The realities of travelling as a black woman

One writer explores what it means to travel as a black woman and why despite its difficulties, she always encourages people of colour to go

Feature by Samara Linton | 03 Aug 2018

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with Facebook's "On This Day" feature. Sometimes, the algorithm gets it right and we find ourselves snorting with laughter during an important meeting, at others we are confronted with images of an ex we had hoped to forget. And then there are the holiday memories: clichéd yellow-red sunsets, overcrowded group selfies, and enviable carefree smiles. These are the kind of memories that tip me into endless nostalgia.

There are few things I love more than travelling and I will find any excuse to plan a holiday. When deciding on my next destination, airline deals, reviews from friends, and Lonely Planet are my guides. And yet, before I make a booking, I always do one final Google search: “Black woman solo travel to [insert destination here].”

If you are a black woman who has travelled alone, chances are this search, and its underwhelming results, are familiar to you. The scarcity of travel blogs by black women leaves me piecing together information about travelling to a particular country as a woman and as a black person, trying to deduce what my experience may be like. Scattered between the horrific tales of profiling, harassment, and discrimination, there are the positive stories and these are the ones that make me put aside my apprehensions and book my ticket.

When black women ask me about my experience in a particular country, I often tell them the positive things. I describe the joys and the wonders, the sights and the warm welcome. On Facebook and Instagram, I present images of pristine waters, crystal sand, and joyous #carefreeblackgirl selfies. I want to share with them the joys of travelling, the pleasure of saving up for and enjoying experiences outside of your comfort zone. I want them to know that you don’t have to have a lot of money to see another small corner of the planet.

But I also want to tell them about the realities of navigating the world as a black woman. I want to tell them about travelling with my family as a child with a non-British passport, wondering why security would stop us and not the other families. 

I want to tell them about when I was seventeen, passing through Miami airport on a school trip and observing that only the people of colour in my group were having their bags or bodies searched.

I want to tell them about my girls' trip to Ibiza, where a man pulled up in his car to ask me and my friends, “How much?” I want to tell them that after the shock, embarrassment, and anger subsided, we looked around and saw that the only other black women on the strip were sex workers and the black men were selling souvenirs.

I want to tell them about Peru, where awestruck adults pointed and confused children pulled on their mother's sleeves shouting, “Su pelo!” Where strangers indiscreetly took photos of me on the bus or asked me to take photographs with their children.

I want to tell them that knowing that people are probably staring out of curiosity and reaching for my hair out of fascination does not take away the discomfort of being othered. I want to tell them to be prepared to become the tourist attraction instead of the tourist. I want to tell them about the responsibility I sometimes feel to “act right” and present a different, more nuanced image of black women to those typically seen in music videos and films. I want to tell them that knowing that I shouldn’t have to carry this burden does not lessen the load.

I want to tell them that the experience of being sexualised, racialised, and ostracised is not limited to countries where black people are a minority but extends to countries where significant proportions of the population are of African descent. Countries like Cuba, where despite my poor Spanish, I was able to understand the shouts of “Me gusta las negritas!” That the incessant hisses and catcalling from Trinidadian or Jamaican men become as familiar as the sound of crickets at dusk. 

I want to tell them about my plans to travel further afield, but also about my fears of going somewhere where I will be even more of a minority and my blackness even more visible. I want to tell them that while I am afraid, I go anyway because travelling is a privilege few people of colour, and black women in particular, get to enjoy. I think back to a few years ago, to the border control agent whose shoulders relaxed when I opened my mouth to produce a British accent and opened my bag to produce a British passport. I remember the relief I felt when this happened but also the guilt and indignation. I should not need to be British to be treated with gentleness and respect, yet it is this identity that affords me so much of the freedom I have when I choose to see the world firsthand.

I want to tell them all this, but I am hesitant because I know that women like me hear "No" too often. We are told that we can’t do this and we can’t be that, we shouldn’t wear this and we shouldn’t act like that. How often are we told "Yes"?

So, when I share my experiences of travelling with women of colour, I say: “Nevertheless, go.” Whether it is driving to a neighbouring county or catching a twelve-hour flight to the other side of the globe, go. Whether it is for a couple of days or a couple of months, go. Whether it is by yourself or in a group, go. Go, because for too long we have been told how to exist and where to exist. For too long we have been pushed into the background of other people’s stories, labouring away for their growth and comfort at the cost of our own. I choose to tell women of colour, go.

Travelling brings both joy and anxiety. It is both magical and mundane. As I write this, I am on a small tropical island in the Caribbean, watching day fade into the night and listening to the humming of the fan behind me. My legs are covered in insect bites, my throat feels like sandpaper, and I miss the comfort of being wrapped up in a blanket, drinking a good cup of tea on a rainy day. But I am happy to be here. I am happy I told myself: “Yes, go.” I have snorkelled over coral reefs, swum with stingrays, and gone horseback riding in the sea. I have squeezed into overcrowded buses, joined in with the chorus of “Hallelujah” at church, and 'limed' by the beach. 

Does being a black woman shape my experiences abroad? Of course. Being a black woman shapes my experiences outside the UK, just as it shapes my experience of life inside it. But when all is said and done, I simply cannot imagine a time in my life when I would be content with confining myself to the boundaries of the UK. So I will continue to peruse black women’s travel blogs and Instagram pages, subscribe to airline newsletters, and diligently save up for my next trip. I will continue to go.