As of September 2023, I lived in India, Spain, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and El Salvador. I have also explored numerous countries from Morocco to the Philippines. As a Black woman, my treatment varies depending on my location.
In my perspective, when traveling as a Black woman abroad, there is no uniform experience. Even within a single country, experiences change. Experiences may be shaped by factors such as the local culture (comprising various cultures within a country or region) and individual attitudes. Other factors affecting people’s responses to me may be related to the historical relations of the country with individuals of my ethnicity, the degree of exposure to women of color, and the portrayal of women of color in the media.
Traveling abroad might prompt you to contemplate your identity in new ways. Each experience is unique, but I will spotlight some potential encounters for African Americans overseas.
On several occasions while abroad, I encountered skepticism about whether I was from the United States or not. Some individuals believed I had immigrated or questioned my true place of birth and my parents’ origins. In certain places, I was not immediately recognized as American, and instead of English, some addressed me in French. The perception of being a non-American could stem from the lack of diversity in media representation.
I recall an incident while shopping for dental floss overseas when a girl suddenly approached me and began running her fingers through my braids without warning. I was taken aback and uncertain about how to respond. We exchanged bewildered glances, and eventually, I pulled back and firmly asked her to stop.
In some instances, you might be one of the first individuals people abroad encounter with your particular hair texture. People may not be accustomed to seeing women with braids, dreads, or curly-kinky hair, leading them to react by touching it or taking photographs.
Some stereotype black women as promiscuous and hypersexual. Some people might see you as a prostitute or only good for sex. People might think this because of how people of color in their country were portrayed historically, from the media, or porn.
All of this has happened to me at different times in various points. And sometimes it was tough. Sometimes I felt like a celebrity. You just have to remember that in some countries it’s not the norm to see a black person or person of color. As a result, people may think you are “exotic” and they may not know how to behave properly.
All experiences are not bad. I remember a friend was telling me that while she was traveling in Vietnam she was going to a theater. The people thought she was from a royal African family. They escorted her to the front of the theater and gave her special treatment.
You may be called Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey. You may even be asked if you know former President Obama or Michael Jordan.
I remember one time I was going to a restaurant overseas. This restaurant was off the beaten path. There weren’t many tourists around. As I sat down, the cook yelled from the window “What’s up [N-word]!?” I was taken aback. I felt tempted to ignore it but seeing how there were only two other people in the restaurant, I asked the cook where he learned that phrase. We then had a conversation about the word, its origins, and black American culture.
When we travel overseas, it’s a two-way street. The people you encounter will have reactions about you, either positive or negative. You, in turn, will learn about the people you encounter. Some of your stereotypes or ideas about how people in your host country behave may be destroyed. In this interesting article, the author writes that even though she is African American, her idea of how people lived and dressed in Swaziland was challenged. She writes
“Prior to Swaziland, my impressions of Africa, and indeed Africans, had been shaped by movies, National Geographic magazines, and the Discovery Channel. At that time, the people displayed through those media outlets were often depicted wearing bright tribal clothes that left them partially nude, they hunted animals with spears and waged tribal wars often, and they sat on dusty floors in mud huts while cooking things in clay pots. Their lives seemed so exotic, so otherworldly.
However, in Swaziland, I found the people and their activities to be quite familiar—so much that I often grew bored.”
You might travel abroad and find that nothing happens. You might feel like no one notices or cares. There’s no pointing, taking pictures, or people passing you their baby. You don’t have to explain how it’s possible you’re American.