Traveling While Black
My experience studying abroad.
I traveled outside the North American continent for the first time in my Junior year of college. Solo. No friends, no family — just me, a suitcase that was five pounds overweight, and my giant plush seal (his name’s Cove).
Almost two years have passed with me wanting to write about my experience abroad, but having difficulty deciding what stories to tell. I wish I could write solely about my quaint Parisian apartment, the authentic gyros in Santorini, or a romantic rendezvous in Tenerife. But in light of the horrors across America today (and every day before Black death became important enough for White people to talk about), I’ve accepted that my travel story is and has always been different from the common White traveler’s.
First-off: traveling while Black is exhausting. I mean, on top of the hotel-bookings, transportation planning, and itinerary-making, I spend hours researching how a city treats Black people — specifically Black women. The high rate of hate crimes? Stats on sexual abuse or violence? How many Black travelers reported being turned away from restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, beaches, or clothing stores?
I envied my White friends who seemed to travel so freely, even my White female friends, who found safety in the fact that they’d be treated well simply for being White American women.
Let me give you a better picture of myself. I’m a Black, mixed-race girl with brown skin, thin eyes, small lips, small nose, and short, curly hair. I get the question “where are you from?” a lot. I’m not White-passing, just racially ambiguous. I’ve had people act all surprised when I said I was from America, while I was in America. So going abroad opened a whole other conversation — this time language barrier-edition.
MIGRANT RACISM IN PARIS
My home base while abroad was Paris, France. I was inspired by the many Black writers and artists who traveled to the city to find inspiration and freedom from America’s oppressive Jim Crow laws (not to say that France isn’t free of racism). One of my favorite authors, James Baldwin, was only 24 when he arrived in Paris in 1948 with only $40 in his pocket.
A bit of background on the Black population in Europe: at least a million Sub-Saharan Africans have moved to Europe since 2010. And while the numbers of migrants in France do not point to a “crisis,” the issue has nonetheless been more highly politicized, and for a longer time, than anywhere else in Europe.
On my way to classes, I would pass camps of African migrants (some looking no older than 10) along the seine, having arrived in Paris only to be told there was nowhere for them to go. During a casual afternoon stroll past the Eiffel Tower, I noticed sans-papiers — as the undocumented migrants are known in local parlance — vending touristy souvenirs around the Champ de Mars, Place du Trocadéro, and the Palais de Chaillot. I watched them play hide and seek with French police, and I avoided the suspicious stares officers gave me as I hurried by.
As I mentioned before, I am brown but racially ambiguous. I confuse people. In the City of Light, where Black African migrants are often treated with disdain and distrust by French Whites, I experienced a similar prejudice until someone confirmed I was American.
When I first arrived in Paris, I wore my natural hair in a high puff or afro. I would get looks from passersby as they grimaced or shook their heads at my hair. However, when I decided to get my hair braided for funsies, the looks became less hostile and more intrigued. Now, why would that happen?
In short, White Parisians treated me with hesitancy and even hostility when I wore my natural curls, but once I had it tucked away in box braids, the difference in treatment was immediate. My natural hair was “unruly and unkept,” but box braids were more pleasingly exotic. It made me more palatable.
This was also the case when it came to my accent. On my way to school, I would often stop by a crepe stand for breakfast, you know, as you do. My first time there (I had a natural hairstyle), the man making the crepes glared at me as I waited in line, and even demanded that I show him I had the two euros to pay for my meal. But as soon as he heard my American accent through my broken French, his eyes lit up, he smiled, laughed: “you’re American!” he said. I smiled and nodded, confused. The man never glared at me again and even greeted me by name when I would stop by.
When I got my hair braided a few months later, he complimented me and said I looked “like an island girl.” I was conflicted. I should feel good, right? I mean, he’s being so nice to me. I later realized that the man had been uncomfortable because he couldn’t tell where I was from, maybe even assuming I might be a migrant. Only once he learned I was American did his negative perceptions of me change. Only then did he become open to treating me positively (even if it was by exoticizing me).
