Photo: Berlin, Germany. May 2016.
As a traveler who likes to be well informed, I do a lot of research into a country’s culture, traditions and history before going there. One thing I’m never quite sure is how I would be treated once there. Traveling abroad while black can be a different experience than travelers from other races and ethnicities.
Traveling overseas as a black guy, generally, I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary, but there are some situations where people’s reaction is funny, other times it’s awkward. It can get uncomfortable in some instances. Most times it has nothing to do with racism, or so I hope. Depending on where you travel to, people may associate tourists with only white people because that’s what their experiences have been or they are just unaware of their behaviors. Most travelers don’t experience being treated differently so they assume their experience of being treated well overseas is the same for other international tourists, regardless of race, but that’s not accurate. Prejudice and/or racism can negatively affect someone’s vacation.
Most travelers don’t experience the negative effects of being treated differently while on vacation overseas so they assume their good and amazing experience overseas is the same for other international tourists, regardless of race, but that’s not accurate. Prejudice and/or racism can negatively affect someone’s vacation even in places that are considered paradise or have.
A few months ago I was in Belize, I was supposed to be picked up at the ferry in Belize City by someone who is related to the Tour Operator. This person wasn’t involved in the original transaction, his role was to drive us to a boat that would take us to a Mayan ruin, Manalai. The person passed by my friend, who is white, and I a few times but he wasn’t sure if it was really us because he later said he thought I looked Belizean, which is a way to say I don’t look touristy enough. “I was born in the Caribbean if that helps”, I replied.
Later during our tour at the Mayan ruin, the guide gave a story of a tree he said they call a tourist tree, we asked why he replied: “it’s because this tree is white and peeling like the tourists who come to Belize”. Interesting. I think the guide was just being funny, then I thought to myself: only white tourists come to Belize?
The funny thing is a year before I even set foot in Belize, I was in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, which is just miles away from Belize. I was approached by street vendors around Quinta Avenida, I told them in Spanish thanks but I wasn’t looking to buy anything. They were automatically very interested in knowing where exactly I’m from because I’m black and I speak Spanish. I thought that was a funny encounter. One of them said in Spanish: “he must be from Belize”.
I was reading a NY Times article the other day about Malia Obama, President Obama’s oldest daughter, visiting Peru on a study-abroad group trip. The guides were informed ahead of time that they should expect an important person. They automatically thought it was a blonde girl who was on the trip, which allowed Malia to go under the radar the whole time. In that instance that’s a good thing, if you happen to be famous that is. Ah, the blondes.
Sometimes people in other countries have a notion embedded that a tourist is supposed to be of a certain race or looks a certain way, and when they don’t see that it’s almost like a shock to them. Instead of treating everyone with the same respect and courtesy, they may treat some better than others sometimes based on their own prejudice.
I was reading the blog of an African-American young lady visiting Cartagena – Colombia and not being treated well there in some situations because they assumed she’s a local poor person who can’t afford to pay, just because of her race. She wrote in one of her comments: “It’s pretty clear in Cartegena that there’s an assumption that anyone black must be poor or have a shady job and I experienced the negative effects of this in touristy settings because I was assumed to be Afro-Colombian.” And, Cartagena has a lot of Afro-Colombians. I found out during my trip there that some people were more interested in having a conversation with me if they knew I came from NY. Though, most people I met there were nice.
Most times on my trips I don’t experience any of the types of prejudice, which I should say can happen anywhere, even in the NYC area where I live, but every now and then a situation like this would arise while traveling abroad. I think that’s something that needs awareness, especially as more minorities travel overseas. Culture shock does exist, prejudice exists pretty much everywhere. That’s something all travelers should be aware of. My philosophy is to continue to travel more and interact with the local people on my trip. It can be a great learning experience for all.