I think travelling is one of the most enriching experiences in the world; from a short holiday to a longer trip, visiting a new country is top of my list of things I enjoy. Globalisation and technology means that the world is now a much smaller place and cheap flights, buses and trains as well as traveller-friendly hostels can take you from one end of a continent to the other allowing you to discover new cities and cultures. I feel so privileged to have been on some amazing holidays both alone and with family and friends, as well as having spent a year living abroad as part of my university degree. However, having just returned from a 3-week trip in Europe, I’ve been reflecting on some of the more negative experiences I’ve had whilst travelling and living abroad. I think the nomad or traveller life-style is heavily romanticised by social media and masks some of the more difficult experiences that people of colour (POC) often have to deal with. From micro-aggressions to outright racism, here are some of my own experiences of being a woman of colour whilst travelling and living abroad.
I get stared at. A lot.
The feeling of looking different is often ten times stronger when abroad, especially in countries with monolithic cultures and populations. Before a month-long trip to Eastern Europe last year, I remember my family asking why on earth I wanted to go there as there would be no black people. At the time, I didn’t really register on how this lack of diversity would affect me as I was so eager to plan my first independent trip. Yet, on arriving to places such as Poland and Slovakia, the lack of black and brown faces certainly made me feel uncomfortable. It didn’t help that I travelled in winter during off-peak season and so there were significantly less tourists than usual. I realised that I had been taking the diversity and multiculturalism of the UK and its major cities for granted. Confronted with the feelings of being hypervisible due to people staring, children pointing and the occasional person asking for a photograph with or of me, really affected my mood. I felt lost and the stares felt hostile; as a solo-traveller I felt more vulnerable as, despite not speaking the language, I could tell when people were talking about me. It’s now something I prepare for whenever I plan to go away to somewhere which is not very diverse.
Yet, this feeling of being different also happens in more metropolitan cities – just two weeks ago in Berlin, a city known for its diversity and openness, a man sat next to me and ran his hand up my leg saying how ‘beautiful’ my skin was. The levels of exoticism faced by POC can reach new intensities and it’s not just from the local population. Having the money to travel is a privilege but ironically some of the most well-travelled people I’ve met have also been the most ignorant. From my experiences, the ‘travelling community’ that so many people fall in love with is almost always white and when staying in hostels, facing questions from other travellers asking, ‘where in Africa I’m from’ and ‘if I can twerk’ is not uncommon. Travelling or living abroad can sometimes be lonely but I think travelling as a person of colour can be doubly lonely, especially when you don’t see anyone that looks like you. Although the staring, exoticism and ignorant questions is not malicious nor violent, the feeling of sticking out can make me feel uncomfortable, paranoid and sometimes on-edge.
People are obsessed with my hair
Travelling with afro hair can be problematic. Knowing that afro shampoos, conditioners, treatments, gels and hair oils are never sold in those handy 100ml travel-size bottles and that sourcing any afro hair products abroad will be near-on impossible means that POC have to think of creative solutions when it comes to managing their hair abroad. When travelling for a long time, I’ve had my hair braided as a protective hairstyle making it is easier to look after. On my most recent trip, I ended up posting some hair products to my friend in Germany so that I’d be able to twist and style my hair when I arrived there; this saved me having to pay extortionate prices to check in my baggage (thanks Ryanair) or trying to decant all my products into tiny bottles which would inevitably run-out half-way through my trip or be confiscated at the airport for being ‘unidentifiable liquids’. Yet, preparing and planning my hair care routine in advance is only a minor annoyance.