Being Black in America, I’d never received the benefit of the doubt (aside from being lighter-skinned), so it took me a minute to get my feelings in order and to accept that, yes, I did deserve to be angry. The state system seems to tolerate the African sans-papiers as long as they are humanoid silhouettes, not real people with real names, real addresses, real families, and personal histories. Always at the mercy of the state’s shifting migration politics and the focus of many worried gazes, they are the spectral protagonists of a global narrative. I was given better treatment simply because I was a Black American — not unlike being called one of the “good ones”, as I’ve often been called in America.
I didn’t go back to that crepe stand again.
SEXUALIZATION IN SANTORINI
When I traveled outside of Paris, I took my mother’s advice and traveled with a friend, who was currently studying abroad in Ireland (let's call him “James”). James is a White boy from London, who came to America for high school and college only to be constantly disappointed with our education system. I’ve been friends with him since high school, and he made a world of a difference when locals saw him by my side during our travels. Exhibit A:
Over fall break, James and I planned a trip to Santorini and Athens. I’m a huge fan of the Percy Jackson series, so you know ya girl was ready. Our hotel was gorgeous, because I picked it, with views looking off towards Mykonos in one direction and caldera in the other. Our first morning there, I put on a blue maxi dress prime for serving looks while overlooking the ocean and sauntered out of my hotel room and up to the main road.
James wasn’t awake yet, because he’s lazy, so I had the morning to myself. There weren’t many cars along the dusty road, and I passed tired shop owners opening up for the day, the smells of lamb and fish making my mouth water. It’s around that time that I became aware I was being followed.
I knew he hadn’t been following me for long. I think he started when I passed him at the bus stop. When I crossed the street, he called out to me, a smile on his face, and asked me for directions to Fira. I should have kept walking, but I didn’t. I told him I didn’t know the directions, and his response was, “I’m Egyptian!” Um…okay? Good for you, I guess.
I just smiled at him, said something like, “oh,” and then tried to keep walking. He grabbed my arm. “Pay for sex?” he asked. I was now even more aware of the empty roads, the darkened shop windows, the fact that James was half a mile away sleeping at the hotel. I swallowed, smiled, shook my head. “But please! I love exotic girls,” was his response to my obvious discomfort. I pulled away and fast-walked back to the hotel. He didn’t follow this time.
Now, let’s compare to Exhibit B:
Tenerife. The largest of Spain’s Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa, dominated by the dormant volcano Mount Teide. James and I, together this time, were walking along a strip of bars and restaurants after dinner one night when a group of men (obviously drunk) approached from the other direction.
I was standing outside a souvenir shop while James walked further into the store. The group of men eyed me as they walked past, and made lewd comments about my “exotic hair,” my “mocha skin,” my “baby face” (which is the absolute weirdest thing for a grown man to say to a woman, by the way). I glared at them and made a show of turning my back, but they stopped walking and one of the men tried to approach me. At that moment, James came outside the shop, saw the group, and came to stand beside me. One of the men immediately apologized to James (????) and the group left.
The sexualization of Black women echoes across the diaspora, across continents, across cultures. It’s really gross. Please stop.
In Paris, I had a Black roommate, and often when walking from the metro to our apartment, we would get stares and questionable comments from White strangers (she in dreadlocks and I in box braids). Once, when walking from a museum in Paris, a man walked alongside me and commented on my legs, “I’m not going to do anything to you! You look like a dancer. I love your legs.”
In Portugal, a White boy I’d met earlier that day advanced on me in a club, called me the N-word when I showed signs of discomfort, and only backed down when James showed up. Alone, or even with another Black woman, I was suggestible. But when accompanied by a White man, I was “off-limits.”
Paris, Greece, London, Germany, Amsterdam, Spain, Portugal. I was met with constant questions about my race and where I was from. I was used to it in America coming from White and non-Black people. But abroad, those same questions also came from other Black people, most of them African.
