Black Like Me #TWB
I am new to the travel blog and organized black travel world. Over the past few weeks, I dove head first into this vortex of Instagram accounts and written posts. Of particular interest to me were the comments with the fears of black North Americans about traveling while black. Having been black my whole life and clocking my first international trip at two months, I must confess I don’t get the worry or the issues with international travel. I am more concerned about being American abroad than being black. A couple of years ago a friend, a fellow Howard grad and medical doctor, asked me if I wanted to go to Argentina and Brazil with him. He knew I had lived in both places and spoke both languages. I politely declined because I’d seen his Facebook pictures — a bunch of affluent black folk in athleisure wear posed around a table or against some notable tourist attraction. NO, NO, NO. I say again no, send me to be a vegetarian in China first. I love my friends and with the exception of one hastily planned new year’s for eight in Nassau, I would never dream of a group trip with them.
I’m not a sightseer, anyone who has ever traveled with me will attest to my instant disappearance when the subject arises. I like to meet and chat with local people. Even when I was lugging around fifteen pounds of photo equipment, I carried a straw purse instead of a camera bag. I would always get to know the subjects of my photo essays before I started shooting. I despise looking like the American tourist. When you consider these factors my take on traveling while black is, there is no reason to worry, in fact, it’s awesome. You can blend into so many countries and scenes from Panama City to Manama you can walk in peace. People can’t pinpoint where you are from or they just don’t notice you and if you are out to get a real feel for a place this is an advantage.
I lived in Lisbon and Rome. I worked in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. I lived in Salvador, Buenos Aires, Lima, and Bogota. I worked in Montevideo, Rio, São Paulo, Cartagena, and Medellin. I lived in Sandton, Maputo, Nairobi, Riviere Noire, Ribera de Janela, and Abidjan. I worked in Malabo, Cairo, Casablanca, Accra, Kampala, and a host of other cities and villages. I lived in Delhi, Jenin, and Doha. I worked in Manama, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, and Tel Aviv.
In over twenty years of traveling alone or with friends, I can count the number of times I had a race-related incident. Sadly, most of them came from people I consider to be black like me.
- In Dakar, a Cape Verdean guy tried to sell my girlfriend and me to some Mauritanians. I was also consistently harassed with lewd comments in French when I would walk around the city center alone, so I started only going out with my friend’s family.
- A local Ivorian girl, a friend in my youth, was not allowed to go to another friend’s 14th birthday party with me at the Golf Hotel. My French expat host family’s justification, I was black American so I was okay — she was local so she was not — I didn’t go.
- At Vasco de Gama mall in Lisbon, the only way to get service was by speaking loudly in English. My friend and I sounded too Brazilian in Portuguese and appeared too Luso-African to warrant service from white store clerks.
- In Tel Aviv, I was strip searched at the airport and asked by two Ethiopian Jews, “How do you know about Bethlehem?” After I replied from the bible, they wanted to know, “How do you know about the bible?” This was in response to opening my bag and seeing a sea of Catholic souvenirs, a request from my grandmother.
- In Maputo, my Republican-American friend’s husband was a former member of the apartheid South African Police. His constant use of terms like jigaboo and kafir in reference to locals drove me insane
- In Buenos Aires, after I spoke people assumed I was Brazilian not American which was a combination of skin tone and accent.
- When meeting people for the first time in South Africa, they were often shocked I was not white — this was due to my accent on the phone and name being in their eyes Dutch and British. In my early trips, there were never many non-white people at restaurants and bars in my neighborhood. This has since changed.
- In Accra, while supervising a peer outreach program promoting safer sexual behavior, I was told by a man on the beach, “You white people need to leave us alone to do what we want to do.” Since at the food court earlier I was told both a Pakistani man and a Chinese man were also “white” it just rolled off.
- In the casino at an all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, I was told by the guard, “It’s too early for you to be here. You know the rules, not until after ten.” Confused for a minute, I then spat back in English I’m American and pulled up the sleeve of my sweater to show the fluorescent wristband. While at a Dutch friend’s beach bar I had a similar run-in with a beach guard who said I wasn’t supposed to be there the beach was for tourist.
- Right after Trump was elected, I was held up at immigration in Abu Dhabi. They thought my passport was fake and I could secretly speak Arabic.
From what my friends have recounted and the blogs I have read, people who lived in Japan, South Korea, and China encountered the most overt racism, fetishization, and touching. I lived a total of two and a half years in Thailand, in big cities and small. During the time, I went to several other East Asian countries for work or visa runs. In Tiananmen Square, with my client and three of his investors, a strange thing happened. People kept coming up and asking to take Brian’s photo. A tall light skin brother, they apparently thought him to be a basketball player, Kobe Bryant or someone. My client another HBCU grad who had previously taught university in Shanghai started telling the people in Chinese it would be $5 for a photo. To this day I wonder how his schemes never got him arrested in several countries. However, the craziest foreigner stories from China came from a half Mexican half white American friend who lived there for several years.