Testimonials-sexist, racist, exoticizing remarks… Many black women tell of how their skin color plays a role in their travel experience and how they organize to prepare for it.
It was a nightmare. “Three years ago, Titia went to India with her boyfriend for two weeks. She’s black, he’s white.” When we were walking around, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t come to see me more closely. It wasn’t just a look of curiosity, it was a look that meant, “what are you doing here?”, she told RTL girls today.
“Sometimes they mumbled as they looked at me, sometimes they spat over their shoulder at my level – I knew later on speaking with an Indian acquaintance that it was to remove the evil eye. It was heavy, hostile and free.”
Not being prepared, this experience was all the more unpleasant for Titia. “I knew it was a very hard society, that the Indians were hard on each other, but I didn’t expect to experience that,” she explains. She ended up talking about it with her boyfriend after a few days. “He only noticed once I told him, and at the end of each day we were both happy to go back to the hotel.”
Since then, Titia has become accustomed to finding out about her travel destinations as a black woman. This led her to create the Facebook group “We Are #Blackpackeuses” in October 2017. “I had posted a message on the band’ We Are Backpackeuses ‘ to find out what it was like when you were black-e in Bali… And everyone got carried away,” she tells RTL Girls.
In a few days, his post recorded 600 comments. Many people feel that” there is no difference ” between being black or white while traveling. “One person suggested creating a specific group “and that’s how We are #blackpackeuses was born.
Today, the group is open to everyone and has nearly 900 members. “Many white people ask to join him to understand what their loved ones are going through, others because they have metis children,” explains Titia.
Caroline became a member a few months ago when she decided to go with her 10-year-old son to Southeast Asia. The one who “mostly traveled in Europe” had “a plan to go further”, she told RTL Girls. “I was worried about how I was going to be received and wanted to know what to expect. In France, we are already experiencing discrimination on a daily basis, so in a country where they are not used to seeing black people, I was afraid it would be worse.”
Finally, Caroline chose to take her child to the Philippines last month. Their trip has given them some nice surprises and the duo has a good memory of it. “We were very well received, there was no judgment. People were happy to see other strangers. We felt so good that we extended our visa !”
Lack of information
Despite this good experience, Caroline’s concerns, ahead of her trip, reflect a problem. When you’re a black woman, traveling becomes almost a challenge. “There is always a stake in being black-e in the world we live in,” explains Rose NDengue, a politician and historian specializing in issues of racism and sexism. “Being black – that means being’extra-ordinary’. When you are a woman, there is also the question of sexism.”
Travel also means living in an environment that is, by definition, unfamiliar. It is therefore quickly possible to be in danger. “Being alone, with such a visible difference, by definition makes you more exposed to people who don’t necessarily have the best intentions in the world,” Clemence, 23-year-old youtube use, told RTL Girls.
On her channel “Keyholes & Snapshots”, she created a playlist titled ” Survive (and be black)…”. In addition to basic advice on the language or culture of the country in question, she adds her experience as a black woman abroad.
“There are not many people who realize this or want to admit it, but it is a legitimate question,” clemency says. “It can really have an impact on how you are a tourist abroad and can have a serious impact… But this is something that is very rarely mentioned on travel story platforms.”
Clémence takes the example of Cambodia, where she went in 2015 with a group of students from her school. She and a friend of hers were the only black women.
“Some monks took me by the shoulders and wanted to take pictures with me when they weren’t even supposed to approach the women,” she remembers. “I felt dehumanized… Especially since being touched without consent, mine of nothing, it has an impact on our mind.”
During this trip, the supervising team was not prepared for this violence. “She didn’t necessarily see the problem in the fact that we’re upset about being photographed. No one understood or listened to us, and that made everything more complicated.”
In order to cope better with these situations, Clémence is aware that she must prepare two or even three times more when planning a trip. “When I talk about it with other traveling friends who are not black but white, I realize that apart from putting tickets in their socks, they don’t have a lot of precautions taken.”
However, there is no question of forbidding oneself from traveling: it is simply a matter of choosing one’s destinations in full knowledge of the facts. Notify as many people as possible of the intended destinations, register at the embassy, learn the basics of the language… Clémence added to all this advice that we need to find out how black people are perceived in the country we plan to visit.
“If I am to be confused with someone who is a citizen of this country tomorrow, what will happen to me? I think it’s important to leave at least when you have a semblance of an answer to that question,” she says.
Being abroad makes you more vulnerable, especially when you’re in the minority. “When you travel, you’re not in your environment, and you don’t have the keys to protect yourself, protect yourself and defend yourself in the same way you could in France.”
So it is sometimes necessary to make a choice: spend a quiet holiday, without having to worry about the treatment that will be reserved for us, or leave wherever you want but mentally and physically prepared enough. Valéna has opted for the first choice and will not be going to Kyiv next spring.
At the age of 23, this Parisian student decided to modify her holiday plans between friends, after a bad experience in Eastern Europe. Last year, the group went to Budapest, where Valéna realized that her black skin was a challenge. “People were staring at me, looking a little mean, supported.”
