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TWB: Traveling While Black

DWB (Driving While Black) is a term that most [black] people living in America are familiar with. I have experienced DWB on a number of occasions, on one even being mistaken as a black man driving a Mercedes Benz truck through Pennsylvania, one of the most heinous crimes in America. That traffic stop involved a lost checkbook and having a can of mace put in my face.

To get back to the point of the post, the original post that I wanted to write was “things my white friends will never have to deal with”, but after reading Americanah, A GREAT BOOK, I was inspired to write a post about traveling while black or TWB. While writing this post I just did a quick google search and realized that I am about two weeks late to the party as the NYTimes and Huffington Post just published articles on the subject. Both articles cover some parts of my impending rant, but I will still hop on my soapbox and share a few stories with you.

So traveling while black…

Perceptions

As a pure Muganda (my tribe) I have very dark chocolaty skin and I love nothing more than laying in the sun to deepen this hue. During my travels across Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and Australia I have had braids, a bald head and big big curls. Why does my hair matter? Because I am a black woman and it does.

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Braids in Fiji

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Bald in Havana

Jessica in Miami

Big curls in Miami

Depending where I am going I sometimes wonder about how I will be received, sometimes I am surprised as my expectations are completely off. The region in which I travel obviously colors my experience. In Africa I can go relatively undetected if I do not open my mouth, which depending on the situation, I will keep it locked tight so that no one will detect that I am a foreigner, i.e. on a five hour bus ride to Gulu in Northern Uganda. So Africa is a breeze for this chocolate girl. Well…..living in Benin with a white boyfriend was an interesting and weird experience as is working in development, in Africa as a black person that is not a local of that country. The clash of not being a local, but being treated [badly] like a local is a bit of a mindf*ck, but I will save that for another day.

Asia

My first experience living outside of the US was living in Japan and being dark and bald was a lot for the Japanese to handle. It was mostly kids that stared, but every now and again I caught adults trying to take pictures of me without my permission. I never felt any racism, but let’s remember this is a country of people who will be polite to their enemy if they walk into a department store that they are working at. “Irrashaimase!” That isn’t to say that I think the Japanese are racist, I had one of the most amazing years of my life living there, but I am just saying, even if they were racist I do not think they would let me know it. They were curious.

When I was leaving Turkey, the funniest thing happened. Well firstly I was bald at the time and in my passport picture I have hair, this also caused a problem at immigration when I moved to London, but I digress. So the first Turkish immigration officer looked at my passport then at me then the passport then me then the passport. Finally he called in someone else who proceeded to do the same confused examination. Finally they brought in a third person. While this third officer was comparing the real me to the passport me I made a different face every time he looked up. I could have been annoyed with the whole ordeal but I really found it quite funny.

Europe

My dear friend Europe. Europe is the continent that I have traveled the most extensively and lived the longest on, next to North America. Having been to 17  countries I have had varying experiences. I personally feel that London is the most race neutral city I have been too. In London, I NEVER felt that my race was an issue. I never had that lingering thought of did this happen because I’m black. That is not to say there are not race issues there but I never felt them. Now, my Italian ex who looks middle eastern if he doesn’t shave definitely had an incident, but I escaped, unscathed. Border patrol, on the other hand, is a different story. A British immigration agent once asked me why I shaved my head and another one referred to me as colored. He asked a friend I was traveling with, “are you with the colored girl?”

Rome is racist.

In Montenegro, I had the feeling that they had never ever seen black people.  If you are unfamiliar, with Montenegro, it is a country in the former Yugoslavia, in eastern Europe. With a beautiful coastline, it plays host for the holidays of Serbians and Russians in addition to their countrymen. When we headed to the beach our first day in the country, I felt the entire beach staring at me. After about 20 minutes I was over the staring and we headed back to our hotel. Needless to say, it was clear that these people had never seen a black person. The next day I decided to ignore the staring. At one point a woman put her baby in my arms and her husband stood next to me and she took a picture. Somewhere in the world is a picture of me holding some white baby with a look of pure shock on my face.

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Me in Montenegro

Australia 

I have only been to Brisbane, Australia and I do not recall seeing ANY black people. What I do recall is after being riddled with questions by immigration, before I could even go to retrieve my luggage I was stopped again and asked several questions and of course once I picked up my bags customs wanted to go through each piece. You can read more about that here.

South America

In Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, I did not feel like anyone cared that I was black. In Brazil I was mistaken as Brazilian several times and was loving every second of it.

North America

Canada I love you.

I was very confused by the fact that in Mexico two times we were stopped because people wanted to take pictures with us.

