While I was walking back home one night through the narrow streets of my Spanish town, two girls I didn’t know approached me while giggling. They looked at me and said, “We have a question, can we touch your hair?”
As I struggled to keep a straight face and find a polite way to say “hell no,” I wondered, do white travelers get asked this same question?
I’ve also even been asked, “Is your hair real?“
Again, I wonder how often blondes get asked if they are naturally blonde?
After living abroad for three years, I’ve come to expect questions like these. But it still fascinates me that what is normal for me can be strange to someone who’s really never seen chocolate toned skin and extremely curly hair — as if they spotted an elusive white tiger. Many foreigners know of Black people’s existence, but are still amazed when they see one in person. This comes to be very true when it comes to Black American women.
Read more about how Kiersten found a community abroad.
Going beyond the awkward questions, traveling as a Black American woman means carrying a responsibility that many other White Americans don’t, and here’s why.
Black Women Are Almost Invisible
From my experience, people know Black American men. People know and admire famous figures like Will Smith, Barack Obama, Denzel Washington, Michael Jordan etc. But what about the women? The women who are making a difference in the lives of Americans, not the angry, attitude filled women played out in the media. The list of well-known black women usually starts with Beyonce or Michelle Obama, then ends with Oprah. Yet even these prominent female figures are often just names people have heard of. Often they don’t get the admiration as other well-known Black American men. There isn’t the same excitement and awareness around Serena Williams, or Angela Davis.
So as a Black woman who has lived in three different countries, my mere existence gives me a unique responsibility.
When I introduce myself to people of other countries, I instantly become a representation of my culture.
I’m oftentimes one of the first Black American women they’ve met and spoken to. This becomes a double-edged sword when I wonder: will they think that every other Black American woman is like me? Or will they think I’m an anomaly?
Will they think that because I’m educated, nice, and friendly that other Black women are the same too? Or is the image of the angry Black women so burned in their brains that they recategorize me and mix me in with other White Americans?
Turning Awkward Conversations into Learning Experiences
Often, explaining certain aspects of my cultures means segueing into a history lesson. For many people they know that slavery was a dark moment in the history of the U.S, but they don’t always understand is that people are still living in the remnants of slavery.
They don’t know that even though slavery has ended, the poison effect it had on our society remains deeply rooted in the social and economic systems in the USA.
The subsequent chapters of slavery involve housing issues, the incarnation system, discrimination in the work place, inequality and so much more. But how does one explain all of that to someone who just asked why they shouldn’t use the n-word? There’s a resounding answer, but it’s not exactly a simple one.
Explaining the Current State of the United States
With the Black Lives Matter movement now becoming global, it has opened everyone’s eyes to the struggle of Black Americans. I’ve gotten hit with many questions about why this is happening, as if I can boil it down to a bite-sized answer, because I’m a Black woman. However, just because I’ve lived in the American system during my life doesn’t mean I understand it. I wish I could give people more detailed answers, besides just saying that racism is still alive and well in the USA. When that doesn’t do the trick, unfortunately I feel like I can’t go much further with it.
How to Make Things Easier
For those reading this who aren’t Black, remember that if you travel with a Black friend, your experience most likely will be different from theirs. If you meet a Black traveler treat them like any other traveler. And if you want to know more about Black culture, ask them if they are open to having that conversation. If not, be respectful and look up your questions on YouTube, because the answers are out there, and they don’t always need to come from your Black friend. This is because explaining our history and culture is easier for some and harder for others.
Overall I feel my biggest responsibility is to help educate the world on who we are, so that when the next Black girl comes around they are treated with respect, and empathy.
Are you a Black woman living abroad, wanting to share your story? Tell us about your experience in the comments or on Twitter!