Black people would approach me in wonder, complimenting my lighter skin tone, my European-like features — “you must be from the islands, you don’t look African!” They were often surprised when I told them I was American — “but you look so exotic!” These statements were all meant to be compliments, but they made me feel icky. Most, if not all, of these comments were in fact made by darker-skinned Black people.
The romanticization of my features that were not “traditionally Black” are a prime example of colorism within the Black community.
The internalized colonial mindset and upholding of the European beauty standard amongst some of the Black citizens and migrants in the countries I visited was a stark reminder that in many ways, I benefit from my racial ambiguity — even if that doesn’t make the racism I may experience any less valid. The intrigued smiles, “polite” stares, and people shyly asking to take pictures with me that I received while abroad were uncomfortable and acts of exoticization. But the “special treatment” I received was a privilege a darker-skinned Black woman, who didn’t have my “European, exotic features”, would not have received.
Colorism is rampant in the United States as well, but growing up in an environment where I was often the only Black girl, I’d never been privy to directly experiencing the colorism I benefited from in comparison to someone darker than me. Or at least, I’d been too ignorant to take notice.
“WELL, NOW I DON’T WANT TO TRAVEL!”
Oh, no! No, no, no, I promise it wasn’t all bad. In fact, all of this was basically a disappointing blemish on an otherwise life-changing, positive, litty experience. I traveled to nearly eleven countries during my time abroad, sometimes solo, and other times with my friend — each time upon returning to Paris, I was satisfied with my experience. And having the privilege and freedom to travel and move from one country to another is something I will not take for granted.
Even the simple fact that I have an American passport gives me certain privileges. And while racism towards Black people can be found everywhere, Black joy is not at all hard to find, either…
I mean, don’t even get me started on the salon where I got my hair done. First time with box braids, and I had them done in Paris! The shop is Black-owned, called STUDIO D, and is right off the metro at Republique (in case you’re ever in the neighborhood). The women who own the shop are kind, attentive, and they listened to me when I told them about my hair texture/what products I liked, etc— only 80 euros for washing my hair and braiding it. They even gave me hot tea, sis!
Another place I loved was Montmartre, and a section called “Little Africa.” Dancing, music, hair shops going on for blocks, and the food! Pap en vleis, Piri piri chicken, jollof rice, you name it. I grew up in a White neighborhood and attended private PWIs my whole life, so being surrounded by so much beautiful Blackness was invigorating. I can’t even tell you how many people approached me and offered to do my hair. Someone besides my mom actually wanted to do my hair!
While in Portugal, James and I happened upon a Black Festival near the town square in Lisbon. It was towards the end of the day, we were tired, but the music, laughing, and dancing immediately gave me life again. We stayed for hours, eating, talking with the Black locals, sharing stories, and marveling at the colorful clothing worn by the skillful dancers. It was by far the best experience I had while in the country.
So yes, traveling while Black can be exhausting. But don’t get me wrong — it’s not being Black that makes it hard. It’s the White Supremacy.
It makes me angry that there will always be aspects to travel that I will have to consider that others won’t — but there are also so many more hidden gems to travel I can discover because of that. We search out places where we feel safe, joyful, fulfilled. For me, that was happening upon Little Africa, the Festival in Portugal, Studio D in Paris: Black spaces where Black skin was cherished and celebrated. Places that aren’t in the tourist pamphlets sold at the airports. These were the places that made my study abroad experience. These were the places that gave me insight into culture, art, music, and literature.
And while travel is has many economic privileges, we have to acknowledge what a radical act it is to walk the world in this skin. As a Black woman, traveling overseas (on my own free will) is a joyous act of resistance.
There’s racism everywhere, internationally, and right next door. Don’t let that stop you. Be safe, be vigilant — and go wherever you want to! Forever chase your freedom, by any means necessary.