Blue Passport, Black Skin

An African American traveller navigates the world, balancing the burdens of blackness with the advantages of being American.

The author, adding another stamp to her passport, in Senegal.
The author, adding another stamp to her passport, in Senegal.

The New York Times recently reported on the increasing popularity of “Slum tourism.”

For North-American and European travelers who want more from their vacations than beaches and monuments, group tours of Brazilian favelas or Indian shanty towns offer access to some of the poorest pockets of the developing world.

The article explored some of the voyeuristic aspects of this trend and cited arguments in favor, like bringing attention and resources to needy communities. Yet, the article missed an opportunity to explore the complex racial dimensions of this type of travel. For white travelers, confronting global poverty often means being reminded of their own privilege. But for African-American travelers, the story is far more complicated. The experience of international travel, regardless of whether it involves slum tourism or not, can serve as a jarring reminder of not only the advantages of being American, but also of the disadvantages of being black or dark-skinned.

As a young African-American woman who recently had to order extra pages for her passport, I have given this subject a lot of thought. For me, travel is not only a source of immense pleasure; it is also my business. I spent most of my twenties in a PhD program in Latin American History, during which time I had numerous opportunities – and obligations – to travel abroad. And, no matter where I landed, my skin tone colored nearly every interaction in every country.

Whether I was greeted by hostile stares in Argentina, friendly faces in Cuba, or a combination of both in places like Peru (my home for a year, thanks to a Fulbright fellowship), I was keenly aware that people were keenly aware of my blackness. That awareness has been both a gift and a curse, making me fully conscious of how I behave wherever I may go. Which is why my immediate reaction to the Times piece came in the form of questions:

Do black people take those tours?

Should black people take those tours?

I ask that as someone who participated in a “terreiro tour” the first time I went to Brazil. OK, it was the second time I had been to Brazil! My first trip in 1998 sparked an interest in candomblé (a tradition of African-deity worship that contains elements of Catholicism) and the subject of religious syncretism in the African Diaspora, and I was deeply curious to experience a ceremony first-hand. Unfortunately, the experience was not quite what I had hoped.

I was part of a large, otherwise all-white tour group, and we immediately stood out from the rest of the attendees. Having grown up in Colorado and attended predominantly white schools, I was used to being the only black person in a room, but this was different. As a scholarship student at private school, for example, I was acutely aware of the layers of class and color privilege separating me from my classmates. It always seemed obvious, to me and to them, that I was an outsider. In a way, I was actually quite proud of that.