The real problem surfaces during the trip itself; people are obsessed with touching my hair. Sure, this also happens in the UK too but when I’m abroad I don’t feel like I can go a single day without someone shoving their hands my hair. This isn’t an exaggeration, it happens probably once a day and even more if I go out at night. I could be walking in the street, dancing in a club or eating a restaurant and STRANGERS will come and stick their fingers into my scalp or pull on my hair WITHOUT EVEN ASKING. I’m sorry but who do they think they are? It is not only exoticisation, dehumanisation and objectification of POC but also just downright rude. During a recent festival, I felt like I should’ve started charging people per touch; one Spanish girl pulled on one of my curls and then shouted for all her friends to come and do it too. Jokes aside, it’s a huge invasion of privacy and is a constant form of micro-aggression. It highlights my difference, creating a boundary between me and everyone else – that for them, my hair is a source of fascination, an object that can just be pulled, poked and prodded for their amusement. I don’t feel like a person but an animal that can be stroked and patted. The frequency of these encounters with strangers is tiring. Most people don’t even ask. For those that do ask if they can touch I smile awkwardly and of course say no, but during festivals or in clubs, people are usually too drunk to care and all sense of personal space is lost. One of my housemates during my ERASMUS year compared my hair to a dog and then failed to see why I was offended. Another told me to just ‘change my hair’ and then the problem would be solved. Why should I let others dictate my appearance? I’ve had my hair searched twice now in foreign airports (in case you were wondering, no you can’t hide a bomb in an afro) and strangers have tried to grab my head in the street. It’s not ‘just a compliment’, it’s relentless and is a form of someone infringing on my agency and the right I have over my own body.
Discrimination is more open and casual
Whilst racism is undeniably a problem in the UK, I think sadly for many places I have visited discrimination and racism have been a lot more open and casual than I expected. I’ve been refused entry into nightclubs for being ‘una negra sucia’ (dirty black), been with a group of white girls in a restaurant and been pulled aside and asked if I can afford to eat there and had countless people shout ‘Whitney Houston’ ‘Barack Obama’ ‘Bob Marley’ ‘Beyoncé’ *insert name of Black celebrity here* at me in the streets. When I lived in Barcelona, I remember reading an article about how blackface was common in nightclubs during Halloween or hip-hop themed nights there, and then arguing with my housemate who thought that blackface was funny and who also supported the controversial celebration of Black Pete (a, IMO, racist celebration which takes place every Christmas in the Netherlands). I also saw groups of men dressed up as Rastafarians with long dreadlock wigs and painted brown faces. Whilst living and travelling in Europe I’ve been referred to casually as a n****r a number of times. Having to explain to flatmates and international friends why this is offensive completely blew my mind. We are living in 2018. How can anyone think it is acceptable to use this word? People have often tried to justify it by saying that they are taking the power back from the word, that it’s okay to say this in their language or that people use it in rap music and songs. They didn’t understand that only the minority group can reclaim words that are used against them and that only they have the right to use them, if they choose to do so. I think the worst incident I remember was when one man in France openly referred to me as a slave on the tram, threatening to hit me and then starting to violently kick my suitcase. Unsurprisingly, no one said or did anything. I was left feeling shocked and scared. I find it frustrating to have to negotiate between my personal dignity and my safety in these situations. Choosing my battles, knowing when to call people out on their views and when to hold my tongue and walk away is often a challenge. Remaining silent sometimes feels like allowing myself to be oppressed but it would be stupid to compromise my own safety when confronted with such outward displays of violence.
I want to clarify that I didn’t write this post to gain sympathy. I’m not looking for any ‘I’m so sorry you have had to experience this’ comments nor do I feel any anger towards any of the people mentioned in my stories. Whilst there is not much that can be done about individual experiences I have had, I think making people aware about some of the things POC encounter whilst travelling can only help create a network of support for them. Having friends that stick up for me when I encounter racism, who don’t equate my discomfort with people staring to just paranoia and frankly who tell people to piss off when they try and touch my hair is crucial to me feeling understood and supported both in the UK and abroad. The intense and often fast-paced nature of travelling means that sometimes incidents that make you feel uncomfortable are quickly swept aside as you move on to the next destination or activity. I think it is important for POC to reflect on these uncomfortable experiences and address how they make us feel, talk to others about how you would want them to react or support you and then move forward. Online platforms such as The Travellers of Colour Collective are fantastic ways for POC to share their experiences and support each other. At the end of the day, nothing is going to stop me from travelling and experiencing new cultures. The good times definitely outweigh the bad and I have way more positive memories than negative ones; but shedding light on some of the negative things POC, like myself, can experience whilst abroad could hopefully help us feel less isolated and more supported.