TWB: Traveling While Black12/09/2013
by Arielle Nicole Newton I was a freshman in college when I first traveled abroad. Before then, I...
by Arielle Nicole Newton
I was a freshman in college when I first traveled abroad. Before then, I had never left the country. Upon entering Northeastern University in 2009, I declared a combined major in Political Science and International Affairs. Interested in global law, I figured it best to actually step into foreign countries, learning about cultures vastly different than my own.
My first trip was to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil during the summer of 2010. Salvador, a port city, was once a major stop in the transatlantic slave trade. Today, the city’s heritage is soaked in its historical significance; most residents there are of African descent and embrace Afro-Brazilian culture. I felt at home in Salvador. Many local Brazilians would speak to me in Portuguese, convinced I was one of their own. It was only when I failed to respond in the local language did they realize I was not from Salvador.
Salvador was great first exposure to my global community. I felt empowered and confident in my abilities to get along in the global world. My other trips abroad were more enlightening, but not necessarily in the same positive sense.
My next trip was to Prague in 2011. It was here that I had a hard-hitting experience of the obstacles that come when traveling in black skin. In Prague, local Czechs stared and pointed at me. Walking around a plaza with my Bengali friend, we were pointed at and mocked. Other members of color of the trip recall having their pictures taken. I couldn’t grasp of the subtext of these moments at the time; all I felt was discomfort, frustration, and anger.
My experience is not uncommon. A friend of color told me about how he was pointed at and called Obama in China. Another recounted her experience in Indonesia. Upon hearing these stories, I realized that traveling while Black is burdensome.
So I escaped to Rwanda in 2012. For many reasons, this trip was different than others. For one, I was not traveling with my school but through an independent program. The program attracted a diverse group of people with varying interests, a healthy addition to my expedition instead of the slew of narrow-minded drunken college kids I was accustomed to.
In good company, my trip to Rwanda was remarkable. I witnessed the strength of a post-genocidal society ready to move towards inclusion in the world of states. I enjoyed walking around without feeling like an outsider. I also harbored guilty satisfaction when my white companions were constantly stared at. I thought “finally, they understand what it feels like.”
But then I realized the stares my white colleagues received were very different than the ones directed at me in Prague. My white counterparts were stared at because they represent privilege, wealth, and status. They embody beauty and inspire longing and desire in the local population. Ultimately, they are welcome...unlike in Prague when I was viewed as an outsider and an anomaly. Black images in the global community surround suffering, disease, rape, and war. Fly-infested African babies prowling for dirty water are the subject of the Black international discussion.
Of course these conversations are necessary, as suffering is an inescapable reality on the global stage. But the pervasiveness of said discussions ultimately affect how Black people of privilege travel abroad. Even in Rwanda, I was met with incredulity when recounting that America is home to millions of Black residents. We live in a digital society in which educational resources are readily available and easily accessible. It’s important for countries unfamiliar with Black diversity to embrace these resources, and become more engaged in the reality of 21st century diversity.
The Prague experience has not left me entirely. I have very little desire to return there, nor do I have interest in visiting countries with marginal Black populations. And yet, I know such excursions are important. It’s hard to gauge the reality of the Black experience without having met a Black person to uniquely detail it.