To the USofA our love/hate relationship has got to stop. You do not make it easy when on probably 60% of my reentries into the country, MY country of birth you give me a hard time. One time when I landed in Detroit from Amsterdam I was stopped before I even made it to immigration. The officer asked me to see my passport and I asked why, and was told please show me your passport. I pointed out the fact that I was walking to immigration where I would surely show them my passport, but him, being unmoved by my logic asked for it again and I finally gave up and handed it over. One time in JFK the immigration officer asked me how long I intended to stay in the country. Yes, he asked me that while looking at my AMERICAN passport. I almost went crazy on him but decided I did not feel like being detained. On a return flight to FLL from Hondurus I was actually held in customs for nearly an hour. I was never told why they pulled me to the side, but I gave them all the attitude I could muster up at 6am. I was asked where I worked to which I snappily answered “I don’t”, because in fact at the time I didn’t. I was asked “how did you pay for this trip?” which received a smug answer of “I have money in bank account.” “Why were you in Hondurus for only three days?” “Because that’s how long I wanted to go for.” “Why do you only have a backpack?” “Because I was only there for three days!” The woman then proceeded to go through each page of my passport and ask me why I had been to all the countries I had been to. After all of my attitude spewing she said, “you don’t need to have an attitude with us” and I said “you don’t need to be holding me here.” Needless to say I have no tolerance for nonsense.  I could go on with my stories of American immigration, but I will spare you.

Other annoying things about Traveling While Black

Other very annoying things about traveling while black include priority travel in countries where black people are not expected to be flying priority. I am looking at you America and Italy. I wrote a detailed post about one of my experiences in NYC.

Having people touch my hair or rub my head as if I am a dog no longer really bothers me. It has happened to me so many times that I think I have become desensitized. Last week while on an elevator AT WORK IN THE UN an Italian woman began playing with my hair. I just ignored her. When we got off the elevator my Tunisian friend said she was surprised I didn’t punch this, generally annoying, woman in her face. I simply shrugged and said I am used to it.

Travel guides do not cater to us nor consider us. I used to receive emails from World Nomad and one day I received an email in which there was a story titled Experience: Argentina. In the article snippet it said “This is one Latin American country where Europeans and North Americans can feel at ease and travel relatively inconspicuously.” Clearly they were not considering black, brown nor East Asian Americans and Europeans when they wrote that because apparently when it comes to travel marketing, there is no need to consider us. The fact is the default idea of an American or European is a white person.

I still love my black skin

Traveling while black no doubt affects my traveling and often times in a negative or annoying way but the fact of the matter is I absolutely love the skin that I am in and every time I lay on a beach and compare my body to the others I am reminded how BEAUTIFUL it is. To be quite honest, the worst racial experiences I have ever had were in the US. So to my black readers out there go forth, be brave and see the world! For those who are American you will realize people appreciate you a lot more outside of those borders so pack your bags and move abroad!

**Editor’s note. I know this post is a bit disjointed. It is late and I had a long day. Sorry.

This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. Oh my goodness… I was reading this post and shaking my head at all the negative experiences you had because I've been there too. I couldn't believe that British immigration agent using the word "colored". I've written a similar post about this on my blog and all I can say is that its a real shame that these things still happen, but we can't let it stop us. Thank you for writing this and I love coming across blogs like this and knowing that more women of color are continuing to travel. We have to make THEIR world bigger than they know.

  2. I'm white, but I fully understand your feeling about having your hair played with by strangers. When I lived in Japan in Shiga in the early 90s, the children would follow me in the street, and little old ladies would play with my hair while I stood in the line at the grocery store. It does take some getting used to.

    1. Haha. But I am not sure one should ever need to get used to it. I think it is completely different in places where they do not come into contact regularly with people that do not look like them, i.e. Shiga in the early 90s and Montenegro even now. I however refuse to excuse white people in America and western Europe for touching my hair. The incident in the elevator happened inside of the United Nations. Its unacceptable.

      P.S. I live in Shiga (Kusatsu) from 2008-2009. It must have changed so much between the times we were both there. I definitely stood out when I was there and was often stared at but no one ever touched me.

  3. Hahahahahahahhahahaa love this post! As a black female wearing a religious head wrap (yep, I'm a muslim), travelling can be a little difficult for me too! Having refused to take off my headscarf at Charlotte International airport – after a lengthy flight from London – an immigration officer decided it would be a good idea to find out if I was hiding anything in their. Standing right in the middle of the terminal I had to bend down for her to actually molest my headscarf and my scalp loooool.

