Traveling While Black

Vernazza - Cinque Terre Itinerary

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Every now and then I think about my second time in Italy. Fresh off of a bus from Naples and waiting for another to take me into Meta (a small town along the Amalfi Coast). I think of the stares. Every car driving by, in fact. It was like nobody could drive by and not stare at my ex-girlfriend and I. They were so intrigued that one even stopped and signaled me over. It would have been the first of several free rides from kind strangers during that trip, only this particular man assumed (or just wanted too see) if I was a prostitute. I realized that after the fact.

I also think of us leaving the Amalfi Coast and at the end of that trip and heading to Naples for a night. Upon leaving the train station she got irritated at someone in her personal space. I can’t remember if he rushed past her or not but I do vividly remember him telling her that she should go back to Africa. I remember thinking that if just one white person would help a sista’ out and book the ticket, we’d gladly go. That IS NOT an insult. We were brought here by your ancestors! Thankfully, although it doesn’t make it any better, this man was a tourist hisself. I don’t think any Italian would ever say that to me, at least not out loud.

Because Italians love them some Black women, right? Well, I honestly don’t know. 

I would’ve had nothing but amazing things to say about my experiences in Italy had I not sat down to write this and those memories came rushing back. Especially the train station incident. Who the fuck did that guy think he was? It was one of those instances where you have all the comebacks and insults when the person is nowhere to be found.

To be honest, the most I have to say about traveling while Black is the fact that in Asia I’ve only felt like a Goddess. Everyone is so enamored by me as if they’ve never seen a Black woman, and I know they have. I have only traveled to extremely touristy parts (see: Thailand, Bali) and I’m positive I wasn’t the first melanin rich Queen to touch down. They couldn’t stop smiling and complimenting me and telling me how much they loved my hair. Funny enough, I had Havana twists in both countries. I will never forget trying to relax and nap on a beach in Seminyak and a surf instructor came over to chat me up and then proceeded to ask to touch my hair. Now, it’s not like I’ve never let anyone do so, but at this point in life, it’s a hard no for me.

Santa Maria Del Mar, Cuba

Speaking of hair, I can think of one weird moment in Italy. Milan to be exact. During my last trip I will never forget riding from Cinque Terre to Florence and noticing the large population of Africans boarding and de-boarding the train. I remembered seeing a good amount during my visits to Venice and Milan, but nothing compared to the fact that some train stops where home to the majority of Africans in the area.

Fast forward to me making my way to Milan and needing to purchase a bus ticket. I arrived at a stand run by an Italian gentleman, and an African woman who may have worked there too was standing near by. She proceeded to get close enough for her comfort, not mine, to check out my hair and ask if it was my real hair, or an afro. Well, it was my real hair, in an afro. It couldn’t have been more dry or shrunken but this lady was delighted and so was I. Her coworker tried to apologize for her, explaining that they weren’t used to women wearing there hair in that style. Maybe it was the climate? His words, not mine. As I reached for the few euros I had left to buy my bus ticket he asked if they could touch it. You better believe that before I picked up my head to give a response he’d already answered his own question. No. You bet your sweet ass, IT’S A NO.

One day I’ll find out what makes these folks think we want to play zoo animal, for even a few seconds.

I later found out that the African woman must have been so intrigued because afros are still a political statement in Africa. Had I had braids I’m sure she wouldn’t have looked my way until my American accent gave me up. But my hair beat me to it. You best believe when I finally make it to the motherland I’ll be rocking this fro in all its glory for any and everybody to take in.

Capri, Italy

I have to be honest.

Aside from the smiles and occasional staring – let me not forget the people asking to take a picture of and with me (in Asia this has happened with locals AND tourists) – I haven’t experienced many instances that I can attribute to my brown skin. I always say that Black people make me more aware of my Blackness than anyone else. I grew up in one of the Blackest cities in America, Washington, DC, where everyone was about my shade whether it be my teachers or every member of the City Council. Today the population is a lot different, but growing up in that environment made Black the NORM for me and everyone else was minority. Even living in NYC I don’t feel like an outcast until I walk into my office and realize that there are just two other Black women working there.

