Travel Baggage: Experiences of a Black Woman Traveling
When I was a little girl, my parents used to take me on nighttime drives to put me to sleep. Probably because I wouldn’t stop talking, but I like to think it’s because they knew I was born to travel. As I’ve grown older, I still find that I’m my most peaceful when I’m on a trip to someplace new. I’ve felt exploring new destinations to be a rite of passage, as do most Millennials and Generation Z folks. However, when I travel as a Black Woman -- whether in the United States or abroad -- I’m met with experiences that you can only know if you’re in this skin.
Traveling is -- for lack of better words -- dope! Exploring new destinations can be beautiful, exciting, enriching, and surreal. It can also be scary, nerve-racking, and disorienting. For a Black woman, in congruence with those mentioned above, it’s also invasive, political, and dangerous - especially when solo traveling.
Group travel is my favorite mode of exploration -- who doesn’t love exploring the world with friends?! However, having been in groups with mixed demographics, I’ve seen how my skin tone and accent change how I am treated. For instance, we might all arrive at the same airport with the same destination in mind, however, when it’s time to show our passports, my white friends will be lackadaisically scanned and sent through while mine will be scrutinized. I can recall an occurrence when I arrived in Mexico and was standing in the passport check line for International security. I noticed a white family that was on both my initial and connecting flights. They went up to the counter and were waved through with cursory glances over their documents. On the other hand, I was glared at, looked up and down, and then asked the question...
“Soooo...where are you from?” The answer is never, “Texas” or “Los Angeles,” since what they’re really asking about is my African descent. There’s always a look of disappointment on their faces when I tell them I’m simply a Black American from Texas or live in Los Angeles. In these situations, I often wonder: Should I lie and say I’m from Nigeria? I have a lot of Nigerian friends, maybe they’ll believe me. Should I tell them that it’s possible that I’m from Africa, but my ancestors were slaves, so I truly don’t know exactly where I’m from? I always decide to give them an uncomfortable little giggle and say, “Just Texas, yeehaw!” (People that aren’t from Texas love the nod towards cowboy culture -- I’ve never actually seen a cowboy, and I promise I don’t ride a horse to the grocery store.)
Then there’s the hair situation. For me, doing my hair every morning is like creating a masterpiece: artistic, time-consuming, and not to be tampered with. At the airport, I’ve had to give up that mantra. For the texture and the artistry of the artwork upon my dome must mean that I’m hiding some kind of contraband. Spoiler alert: I’m not, and now you just messed up my really cute ‘do...thanks.
Finally, there are the paparazzi -- or at least that’s how I see them. I don’t think that the rich and famous are particularly fond of being photographed without their consent, but they accept it as the price of fame. I, however, am neither famous nor being paid, so these particular paparazzi are doubly unwanted. The main people I am referring to are those who have likely never seen a Black person in real life. They’d come up to my friends and me asking for pictures with us, and at first, it didn’t phase me. I was like, “Ooooo; you think my outfit is fresh today. Please photograph away, be my guest.” As my awareness of their ask grew, I started to feel uncomfortable. What were these people going to do with my picture, and why did I have no agency in it? Would it be rude to say no though my body is my own and belongs to me, even in a picture? These are the questions that I still have. I never want to come off culturally insensitive, but today, I’m not a cultural attraction. I’m just a person.
REWRITING THE NARRATIVE
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
~ Mark Twain
When black women travel, it can be an incredibly nuanced experience. There’s some bad, but so much beauty. One of the most special opportunities is the chance to create peace and promote intelligence through understanding. As a black traveler, I am afforded the opportunity -- should I decide I have the mental capacity -- to reverse negative perceptions of the Black Community, in the travel industry often perpetuated by the media. Those that have never met a Black American tend to have an extremely monolithic view of us. While the media may show us as the trio of rappers, athletes, and “thugs.” We have the power to show the world that we are doctors, lawyers, academics, professionals, and so much more than cinema’s often myopic view of us. I’m able to have the interactions that bridge gaps between cultures of the world and make us understand that even though our outsides are different, we’re more alike on the inside than we may know.