    1. When I have braids or a weave my scalp is constantly molested, to the point where when I walk through the body scan detectors in the US I automatically tilt my head down before they even ask. I feel your pain!

  4. I'm glad you've had many positive experiences while traveling, despite being black. I've thought about traveling to Europe and Asia many times, but stories about "traveling while black" have scared me. I guess there are black people who have had good experiences and those who have had bad ones. I'll definitely give traveling another thought.

    By the way, you're a great writer! The part about the Montenegro picture incident made me laugh so hard!

  5. Your article was just in time. A few minutes ago I was sitting ina cafe in Durango, Mexico, feeling discouraged, disappointed and disgusted. After bring ogled, stared, and snickered at, I've concluded that not too many black people have set foot in this part of Mexico. My Mexican husband thinks I'm exaggerating. I'm relieved to know I'm not alone.

  6. You seem like a very strong woman. I admire that about you. I plan on doing my RTW trip next year but due to racism, "OMG SHES BLACK " issues and the fact that I will be travelling solo, I am kinda having 2nd thoughts. Great post tho, now I know what to look out for wen I travel.

    1. Girl, you better go out and see this wonderful world of ours. Do not worry about the "OMG, she's black" thing. Black is beautiful. Walk with your head up, get on that plane and take this world by storm!

    2. I was in Turkey during the summer and had several people just walk up and started taking pictures with me! I have no idea where they were from but it was very unnerving. I am planning a trip to Montenegro but now having second thoughts after reading your article.

      1. On my first visit to Turkey, a family (don’t know where they were from) stood next to me and smiled. A photo was taken. I stood there and asked my tour guide what was going on. Of course he said they have never seen a black person before. I laughed and said well how would they act if they see a dark skinned person, because I am brown toned. Amusing.

    3. You just have to be confident when you travel and know that generally it is coming from a place of curiosity rather than malice. Don't allow anything to hinder you from seeing the world! I wrote these words so that people are aware, not to make you second guess a trip.

  7. Hi 🙂 You say you went to Montenegro and got a lot of stares. But they did not harass you or anything? Did you go anywhere else in former Yugoslavia? Bosnia? Croatia? Slovenia? I love the blog! I have travelled a lot and I feel like people pay attention to me because I am black, and I KNOW it's because I am a novelty–and I don't mind because I like the attention, but I am planning a trip to former Yugoslavia (not Serbia) and Turkey and just curious if people actually get harassed. I mean, I am light skinned, and I have a long weave as well and am very tall, so I know I get that sexual piece-of-meat attention as well, and I don't mind because I am single and flirtatious, as long as I feel in a safe and open-minded environment. Like in Australia, I got a lot of dates very easily. So I don't mind being the novelty as long as it does not become a threat to my safety. In former Yugoslavia and northern Italy, I am worried it sounds like you are implying that black women are not just a novelty, but they become OVERLY sexually desired. That intimidates me

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience in Montenegro. I’m checking out Montenegro for my destination wedding and I’m concerned if race would be concerned, as in I am black and most of my guest would be too . Aside from the stare, I hope you were treated well.

    1. Wow, that is an interesting location for a destination wedding, what made you choose Montenegro?

  9. I’m planning on visiting Montenegro but I’m slightly afraid so stumbled upon this witty, intelligent post. You are a wonderful women and I’m glad you see the humour in it all! Oh and I totally envy your passport stamps. Keep travelling! X

  10. I’m loving your blog and all your tales! I was recently in Rome on a stop over from another trip.I just spent a night there because I did not feel like spending another day there, I just did not get good vibes. I was definitely flagged by the customs for an extra pat down because I only had a carry on and did not check in a luggage! I saw that one coming.

    1. Thank you so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed Rome for the short time you were there. While I did not love living there I still think that it is a great city to visit. I know a lot about being flagged by customs in several countries. Enjoy your travels!!

  11. Hey, hi umm black African from Brisbane Australia here?. Umm if u don’t count aboriginal australians as black then ok. But there are a lot of blacks here just saying. But omg I love your blogs! Keep it up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Hi Mo! I’m glad you love the blogs, thank you for reading.

      I definitely consider aboriginals to be black. I did not come across any while I was there. I hope that next time I am in Australia I do meet black people from Australia.

  12. In the future I am looking to move to an economicly friendly area and I am looking at MONTENEGRO but I am used to Racism growing up in the south. I already understand the rules of not hanging out to late at night and things like that. Their is no such thing as a Pure Blood in this world your mixed like we all are weather you are Dark or not. I have found that a lot of Africans like myself do not know their history and think like white people in fact they think we Black Americans are less african which is not true. Welcome to the struggle dear.

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