Traveling by yourself to a foreign country and being a young black male are two things that don’t go hand in hand easily.
Diversity and multiculturalism have been things that have gained so much traction and is becoming more and more common over decades but unfortunately, even in 2018, the subject of racial tension and unease when a person of colour is abroad in a foreign country still has to be discussed. This is not even touching on the fact that as a black person you’re faced with the hurdle of tackling so many negative stereotypes and connotations at an institutional level.
I had heard and read stories of black people who had been victims of racism in different ways, whether slurs or monkey chants from people when out in public, physical assaults that are racially motivated. One that stood out for me was the 22-year-old Black American Bakari Henderson who was murdered when away in Greece last summer. If I’m honest I never actually thought I would experience it myself. I know it’s very naive but maybe it was because I didn’t want to think about such a personal and controversial issue and wanted to think about how to enjoy my travel experiences. In that case, ignorance is a bliss.
Well, that ignorance no longer was bliss three months ago.
Towards the end of my getaway to Naples earlier in the year, I decided to do a bit of last-minute shopping on the cheap before my return flight back to London. I would go into high street shops and outlets and the sales assistants would give me longing stares as I was browsing through their clothing items, they would make sure they stayed very close to me assuming that I might be looking to steal. It was uncomfortable and unusual, to say the least as I wanted my own space rather than feel like I’m being hurried. At this point, I’m being negatively prejudged before I have barely opened my mouth and exchanged dialogue with them.
The harsh reality was hit home to me through direct communication when an elderly Canadian woman I was having a nice conversation to at a restaurant asked me: “so what is a person of colour like you doing around here?”, I took solace from this as she expressed in a way that she admired me for not letting my own skin colour determine what I can do and what I cannot do. Then I thought back to my encounters with a few shopkeepers (ironically they weren’t Italian natives I believe) when I was looking for a travel adapter and they weren’t so receptive and customer-service friendly towards me with hindsight. Perhaps it is an example of white privilege coming into play: if I was of a white skin colour would I have had the question posed to me in the first place, and with hindsight, I wonder if I really needed to explain to her why I was visiting the country.
All this was not helped by the strong that the only major exposure these natives have had to black people are the very few people in their neighbourhoods and from US media, which often portray Black Americans as “criminals” of any kind (fortunately in mainstream media that is slowly beginning to change – Wakanda Forever!). This is the perception attempted to be put onto me by making it look like I have to be escorted in almost every part of the store.
The Italian shopping experience though didn’t put a massive spoil on what was an enjoyable and adventurous break and it didn’t alter my opinion on Italy as a whole. Italy is a country with incredible passion and flavour, particularly when it comes to its food and architecture, and have a lot of helpful and friendly people, including my B&B hosts. Although the more negative experiences also serve as a grave reminder of how much more work to do to get rid of racism, even at a level where it’s seen with the casual eye. In some countries with more nationalist beliefs, discriminatory laws and acts do not even exist. That’s not the main point. The presence of a person of colour, not to mention a young black man, is just something that is treated with reactions of that of an encounter with an alien.
It is hard enough for anyone traveling alone: having to work things out yourself, keep your guard up for anyone trying to take advantage of your naivety and lack of knowledge because you’re a tourist, especially if you’re a woman in today’s society. But to jump the extra hurdle of racial prejudice and stereotypes makes the practice of solo travel more challenging, and this is maybe where the benefits of group travel come into play where you at least have someone along the ride with you who can process the experiences, emotions, and memories. If you’re alone, you have to physically bear all of that on your own.
We’re in a world where it is easier to connect and share with new and different people by virtue by the advances of modern technology and social media, and the fact that racial stereotyping and colorism is still very much a thing is startling. Why a person’s race or background is something people find hard to overlook in favour of judging by personality, character will forever be beyond me.
No man or woman should explore the world with the fear of suffering abuse or being made to feel isolated. No one should not want to go to certain countries because of civil unrest or political tensions. Although traveling is another opportunity to eliminate barriers between races and make the world a more united, enjoyable place.
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Johnny is a freelance traveler and travel blogger who blogs at TheTravelConnoisseur.wordpress.com and is regularly on Twitter (@DJ_247_96) and Instagram (@JohnnyEnglish247).