Traveling while Black: 5 countries where I’ve experienced racism (so far)

When you’re Black your whole life, you learn how to pick up on things. You develop this keen sense and assess spaces to determine whether you’ll be accepted or not. It’s like a sixth sense in figuring out who is cool with you. Sorta like gaydar but for racism.

Traveling while Black has been something we’ve all lived with but only recently began speaking out about. Whether it’s being mistaken for random celebrities, being propositioned while waiting for a taxi, to being verbally and even physically assaulted – it’s what travelers who look like me encounter every time we travel (and sometimes even within our home countries).

So I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 countries I’ve felt the most racism – from the smallest of microaggressions to the overt and blatant racist remarks.

Italy

Italy has some of the most amazing food I have ever tasted in my life. That alone makes me want to go back. We visited there a couple of years ago (for less than $2000!!!) and we had an amazing time. But there were a few encounters with some of the locals that not only frustrated me, but made my time there not as enjoyable as it could have been.

We were in Rome and went to visit one of the “famous” gelato places. The line was out the door so we were excited. I mean, this must be some really great gelato for people to stand in line for. Anyway, we pay for our order and wait for our ticket to be called.

While we’re waiting, I’m observing a gentleman joking with the tourists, making fun of them as they mispronounce the Italian flavors and offer them tastes as they make up their minds. Others are doing this as well and I’m excited for this gelato experience while trying to decide which of the 30+ flavors I’m going to try today.

The gentleman finishes his last order and calls the next number. It’s me! I raise my hand and the jovial smile that once occupied his face turns downward and he pauses. I raise my hand again to make sure he saw it was indeed the correct number and he looks at his colleague to see if he was finished with his customer. The pause goes on too long and he meanders over to me to assist.

Excited, I ask the boy what he wants to get first. He has not been paying attention all long and does the “let me get uhhhh….” and the once funny and joking gentleman now becomes impatient with the two of us making up our minds. I ask to taste the arancia rosa, completely mispronouncing it and he scoffs and corrects me.

Oh. Okay.

I continued my order as other customers have, tasting before carefully making my decision, further annoying the now frustrated gentleman. We get our orders, give him a correctly pronounced grazie mille and walk over to our table. Midway through our cones, I see him once again in a great mood again, no longer annoyed by us. *shrugs*

Encounters like these happened a few times. This was the most extreme tho. The other encounters were just microaggressions like walking into a shop and they don’t speak to you or help you right away. But we’ve had some amazing experiences as well – restaurant workers joking with the boy and Roman men fawning over my beauty *flips hair*.

Someone told me later “well, it’s because Italy has a lot of African immigrants now and they are just really frustrated with what is going on right now” Say what now? Now sure how that makes it right, but whatever.

Egypt

*deep sigh*

Egypt is a country that I would love to visit again, but because of my experience there I am not so sure it will happen. There are two sides to this. Being Black and being a Black woman.

Being Black: I was in the airport trying to get coffee. I notice a woman drinking coffee and someone purchasing a sandwich. I walk up and the guy says “5 minutes, please”. Thinking he needed to take a pee break or something. No biggie. 5 minutes passes and I go back.
Guy: I’m sorry. The system isn’t working right now. 5 minutes, please.
Me: Um…okay.

2 minutes later I see a white gentleman purchase something. I walk back up there.
Me: I just want coffee. Can I not buy coffee?
Guy: I’m sorry. It’s not working.
Me: But that guy just bought something. What exactly is not working.
Guy: (pretending to not speak English well) I’m sorry. I do not…I’m sorry. Come back later.

I walk away to the gate, annoyed. I walk back towards the coffee kiosk to go to the bathroom and see him actively making coffee for someone.

So this is the part of the story where all Black people have to assess whether the demand for justice is worth getting thrown out of an airport, especially when you do not know the language. They could say anything about your, say you did anything to them, and there is no way that you can defend yourself. Then you’re on the next episode of Locked Up Abroad.

