Traveling While Black Can Be Downright Bizarre
She has been met with xenophobia, smiles, and curiosity: some assume she’s a celebrity, others that she’s a migrant. But no trip is uneventful.
I’m not really “from” anywhere—at least not in the way most people might experience this idea—belonging to a place, having a particular location one thinks of as home. I’m a dual citizen of Nigeria and the U.S., yet I've been told by Nigerians that I’m not “really Nigerian,” and by xenophobic Americans that I’m not “really American.”
As one of the moving pieces in a far-flung diaspora, I’ve come to find it easier to think of myself as simply black. The more I travel, however, the more I realize that this particular identity exists alongside a complex system of assumptions and perceptions far beyond my control. Traveling while black is often disorienting or downright bizarre: My skin always adds another—other—layer to the experience.
What I’ve discovered during my travels is that my race serves, simultaneously, as both a repellent and an invitation, prompting avoidance and intrusion. In places where the locals have had few (or no) interactions with black people, I’ve been met with a wide range of reactions—some frankly astonishing. Armed with this awareness, I was prepared for almost anything when I embarked on my most recent trip in July. I traveled, mostly on my own, for five months—as I write this stateside, I’m still reeling from reverse culture shock. I traveled through 20 countries: Greece, Italy, France, Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Poland, Scotland, Montenegro, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The successful completion of this trip upped the number of countries I’ve visited to 44, the majority being solo trips.
As a woman alone, I attract some attention. And as a black woman traveling alone, I’m often an outright curiosity. A common and comical assumption is that I must be a celebrity. I’ve been called “Serena” a few times, though I look nothing like the tennis player. Because of economic and social barriers, fewer black Americans travel than their white counterparts (though this is rapidly changing), so those who do voyage abroad are presumed to be “special” in some way. In media portrayals of black Americans, this exceptionalism is well represented in the fields of sports and entertainment. Due to the global dominance of black musical forms, such as hip-hop, the most frequently recurring idea is that I might be a musician. This kind of positive stereotyping is a double-edged sword. In individual cases, it can bring about unearned rewards: As a “celebrity,” I’m showered with perks and preferential treatment. But faux-fame isn’t as glamorous as it sounds: Requests for pictures get old fast. Unsolicited touching of my hair or skin never amuses me.
I’ve also experienced the polar opposite of celebrity status. Because black women are often over-sexualized in international media imagery, and because of the rampant sex trafficking of West African women, I’ve experienced a little-known phenomenon that many outside my circle of experience are startled to learn exists: I am sometimes approached as a prostitute. This summer, it happened in Vienna. A man stopped me to ask, “How much?” and I pretended not to speak English or German. It happened again in Hong Kong, while I was casually resting on a bench in the glitz of a gargantuan mall. On previous trips, Barcelona was the major locus of this assumption. Even in the great cities of the world, I find myself pigeonholed into the most small-minded roles.
These particular incidents made a lasting impression on me because of their outrageousness, but the real story is rather banal: it’s the underlying weariness of not belonging. The unrelenting exhaustion of brushing off the perpetual stares, glares, even gasps. The hyperawareness of being a visible outsider can grate and grind you down until you get used to it. At this point in my growth as a globetrotter, I’ve reached the stage where it’s faded into background noise—the anxious edges have softened. Still, one of the questions I ask myself before venturing far outside my comfort zone is how I might be received there (this concern recalls the Green Book, an indispensable guidebook of the Jim Crow era that advised African-American travelers of hostile and friendly establishments).
This summer, some potential locations gave me pause. I was most nervous about traveling to areas with a recent increase of right-wing populism or xenophobia—Poland, Hungary, and, most of all, Russia. Beyond the usual misgivings many Americans have about visiting our once and ever foe, I was especially intimidated by incidents of anti-black violence against both tourists and its vanishingly tiny resident black population. I worried about whether its nationalistic political landscape and the tense relations between our countries might translate into hostility towards me. I scoured the internet for travelogues or testimonies written by black Americans who’d been to Russia, finding just two. I went back and forth on its inclusion on my itinerary a million times—looking for reasons to stall the grueling, expensive process of obtaining a Russian visa.
I was afraid of everything—of being robbed by street thugs, of being robbed by the police, of being robbed by taxi drivers. One travel guide warned of sharp icicles falling off balustrades and impaling pedestrians. Ultimately, each time I wanted to back out, a quick Google image search or YouTube video tour pulled my heartstrings in the direction of “yes”—in spite of the specter of the Cold War lurking just beneath the surface, Russia appeared like a dream I felt compelled to realize. As a reward for eventually insisting on an open mind, my experience in St. Petersburg was indeed magical. I came to regret that I’d prejudged Russia the same way I resist and resent it happening to me. Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” This proved true.
Does this maxim also work in the reverse: Can travelers themselves deal a fatal blow to stereotypes held by people in the host countries they visit? I have grown to love visiting countries where they receive very few black tourists—where many people haven’t formed preconceived notions about who we are. In these ripe, rare spaces, there exist no preconceptions or schemas until I set them—and I like to surprise. I like to think that my presence makes an impact in a world rife with anti-blackness—that it’s ultimately more than just a novelty, and that I engage with locals in ways that promote mutual cultural understanding.
For me, travel is an inherently political act, even as it is an intensely personal journey. As a third culture kid (one born in West Africa, raised in England, then naturalized as a U.S. citizen), I’ve always been interested in the intricacies of identities and labels. Particularly fascinating is the language we use to delimit the roles of people who move around the world—“tourist,” “expat,” “immigrant,” “migrant”—how and why we apply such terms differently to various groups (and the resulting impact of their use). Their colloquial usage is undeniably racially charged, and skin color is often the primary deciding factor in word choice. Commonly, those who relocate without legal status are called “migrants,” yet I’ve never heard this term applied to that legion of young, white backpackers who move abroad, overstay their visas, and work under the table. The term “ex-pat” is usually reserved for white Westerners and not applied to workers of color—even when their migratory patterns tell a parallel story.
The term “tourist” can apply to anyone, but it’s usually avoided as a label because most people don’t want to attach to themselves the negative clichés associated with this breed of traveler. In my extensive experience as a solo black female traveler, however, a curious reality emerges, particularly when I’m in Europe—in the wake of a refugee crisis, being correctly identified as a tourist (as opposed to a migrant or asylum seeker) routinely affords me better treatment. Often considered gauche, “tourist” is a far better alternative to some of the labels—often slurs—hurled at those assumed to exist outside the protected bubble of tourism.
Navigating the linguistic landscape of migration, I stumbled across the delightfully apt English slang word coddiwompler: “One who travels in a purposeful manner towards a vague and as-yet-unknown destination.” I now can’t imagine traveling any other way than as I do presently—curious, somehow confident, yet somewhat clueless—a fish out of water roaming the world in search of something: the home I never had or a way of life that suits me; an escape from routine; the uncomfortable adventure. Even when I stand apart, I search for connections and commonalities. I do what I’ve always done—survive amidst cultural chaos. The floundering black girl forced to reinvent herself in dozens of different climates and cultures now does so assuredly, hoping to position herself—a good citizen of a global community.