As is often the case in the United States, sometimes I have trouble telling when people are racist or just plain rude. When I checked into my Mexico City bed and breakfast—which had received rave reviews on from Trip Advisor—I sensed a disconnect between the pleasant tone the owner adopted over e-mail (he even complimented my Spanish!), and the cold professionalism with which the staff greeted me when I walked through the door.
Having been here a couple of days, and by now a familiar face, I can't help but notice that the various desk clerks and housekeepers still seem to regard me wearily, if they even look at me at all. None of the "friendly and helpful" attitudes previous guests told me to expect are yet on display.
Or am I paranoid?
My mom did not seem to think so. "Are you the only black person there?" she asked when I mentioned the odd vibes. When I answered yes, she grunted knowingly—she's been on the receiving end of lots of these calls over the past 15 years.
I'd like to think I'm pretty tough when it comes to travel: I once lost 20 pounds in three weeks, thanks to an epic gastrointestinal battle in Gambia; another time I hiked five hours down steep switchbacks through Peru's Colca Canyon (one of the world's deepest), only to sleep a few winks in a straw hut in preparation for the hike back up the next morning; yet another time, I fell off of a moving bus into on-coming traffic in Argentina; and I've even had an orange hurled at my head on a street in Brazil (a story for another time).
So generally I'm not the type to run to mommy when times get tough. But the one thing I am always sensitive to is how my identity as a black woman shapes the way people treat me when I'm traveling.
In previous columns, I have only obliquely referenced issues of racism abroad. In part that's because I believe my role here is to promote international travel among African Americans, and for every negative experience I have had, there is always a positive outcome to balance it out. Moreover, in our increasingly global economy, having an international background is an asset, no matter how much Fox News insists otherwise. Given my strong beliefs about the myriad roles we can play in this new world order, you definitely won't get any fear-mongering from me.
Besides, our treatment abroad depends on so many factors: the regions we're visiting, our individual physical attributes (i.e. skin tone, facial features, hair texture), gender, sexuality and whether we speak the local language, to name just a few. For instance, I was one of four black women in my undergraduate program in Argentina, and we all had tremendously varied experiences. One woman, then a student at Spelman, was always surprised to hear my stories of being stared, hissed and laughed at while walking down the street. Not to mention the too-numerous occasions when I was taken for a Brazilian sex worker. Or the time a group of doormen started making monkey noises when I walked past their building.
In her case, many people simply took her light skin and wavy hair to mean she was Colombian or Ecuadorian and pretty much left her alone. (I'll spare you the foot-noted diatribe about how Colombians, Ecuadorians and even Argentines can and do look like my brown-skinned, natural-hair wearing self, but trust me when I say that it's true.) I've also heard black men describe their time there in completely different terms. In his book Adventures of a Continental Drifter, for example, travel writer Elliott Hester tells a story of being stared at by a bombshell with movie-star looks, convinced that her intense focus in his direction is motivated by nothing more than lust. It seems true, based on his account of their flirtatious exchange.
And yet, despite—and perhaps because of—all of the variables, there is still so much to say about traveling while black. Indeed, I have always been dismayed by the failure of the average Lonely Planet or Rough Guide (my usual logistical bibles) to address racial issues, when those same publications have taken care in recent years to provide helpful warnings and tailored information for (white) female, gay and lesbian travelers.
Given this reality, I am rarely surprised when I receive mail from readers asking whether it's "worth" visiting certain regions of the world, given how little (or how much) information exists about their receptiveness to black travelers. To work around some of those silences, I recommend sites like Soul of America, which has travel guides for Caribbean, European and South American destinations, all with black travelers in mind.
But since the site only features destinations that its staff and readers have actually visited, the question of whether to go is even more complicated. How will I know to love or hate it if no one tells me first?
One way to break the cycle is to just book the ticket. Especially when it comes to "unfriendly" places—if we're ever to expect better treatment, more of us need to be there to demand it. We need to be a constant presence, in all our three-dimensional glory, showing them that we cover the gamut, from adventurous students and dynamic professionals to spendthrifts and bon vivants—and that our steadily-weakening dollars are just as good, for now, as that white dude's at the next table.
In the meantime, of course, we might have to hone our filtering skills. Why just today, on an inadvertent pilgrimage around the city, I had to put on my "street-bubble." Since I was looking for a particular intersection, I needed to keep my eyes peeled, but because I seemed to be passing countless construction workers (the same ones a few times—I did say I was lost), I chose to keep my ears closed and my smile upside-down.
Don't be afraid, though, to filter out the filter sometimes. This evening I stopped at my new-favorite café for some flan. After chatting up the waiter and picking his brain about my travel plans for the month, I packed up my things and headed out. Thanks to that street-bubble, I had managed to walk a good two blocks before I heard someone gently say my name: It was Edgardo, the waiter, handing me the umbrella I'd left behind.
Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.