I walk up to him and say in my white lady phone voice) “What is going on? I see that you are making this gentleman coffee, but you would not make it for me. Is it just that you don’t want to serve me?” The guy responds to his friend in Egyptian and says to me “I was just seeing if it would work. It’s not good.” Says something else to his friend and the friend takes a sip and goes “No, no. No good. Bleh.” Really?!?

He really said “bleh” like it was nasty.

I walk away and wait for my next flight. It wasn’t worth the argument and risk him spitting (or worse) in whatever I forced him to make me.

These encounters continued. While in Hurghada we had a great experience at the resort, but once we left that compound I felt either looked at like a mark for a robbery or scowled at for my Blackness. In a restaurant we tried to visit lunch in Cairo, it was so palpable and uncomfortable we just got up and left.

Being a Black woman:

Basically the long and short of it was someone tried to feel me up. Not someone, my taxi driver. I ended up in the front seat because he claimed his seat wouldn’t lift up for me to sit back there with the boy. I’ve sat in the front before so it wasn’t a big deal.

Anyway, I’m sitting there and he kept trying to feel up my leg. Then tried to touch my hair. Then tries to touch the boy. This is when I go apeshit. I began yelling and screaming at him to stop, while being insanely terrified because I am traveling alone in a country where I do not know the language or anyone and this man is trying to assault us and I have no recourse or way to defend myself and all I wanted to do is to get to the airport in one piece.

We do. And once I get there, I realize I left a bag at the hotel. But at this point I’m so over this point that I just leave it rather than catch another taxi to go get it.

After we got to Cairo and settled into our hotel, I broke down in tears. What I had just experienced was too much and overwhelming at this point in our vacation. We did have a good experience with our guide in Cairo after this, so it ended on a good note. But if we go back, it won’t be without a guide or a hired driver.

Turkey

I’m back in Istanbul now as I write this. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s just the culture here to be rude and dismissive or is it just me. It’s kind of like the Italian incident where I see people being polite and somewhat pleasant with others, but when I roll up they treat me like I called their mama a fat pig or something. (I’ve never been good at dissing so fat pig was the best I could come up with)

Istanbul has been full of microagressions from when I had a layover in February to our short stop overs here on this European tour. Nothing too overt, but just not as pleasant of an experience as I would like.

*UPDATE*

After I wrote this, we ventured into the city before our flight. The front desk lady suggests we grab an Uber because it’s cheaper and there are a lot in the area. So I request one and we notice the guy is just sitting in the same spot, not moving. I cancel the trip before it hits the 5 minute mark to avoid the fee. I request again, getting another guy. He does the same thing. I go to the front desk and ask her what’s going on with Uber right now and she gave me a pity look and said “oh…sometimes they don’t want to pick up so they sit and wait for you to cancel the trip”.

Now I’ve heard this before, but never really experienced it. Alrighty then.

I request another Uber, this guy doesn’t take us to where we were going, but “close by”. I thought it was a traffic thing and that is understandable so we get out and explore.

We explore and get hassled by some guy who got pissed off and screamed an expletive at me for changing my mind about wanting to eat at his restaurant. We grab a taxi back to the hotel and the driver says he knows where our hotel is. We drive here without incident, but then the guy pulls over on the highway and says we can get out here. I didn’t really understand his English so I thought he was asking where the hotel was exactly. So I tell him to take this merge or whatever and go up and there it is. He says in the clearest English ever “No, you can walk there. You look strong and it’s only 50 meters that way”.

I “look strong”? I’ve never gotten that before.

I tell him that he will not get paid if he does not take us to our hotel. We scream back and forth and the boy and I end up getting out on the side of the fucking highway. He screams at me and I flip him the bird and we frogger our way across traffic and walk the more than 50 meters to the hotel.

So, yea. Turkey is not on my favorites list.

