Travel is one of the newer, trendier indicators of privilege and as a Black American, the idea of traveling for leisure is one that has only recently become more accessible. Discriminatory laws and practices that have left people of color at a socio-economic disadvantage to travel are slowly (oh, so slowly) being broken. There are more resources than ever for people of color with a heart for travel, and even ways to make a legitimate living through traveling.
With this surge in travel aspirations within the global black community, one question often comes up: Will I experience racism in the country I want to go visit?
The answer was almost always “yes”. But I still packed my bags and hopped on a plane anyway.
I don’t consider myself a travel expert.
I’ve only been to ten countries, and most were only for a few days at a time. However, I have personally experienced forms of discrimination, xenophobia, and prejudice in almost every country I’ve traveled to. I’ve been followed around in a store and stopped at the door to have my bag checked while shopping in France; denied entry into a club in Spain while the rest of my [fairer-skinned] friends were ushered in; had random people yelling the n-word to my husband and me as we walked down the street in the Philippines; and denied job interviews in Korea once I sent the mandatory picture of myself required on all resumes.
Before moving to Korea, however, these moments were just that – moments, which I often didn’t fully process until I was already out of the country. Back then the realization I’d been discriminated against left me kicking myself for being naïve or too shocked to react in the moment.
My stay in Korea has been different. I’m in the middle of my second year living, working, traveling, playing, and growing in South Korea – one of the most homogenous nations in the world. I did all of my research before arriving, eager to hear about the experiences of other people who look like me in a land where people still point, stare, and sneak phone pictures of you because of your blackness. I read all the blogs; watched all the vlogs; joined all the Facebook groups; and asked all the questions to people currently there, including the million-dollar question about racism.
Once I arrived, I was prepared for the worst, which never really happened.
I have yet to experience blatant, life-threatening racism here but I soon felt the subtle effects of micro-aggressive behavior breaking me down mentally and spiritually during my first year. I couldn’t help thinking I’ve felt this feeling before…
Then I remembered. “Oh… This feels like home.”
With all of its flaws, America is still home to me, and it’s home to many black people who aspire to travel the world. When people (black Americans in particular) express their concerns about racism abroad, I have to ask: Has racism prevented you from living your life in America?
I’ve never faced blatant racism back home either, but those disguised, underhanded attacks have left me feeling small, angry, and a bit helpless. But I coped – by being the best me I could be, according to my own standards and the ideals of the majority culture.
I think that as black people, we have become master adapters of our environment. We persevere and bloom despite the most difficult situations, and find ways to not just live, but live fully. We take qualities of our culture the world has been programmed to look down on, and we turn it into something to be proud of (see: the latest slang, dance moves, hairstyles, and fashion).
I had to learn to blossom in a place where every part of my appearance goes against the general standard of beauty, and the foundations of my personality (an independent individual who doesn’t mind expressing how she really feels and appreciates when others do the same) might be the opposite of the culture.
The funny thing about life in Korea is that although there are still TV shows that freely use blackface, although people may avoid physical contact for fear that your skin will rub off on them, although people associate anything black with a poor, uncivilized Africa – my physical being feels safe. I have more peace of mind here in regards to reactions about my blackness. (Sometimes, it’s nice to be avoided, rather than harassed, over my skin color.) And of course, there are those gems of Koreans who understand the history of blacks in America and elsewhere who take the time to know you before passing judgment. These people have outweighed my negative experiences, and it’s an aspect of the Korean and east Asian population I never would have known if I hadn’t made the decision to travel here.
I’ve befriended many black people excelling and enjoying their lives in regions we are typically warned about, and I can confidently say I’m doing the same. It’s not always easy, and there are times when I wonder why I don’t move to a ‘safer’ place, full of other black people. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a black woman abroad, it’s that I may not always be wanted or expected, but I do have the right to be here.
Finding a land that is truly and comfortably mine, that I don’t have to fight or change myself for, without the strings of neo-colonial power plays controlling my life, where the black image is celebrated, where I don’t have to justify my right to exist, is something travel has begun to reveal is possible, and something it can reveal to many black people. If you’re a black person who wants to travel, don’t let the fear of discrimination stop you. Racism has never stopped us from moving forward; it shouldn’t scare you away from pursuing your goals and dreams to see the world.
Photo Credit: Atembe Gilis