When I’m abroad and I feel slighted or as if someone is rude to me, I usually either attribute it to my age (almost always) or the fact that I’m a woman. When flight attendants don’t give me as much attention as other passengers, or I have to wait longer than usual to be seated at a restaurant, I tend to assume it’s because I’m young and they feel they don’t have to respect me.

Maybe I haven’t learned to pick up on microaggresions or maybe growing up in Chocolate City hindered me more than it helped me. To be honest, at least for now, I’m fine living in ignorance. I want to stay naive because when the racism is blatant, and there will come the day, I know I just may end up on Locked Up Abroad. The Gods must know that I am not the one to be tried.

So for now I’ll avoid certain places where cops join in versus help when crowds of people surround and harass Black women (true story). I’ll steer clear of the countries where people rub Black skin without permission because it’s thought to be good luck (also true). Who the hell told them we were magic? I guess the secret’s out.

More importantly, I’ll continue to go wherever the hell I please as I scratch off every inch of this globe from my bucket list. 

And yes, the places I’ve been warned against are most definitely included.

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  1. This was real. ZOO animals was the perfect analogy! And keep going wherever the f** you please! I hope to get to travel abroad one day, I want to visit Paris!

  2. This was such an interesting/good read. I’ve done a little bit of traveling (not as much as you, jealous!) and for the most part have had very pleasant experiences. That said, I grew up in the south and the majority of the racism I’ve faces has been right here at home, where it’s very blatant. I do tend to lean towards thinking that whenever myself or my husband is slighted it has more to do with age. I think there’s just a general lack of respect of young people. But definitely keep on traveling! Also, I was so surprised reading about your experience in Asian countries. I’d heard stories that some people in these countries were enamored with blondes but had no idea they would ask for pictures etc… of black people. Really fascinating post!

  3. Thanks for sharing this Monique! I’m always conscious and at times a bit anxious when I travel or step outside of NYC. Esp. when I travel with my partner because he looks white. So I feel a bit worried that people will attack us because we’re an interracial couple. However, lately I’ve been doing more solo traveling and I haven’t really encountered anything like this yet. I admire your push to “scratch off every inch of this globe from my bucket list.” And will follow suit!


  4. Hi I am in Africa, South Africa to be exact. I have natural hair and i do wear my afro almost always and there quite a number of woman who do that too, trust me it’s not at all a political statement. I have also been to a few of our neighbouring countries and an afro is definitely not a problem but just another hairstyle done mostly by woman who are self aware.

    Please do share on which countries you were advised against. Every time I think of traveling abroad, i always think of the reaction one would get.

    Nice read by the way and i know exactly what you mean by the service at restaurants, I always assume it’s because I’m a young woman…lol

  5. So I teach English in Spain and chose to live with Spaniard roommates because you know, why not? I had some of my other North American English teacher friends over for American style brunch with the Spanish roommates. One of my friends wears her hair naturally as well and their reaction was interesting. Basically I was out with my teacher friends and they wrote something over the group text like “we are just so amazed and enamored with your one friend! We keep talking about about how pretty she is and how different her hair is!” ? I knew exactly and was like “oh okay.” I mean to be fair, there aren’t a ton of black people in Spain. But like they have had to have seen movies before at least. And then people go to Carnaval in black face here … which is a whole different infuriating topic.

    1. OH MY GOODNESS! I can’t even imagine. All of my friends are of African descent (even if they’re mixed) but this would’ve been so awkward for me. On one hand, like in Asia, I understand that some people literally may never have seen a person of African descent in their lives. On the other, I’m just like “come on now, it’s 2017.” I do try to educate people whether or not we’re close enough for comfort to have that conversation. Sometimes I even feel the need to “check” people due to their ignorance. In your situation it’s a slippery slope because in my opinion, my current roommates are my associates, but I do live with them and will have friends over who may be outside of their norm.So a conversation would need to be had, even if it’s lighthearted and simply informative.

  6. This was an amazing post, thanks so much for sharing it! I, like you and most black travelers have experienced some mess in Italy. Beautiful country, but the men are something else :/ I hope to go back and travel the southern region, hopefully it will be better.

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