South Africa (Cape Town)

So I’m sitting in a coffee shop having brunch with a friend from Ethiopia. We are chatting it up and laughing about who knows what. After time, the shop begins to fill up. It’s a Sunday and people like their brunch, you know?

In walks this eclectic lady with multi colored hair and with so much style she could give Iris Apfel a run for her money. I sat there with my friend admiring this woman from her jewelry to her shoes.

Anyway, coffee shop gets louder and as a result, we rose our voices to hear one another. After laughing loudly at something, the South African Apfel taps my friend on her shoulder and says “Excuse me, could you keep it down? I can’t hear myself think.”

First we were all
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Then we were like
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And then proceeded to tell her how this was NOT apartheid and she just can’t demand of us to stop talking because the WHOLE DAMN place is LOUD AF.

This wasn’t the only incident. The whole place just feels like colonialism and elitism that I wasn’t comfortable the entire time we were there. In most of the restaurants and places we visited it was occupied mostly by white people, so that made things even more uncomfortable.

It might just be the whole history of that place that did it for me, but this experience with this lady was indicative of how I felt my whole time in Cape Town. Constantly felt like I had to navigate that space to accommodate other people.

China

Anyone who has ever spoken to me about China is gonna get this story and the hundred other reasons why we will never go back to China. Ever.

From being stared at, taken photos of, people yelling “AFRICA” from across the street and pointing, to being accosted and people trying to touch you nearly every where we went….yea, I’m pretty much over China.

I almost got into a fist fight with someone  a grown ass man in Shanghai because he grabbed my son’s hair. Entire fist full walking with us and laughing with his friends. That was the tipping point.

I reached back and smacked the man’s hand and said “BOO YAO!” They all laugh so I switch to English expletives as the crowd forms around us. My 7-year-old at the time was completely oblivious to what happened and why. As the crowd grows larger, I grab my kid and leave.

This was towards the end of our 9 days in China and I was exhausted and tired of telling people to stop taking photos of or touching my son. That was the line I drew.

In the beginning it was okay. The boy loved the feeling of celebrity and people being interested in him. He kept saying “they think I’m Jaden Smith” (he had just watched the Karate Kid) and loved it. But when they did it without permission or when I began to feel like he was a spectacle or like we were part of this human zoo, it became uncomfortable.

I am okay with the curiosity. I enjoy learning new things about people and meeting people from different cultures. But staring and pointing as if you’ve seen an endangered animal will never be okay with me. I don’t care where you come from. There is a way to go about it and ask questions to learn more, as some Chinese have managed to do.

So yea, China was cool and full of all this great history but Chinese people have turned me off by their actions. Not sure we’ll go back. It was too overwhelming to be there.

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Traveling the world can help you discover deeper connections to who you are and wherever you come from. I’ve learned the most about myself by traveling and meeting new people from other cultures. But traveling also exposes you to some of the fucked up thought processes other people hold, not only about Black people in general, but also about Americans.

It’s easy to minimize some of these interactions as just a misunderstanding, a genuine curiosity, or a lack of cultural exposure to know how to interact with people who aren’t like you. This could be true. However, when it comes to being treated rudely or disrespectfully solely based on the way I look – or even going as far as being aggressive or touching – this is when I have a problem. From taxis not wanting to pick you up to charging you more than they would a white person, it all of these encounters can add up and become overwhelmingly frustrating.

While these experiences have not kept me from visiting another country or even going back for another visit, they do alter the experience I am able to have. It changes the way that I think about this country and sometimes keeps me from venturing out as much as I would like.

We’ve had some great experiences in the aforementioned countries as well, but sometimes the ugliness of its people and the treatment we’ve received can eclipse the beauty of a country and make it unappealing. I don’t want my experiences to deter you from ever traveling, but I do wanted to be honest about what we’ve experienced in these countries.

I also recognize that my experience can be on the other end of the spectrum from what others have seen or felt. I hope you can branch out as well and discover your own experience in these countries.

What has been your experience traveling while Black? Share them in the comments!

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