LOOK, BUT DON’T TOUCH!
“Don’t touch my hair.”
~ Solange Knowles, Don’t Touch My Hair
So picture this: I’m sitting on a bench outside of my hotel and out of nowhere, a hand is launched towards my head. In confusion, I stand still. “Wow your hair is so.... Can I touch it?” Well, I would have said no, but you’ve already got your fingers intertwined with my curls, so now I feel slightly powerless and very...violated?
Traveling as a black woman means that people will likely ask to touch your hair -- I hope you’ve practiced your Matrix lean. It means men may grab your arm in crowded areas or offer you money on public transit. It means they may follow you on the street. It means that your personal space will be invaded and because of the color of your skin, people will assume they have unlimited access to your personal being. They shouldn’t, and they don’t. Black women are often hypersexualized and fetishized in the media; these depictions lead to degrading assumptions and actions by those who may not interact with Black women often or at all.
To any Black woman that may read this, as we pray for the world to change and for our bodies to be respected on every continent, be careful and aware as you travel.
RE-CONNECTING WITH HISTORY
“Travel is an inherently political act, even as it is an intensely personal journey.”
~ Mary-Alice Daniel, Traveling While Black Can Be Downright Bizarre
My dear grandmothers could have only dreamed of going to the places I’ve been to! As much as domestic and international travel feels to be a rite of passage for me, the ability to do so is powerfully political. When my grandmothers and their mothers were growing up -- around the time of the Civil Rights Era -- there was scarcely enough disposable income in the African American population for leisurely activities, let alone lavish travel. Even more than that, traveling at that time was life-threatening for the Black community, which is why Victor H. Green published The Negro Traveler’s Green Book. This book gave Black travelers a list of safe places to stay and stop whilst traversing the United States. In one edition, Green optimistically wrote, “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we, as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.” Although this book no longer boasts new editions, we haven’t yet made it to the America that Green describes. That is why I feel empowered when I travel. I feel that the generations that came before me, those who fought for me to have the right and the means to immerse myself in new cultures, the ancestors who walked the paths that I now trot, are with me wherever I go. I go there for them and for my descendants to come.
I’m eternally thankful for sites like Black Girls Travel Too and Travel Noire -- our modern day Green Books -- for creating communities where we can see ourselves traveling the United States and abroad. They share their travel stories and help us envision ourselves as a part of the traveling communities and alleviate some of the anxiety we might feel walking into a space where we’re unsure whether or not they accept Black people.
CLAIMING MY WORLD
“This world can be our place, too.”
~ Farai Chideya, Traveling While Black
I can easily recall the time that I felt the most freedom in my entire life. It was at the top of a hike in Cape Town, South Africa. My friends and I found a secluded lake, on a cloudy day, and decided our exploration wouldn’t be complete without a swim. No cell phone service. No other people around. No actual bathing suit. Just me, the water, nature, and great company.
“Travel to Africa is among the most healing of all. You go there and get part of your soul back.”
~ Elaine Lee
Travel is healing. Exploration is liberating. Freedom is exhilarating. I find myself at peace when I’m traveling, expanding my horizons, and learning more about myself and the limits of my imagination. Being in this skin, in the United States and abroad, can make you feel like you don’t belong. It can make you feel like nature, exploration, travel, luxury and excitement are for lighter people with lighter worries. That’s simply untrue. I said that Black travel is political, and I meant it. Every time we leave our homes, fly to another state or country or simply go to the grocery store, we are claiming the world as our own. We have just as much a right to it as anyone else on the planet.
To my Black family, friends, and community: We may travel domestically and internationally. We may explore virtually or physically. We may be free at home or abroad. The important thing is, as we travel and invoke inevitable change in this world, we must remember to never stop exploring because the world is ours too.
Maya Pete curated this post. She is a Stanford Alumna, digital media marketer, plus size fashion blogger, and fitspo enthusiast. Read more from Maya at mayaesthetic.com and on Instagram as @maya.esthetic and @fat.fit.fly.
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