Although the numbers have increased, there are still very few African American women travelling internationally. In regards to higher education, only 6% of African Americans study abroad. Whether it is because we get little encouragement from our community to leave the U.S. or experience financial or cultural barriers, this is a very discouraging statistic. Because traveling is a privilege most often afforded to white wealthy people, it is not seen as an activity for people of color as a whole. It’s up to us to change that perspective.
My time studying and traveling abroad have been the best and most influential experiences of my life. When you study abroad you are not only doing normal school learning, but you are also learning about yourself, about another culture, how to settle conflicts and compromise across cultural barriers, and most importantly you are growing as person and widening your worldview. Drawing from my experience, I’ve created this list of 5 things that I’ve learned by traveling as a Black woman.
1. You may feel on display
As Black Women, you are more than likely no stranger to having eyes on you at all time, especially in predominantly White spaces. Most international travelers are stared at because locals can tell who the tourist are; however, as a Black woman the stares are even worse, especially if you are traveling in homogeneous countries.
China was by far the country where I felt the most on display. Before going, I was warned that Black people don’t really travel to China, so many people there have never seen/met a Black person before. The only Black people they see are on their TV screens. At first it made me feel like a celebrity with everyone’s eyes on me. The people that I encountered would get the attention of everyone around me to make sure everyone saw me. People would throw their babies at me so I could take a photo with them. People would try to inconspicuously stand next to me while their friend took their picture. People were calling me Beyoncé and Rihanna because those were the only Black women they knew (of course I was feelin’ myself after that). After a few days I stopped feeling like a person and more of an object.
(Disclaimer: This isn’t everyone’s experience and not everyone in China treated me like this!)
2. You might get called names
Name-calling isn’t an experience you only encounter when travelling abroad. Black women have faced their fair share of racist and sexist language on U.S. soil. When traveling, I was called “nigra,” “like Obama,” “Beyoncé,” “Malia Obama,” “nubian queen” and so on. I traveled with friends who were called “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant,” etc. Sometimes I think people would shout these (as in the celebrity names) as a compliment, but most of the time it doesn’t feel like one.
People handle name-calling different, but it’s important when traveling to know which battles to fight and which to walk away from. My rule is to either straight up ignore these people and pretend they don’t exist or I just simply look them in the eye and say “no” very sternly (they usually apologize).
3. We break down stereotypes
Even though we may feel on display and encounter name-calling, we are helping to break down the stereotypes and ignorance toward Black people around the world. The more we are present around the world, the easier it will be for future generations to travel without all the hassles that we had to put up with. I had several conversations with people around the world who told me they didn’t know the Black people in the U.S. could look like me. When I was traveling in Ghana, someone didn’t believe I was from the U.S. because they only see White people visiting from the U.S. therefore, in his mind Black people don’t live there.
4. Connect with other Black people
One of my favorite things is seeing another Black person when traveling. The first time you see a Black person while traveling is similar to that feeling you get when you see your crush in a crowded room. You see them. You wonder if they see you. You see them seeing you. They see you seeing them. You get excited, but too nervous to make the first move. You see them walking towards you. You start internally freaking out. “Hey,” they say. “Hey,” you say. Then you guys start talking about any and everything and you forget everything and everyone around you.
It’s an unspoken rule when traveling. You must talk to every Black person you see or at least give them the nod in solidarity. This is mainly in homogeneous countries where you know the other Black people are foreigners like you. Black people live all over the world so sometimes you don’t know if they are a local or not (from my experience in Europe). Local or not it’s good to talk to other Black people abroad so you know you’re not alone in this. They can give you great advice from where to get your hair done to where to eat to where the good Black clubs are. It’s nice listen to their experiences while they listen to yours. Seeing a fellow Black person always made me feel more present, validated, and like I had family all over the world.
(Disclaimer: Not all Black travelers or locals feel this way so not all Black people will be nice to you, but in my experience the majority did.)
5. We are role models
Like I stated earlier, only 6% of African Americans study abroad. We are rare. Every time I returned from a new destination, I had this sense of pride that no one can tamper with. I saw parts of the world that, in the grand scheme of things, few people will ever get to experience. I use those emotions to encourage other Black women to travel so that we can change the reputation of the Black woman. Even though I had to deal with racism and sexism when abroad, I would still do it all over again. The memories and the friends I made were too invaluable to miss out on. I want other Black women to have the opportunity to learn and grow as I did.
– This post was written by Alexis Franklin – Psychology Major | Rhodes College ’18 and an all around phenomenal human being. Find her @afrank_14 on Instagram!