn’t come there very often. No one was so bold as to try to take our picture, but the endless stares and expressions were enough to make us very uncomfortable.
(We had a great time in West Jefferson, however!)
The feelings of being an outsider or zoo animal are the same whether you’re overseas or in your own country. It actually hurts more when it happens here because this is supposed to be home. Unfortunately though it’s not unexpected.
I don’t have to go all the way to Croatia for people to make comments about my hair. That is a very American experience. And it’s right here in the United States where people make comments about the size of my nose, the color of my skin, and touch my hair to try to figure out what exactly is going on up there.
While there are concerns about traveling overseas there are places in the US that I steer clear of, especially if I’m traveling by myself.
What to Do
The sad truth is that as a person of color you don’t get a break from this otherness. You always run the risk of facing these situations at home or abroad. So what do you do?
I never want to put myself in a situation where my safety is truly in jeopardy. If it’s a matter of just being out of place I would rather go out and see what the world has to offer.
It’s hard though because in spite of my encounters in Croatia I want to return because the country is beautiful, and I met many other people who were truly kind. And while I had positive experiences in Italy and Norway, other people might have had vastly different encounters.
It sometimes seems as though the choice is to be put in an uncomfortable situation at home or abroad, and I’d rather take my chances seeing the Eiffel Tower. It stinks that these are the calculations we have to make, but I’m sick of the idea that I don’t have just as much right to see every corner of this world as anyone else.
As a person of color have you faced any of these situations in your travels? Where have you had the best experiences?