“Farrin do you really want to write about this?"
“Do people realize this is a ‘thing”
It’s like that conversation that Black people sometimes have to make to their non Black friends … you know, the one about “does racism still exist?”. It’s something you try to avoid until someone seems to genuinely not know or someone makes a joke that goes left and you realize it may be time for them to “get woke”.
Well….traveling while Black is a "thing". Of course this “thing” takes different shapes and forms depending which region of the world you’re visiting or even which country for that matter. I can only speak on my experiences or those of friends of mine but…it’s a thing.
There are parts of the world that I’ve been to that people didn’t know that Black people like me actually travel. Furthermore, a Black woman traveling by herself was just unheard of. I won't even discuss how often women of color are perceived to be prostitutes, just because they are traveling, I'll save that for another post. Oh, and even moreover it’s been surprising that I’m a Black woman from the States and not a country in Africa. That is super shocking at times ( *double blink*). I’ve participated in so many mind boggling awkward conversations regarding my Blackness with strangers that I’ve lost count.
But before I go any further, let me say that I am all for answering questions from people who really are trying to learn and grow. All for it! So more often than not these are enlightening conversations that I enjoy. People don’t cease to amaze me with their true blissful ignorance, but I love the opportunity to address it.
Here are 5 things that I’ve learned about Traveling while Black:
1. People may stare at you. Like non discrete, obvious, point and talk about you to the person next to you stare at you. Hey, for some people you may be the only Black person that this person has ever seen in person. You were, up until this point, a fictitious character. And BOOM reality has hit them so they will really point and stare. They may even come up and ask to take a picture with you ( shout out to Asian countries, I have no idea how many random pictures of me are floating around). Take it with a grain of salt if people are courteous to you (I’m not here for rude people). Hey if I ever ran into Harry Potter in real life, I’d want his picture too (smile).
2. If you think that Black History is tainted within the states, it’s far more limited and tainted elsewhere. Just think about it, how much of Black History did you really learn from grade school? You know… outside of slavery, how terrible the Black Panthers were (ha), and how the plight of Black people ended with the Civil Rights era? So just imagine the stories that are actually being told outside of our country. Kind of scary right? I know I received a question from a teenager in Brazil this past October completely confused about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He said
“I thought America was done with racism. Why are Black people so upset?”
Whew child….let’s just pause here for the deep sigh I had to take when he asked me this question. He only mentioned this because I was showing him something on social media and he kinda sorta heard about the movement but didn’t understand what the issue was. Considering there are many people within this country that are missing the point, just imagine how difficult that conversation was. Now tack on the history of black Brazilians, it made for a really interesting discussion. Which leads to my next point…
3. If you can, try to awaken something in someone. Help start an end to ignorance. While in Bangkok, Thailand my friends and I met the nicest TEACHER ever. She spoke great English and helped to direct us home because we were SUPER lost. We had the pleasure of sharing a long bus ride with her which left plenty of time to talk. After she asked questions about my hair (they were in faux locs at the time), she then tried to guess where we were from. To her surprise we told her that we were from the States and the Washington, DC area. Her surprised response was priceless.
“People like you, live there? I thought only white people live there”.
There was some body language that accompanied this statement, raised eyebrows and a waving hand gesture. She was shocked. She then continued by asking questions regarding our education, why we were traveling , and all sorts of things. Overall, it shows how there is little to no presence of Black History in her school, keep in mind she is an educator, at all. From her perceptive, people like me didn't exist in the States. I read a little more into what she was saying because she was not only surprised that we were traveling, but that we were educated. I genuinely think she had a different view of Black people after this conversation. I felt really good after our bus ride, not only because I took the opportunity to awaken someone…but because she’s an educator, so now she could share our little conversation with her students. So if I’m playing devil’s advocate…maybe she was an anomaly, perhaps she was the only person in the entire country of Thailand who didn’t know that Black people like me lived in the states. Perhaps, I would believe that if she hadn’t told me she had been an educator for years. So yea…she’s not the only one.
4. Sometimes, you’ll hear slurs or ignorant comments you’ve only heard from your parents or have read about. Being called the "N" word or a coloured in casual conversation seems like something of our past ( for the most part). So imagine this happening in real time, like right now, yes it’s 2016. It's weird to be called out of your name so casually because the country you’re visiting is just dated. South Africa is just an era or five two behind the racial differences that the States has already grown through. I had this conversation with an Afrikaans man I met regarding the racial tensions within South Africa. Short version of his story, him and his wife feared for their safety in Johannesburg, South Africa so they relocated to another country. As he expressed to me how bad things were and how the racial tension seemed to have no resolve, I had to consider the source that was telling me this information. A comment I’ll never forget him saying to me was…
“Whose idea was it to have so many cultures in one country?? It was never going to work”
He was referring to his country, not mine. Of course a bell went off in my head and I knew the direction that my night was going to go. Time for an awakening.
Also...in his mind, the States had figured things out already (with all of the cultures here...who knew?). Well before I told him that he was wrong I had to give him some perspective. South Africa is only twenty some years removed from Apartheid. Slavery was abolished in the States in 1865. After we briefly discussed the “growing pains” my country has gone through over the last century and a half, he kind-of started to understand that South Africa would have to grow through some things before getting it closer to right.
"We need 100 years"
That was his new response. I'm not sure if i got through to him but I tried. Granted we were out at a bar, but we weren't too many drinks in. His stories of South Africa reminded me of the time when I visited South Africa and went out in a very Afrikaans town with a really mixed group of young adults. When the waiter referred to some of us as coloured….casually, I didn’t really know what was happening. Like oh snap…that just happened…AND he thinks it’s cool. When you’re engulfed in a culture that just hasn’t gotten it yet and these things occur, sometimes you just may have to let the moment pass. Sometimes it isn’t the best time for that teachable moment, perhaps because there is no way it will be received properly and it could go terribly left. Take a few deep breaths, slide a correction in their if you can, and keep it moving. This holds true with racial slurs that you may encounter as well. You know...the rude drunk ones from strangers that just make you look at them with disbelief (it happens). Don’t ever play into that type of disrespect.
5. You do not have to speak for all of black people. Don’t go somewhere and think you are now the ambassador of all Black Americans… you aren’t. So be sure to frame your responses and conversations with your personal experience. If you don’t know something don’t make it up and have this poor person going around strong and wrong. Awaken with things that you know and areas that you know about. It doesn’t have to be prolific and don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. It reminds me of being the only Black kid in a class and somehow when a question comes up about Black people everyone turns to look at you like you have the answers. It used to trip me out because I’m like hey I’m in here learning right beside you, lets let our TEACHER teach us. I don't have the answers Sway.
Overall, I've been blessed to have only had a few bad experiences. But all of them have been teachable moments. I absolutely love how large the Black travel movement is becoming and I encourage everyone to utilize each teachable moment to the best of their ability. I know we travel to experience other cultures but never be afraid to share a little about your own! And to my Black readers, keep on keeping on Traveling While Black!