The last time I had been to London, I was 15 and traveling with a group. Fast forward to 2019, and I was doing a solo travel trip during Spring Break to one of the best cities in the world, as a Black woman. The experience of traveling while Black is too often ignored by society’s mainstream travel “look” provided by predominantly White experiences. Yet, there are many Black women, who are taking the world plane by plane, and learning how to reclaim their identity as well as exploring the world itself.
It’s not surprising to recognize that some of the fear of traveling is due to laws within the U.S. containing racist, dehumanizing effects on the Black community. Despite this history, the numbers have improved with a 15 billion dollar increase in travel spending among Black travelers as of 2018. We can attribute some of this growth to the social media accounts that cater to the Black community and share inspiring photos of other Black travelers living their best lives.
The Black traveling experience can be filled with horrific social and emotional moments, but some of those moments can be filled with joy and a new profound way of thinking how another culture interacts with the rest of society. Whether you’re traveling to a predominantly White country, or a country that is not of your own race, each person’s travel experience is different. Traveling, for me, has always been a passion of mine growing up as I’ve become inspired by my parents and brothers, as well as others that I know or see on social media. If you’re currently in the stage of preparing yourself for departure or reflecting on a negative cultural interaction you were a part of from your last trip, don’t let that stop you from traveling the world and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable as you read more about my journey to London and back.
You may get a lot of stares, just keep it moving.
The instant I landed in London and took the tube, their version of a train, I was immediately immersed in a city where people come from various backgrounds and cultures. While my friend explained to me beforehand about the different interactions between white English people and particularly Black Americans, I couldn’t help but feel awkwardly aware of a white woman who continued to look up every so often at us during all 20+ stops to our destination.
The staring didn’t end at the tube though, but continued throughout my trip, with some staring longer than others. Due to the city’s great fashion, I wanted to believe that the staring was about my clothing taste, but the fact of the matter eventually becomes obvious and you begin to feel most aware of your skin color. Despite this, you shouldn’t be ashamed. Embrace the natural beauty that you were given and keep it moving. As long as you subject yourself to the constant stares, you only let it get in the way of the traveling you came to do.
“Are you from (South) Africa?”
Many of us have experienced the ‘where are you from from?’ questions that have been cast upon many minority groups. With a semi culturally-conscious world than perhaps twenty years ago, it would be expected that the people of 2019 would be more educated. Not only do non-POC from the United States have a tough time understanding the respective cultures and identities, but even the cultural metropolis of London still need some education on what’s right and wrong.
The night I decided to go out with my friend, who is Black, and her Black female friends during my trip, we were all apprehensive to the idea of going into a place we knew was majority White. While there were certainly a fair share of interactions, the most personal one was at the end of the night when my friend and I were on our way back to her place. A random stranger and his friend approached us, one of them asking if I was from South Africa. Whether it was a certain dialect of Americanness that I gave off while speaking or the lightness of my skin, it was certainly not a question I’ve had before.
It is a mostly common fact that a lot of people from African countries travel or even live in Europe, but that doesn’t mean that all current day Black people are from Africa. Depending on where you travel to, you are bound to get questions in relation to what many would deem ‘exotic’ or eccentric, especially when you are a Black woman from the U.S.
Extreme Compliments on Your Braids, or People Wanting to Touch Them
The hair topic of the day that seems to plague almost every Black person is as clear as it is abroad. It seemed to me that on my way to London in an American airport and through various other airports in Europe, I was always complimented on my hair. Gratefully, my hair had never been touched while in London, but the idea that braids were so wonderful in the eyes of White security guards amazed me. The moment you are pulled to the side after walking through the large metal detector is the moment you have to face the idea that your braids will be touched as a security measure. Thankfully, it was the only time going forward during the trip.
In the same coincidence that I was complimented on the type of hair that I had while at security, my friend texted me right after on her way to her own destination about how a security guard loved her braids and that they reminded her of anime. Not exactly the same culture. It’s important to recognize that Black culture, Black hair included, should be recognized from where it has originated from. Too many times people try to associate Black culture with what they’ve seen on a non-black person or what was portrayed on TV shows and movies. One can only hope that the same security guard doesn’t make the mistake with a fellow Black woman, and if so, then become educated on the history.
It also addresses just how common it is to see white women wearing braids while abroad. To them, it may seem to be cool, trendy, and popular, but it's more than that for the culture they appropriated off of. Black braids/weave are an extension of Black expression and is how the community chooses to recognize their past, present, and future.
Get Inspired By Other Writers Who Traveled While Black
There are plenty of Black authors who have experienced the world in the way that you may hope to do so yourself. They give you the chance to look deeper into the experience and what you may expect from leaving the U.S., or other countries, to travel to a completely new destination. For me, my class back home had just finished discussions on James Baldwin, a profound Black writer known for his time of traveling to Paris in an effort to learn more about his identity. Among many other Black travel writers, Baldwin allowed me to understand the world through another person’s lense. He inspired me to face challenges and interactions such as the ones mentioned above. During my time abroad I was able to connect back to the works of Baldwin in order to understand the past and present history in the U.S. that continues to impact the country today. As well as the way some Europeans interact with Black people due to their own history of colonization and what they assume about us from outside their countries.
Traveling as a Black Woman (or person) Can Be Very Nerve-wracking.
The idea of traveling alone can be empowering, but to be a Black woman traveling is worth remembering the good and the bad. Not only are you a woman, but you're a Black woman at that. The opportunity to do so can be nerve-wracking, especially when you have no one else to witness what you may witness, but it’s also a chance to go beyond your comfort zone, as I did.
With a first time day trip to Copenhagen during my spring break, I was nervous because I knew that even though it was the happiest country in the world, it was still predominantly white, plus with the commonly known features of Viking origins--blue eyes, blonde/brown hair. And yet, when I entered this new exploration of the city, my nerves dissipated as I allowed myself to experience the city rather than worrying about the few stares coming my way.
Regardless of what I witnessed or who I came into contact with, I still fell deeply in love with each country. I realized that both of them gave me the chance to learn more about my artistic abilities, passions, and the cultures that thrived there, all the while embracing my traveling Black girl magic.