By talking to her parents, and then her group of friends, she decided to stop traveling to Ukraine, where racist attacks are frequent, and to choose a destination that is already known to her: Amsterdam. “I prefer to leave with my head and mind free, telling myself that whatever happens will be fine,” she explains.
A problem of representations
Why do black women suffer these behaviors? “In a very contemporary way, we have this image of the migrant and the migrant, who is necessarily a subordinate person”, analyzes the politician and historian Rose NDengue.
In 2013, for example, Oprah Winfrey denounced the racism of a saleswoman in a Swiss shop. She told him that one of the handbags she coveted was”too expensive for her”.
“Of course, since we see you as black, we think that you have no purchasing power, that you are poor and that you cannot be a tourist !”, reacts Clémence, who shares the historian’s observation.
Faced with this problem of representation, bloggers and influencers organize themselves to show that it is possible to be a black woman and to travel. Among them, Jessica Nabongo, a former United Nations employee, wants to become the first black woman to visit every country in the world.
In France, the webzine “Queen Of Modern Times” entrusts each week are account for Instagram to a black woman traveling, so that she gives its advice and tells its journey.
“These are conversations we’ve always had,” says webzine founder Wendie Zahibo. “But it was things intimate so that with Instagram and Facebook, it’s become easier to meet.”
For Wahdie Zahibo, brands have everything to gain from better representing black women, especially in advertising: “We are also a target !”, she recalls.
For Rose NDengue, these initiatives were part of” a form of resistance”: “it is a way of claiming a right that is that of freedom of movement.”
In the United States, specialized travel agencies have recently been offering travel specifically for black women, such as the Black Girls Travel Too or black people in general, such as the Black Travel Movement. This model, which answers a real social problem, according to Wahdie Zahibo, would be difficult to import into France. “The American market is very special, there is a real black community, “she adds, while Rose NDengue concludes:” I also find the strategy of saying ‘I will continue to travel alone’ very interesting. There are no solutions, there are strategies.”
Our black girls are beautiful, that’s why it’s important to tell them
Let us challenge stereotypes about beauty in black society and communities.
According to the memes on social media, don’t tell little girls they’re beautiful. The parenting magazines I’ve read about the importance of encouraging them to focus on intelligence and boldness. Yet, even if we all want to make them confident women, and beauty should never define a person’s worth, many of our black girls still need to hear that they are beautiful.
When I was about ten years old, a department store called in models for its annual catalog. As my mother encouraged me to apply, I did. We took care of my hair, the choice of my outfit, the photos. However, when I went to file my application, I went back. I didn’t want to do it. Deep down, I had the feeling that I would not be selected. After all, I’ve never seen girls like me in magazines or catalogs, so why would anyone choose me?
As I grew up, I could see that, apart from Naomi Campbell and Veronica Webb, black girls didn’t become models or actresses. Nevertheless, I rarely identified with the pictures in these magazines. I loved shows like Cosby Show and Campus Show because, with their skin color and hair, the characters looked like me. While I was taught to be proud of my black identity, the often insidious incentives to suppress it persisted.
Black women struggle not only against the lack of representation in the media and more or less everywhere else, but also against the colorism within the black community itself. Like many other children of color, I grew up in a family where skin and hair texture determined our value. My grandfather, very black, had been rejected by his in-laws because of his dark skin. I grew up with the stories of this uncle who never showed up in public with his dark-skinned child, where only the light-skinned child was introduced to a family member, where a bride-to-be refused to have her favorite cousin attend her wedding because of the color of her skin.
When I was a little girl, I always used to get my hair done for special occasions. Being presentable meant hiding my kinky hair. I was used to social differences based on shades of black skin, especially on the border of a country like South Africa, where ethnicity plays a decisive role.
When I read on social media that our girls should no longer be told that they are pretty, I think of all those black children who will never hear such a compliment, who rarely identify with what they see on television or on magazine covers, those whose skin color will determine the job they will ever do. While we must, of course, encourage girls to believe in themselves, we must not forget the message given to The Little Black Girls.
As a mother of Métis children, I did not expect my daughters to question their identity at such a young age. Even though I bought them dolls with kinky hair and read them stories that look like their characters, they began to wonder about their place in this world at an early age. My eldest, then four years old, once wept in spite because she wanted me to cut off her beautiful curly hair. She begged me to straighten her hair like her cousin’s, blue-eyed blonde. My youngest, with tight curls, often styled with an afro, would come home complaining that his “funny hair” had been made fun of.
I’ve always wanted to teach them that it’s better to focus on personality and talent than appearance. I explain to them that girls can just as easily be a stay-at-home mother as an astronaut or a firefighter, that they have the right to love trucks as much as dolls. I scoured parenting books, blogs, and academic magazines to help them build their confidence, and the only message that kept coming back was that we shouldn’t tell them they’re pretty. Except that such a message does not necessarily apply to Black Girls, or girls other than white girls, for that matter.
But you have to tell them. Our culture tells them that their looks and their African names don’t match the norm. Even if these messages are not always explicit, these murmurings have a powerful echo.
Black girls are already considered under-represented: know that I have never been able to find Asian dolls, and I can only imagine the difficulties that parents of Asian girls have in finding images to reinforce their identity. I put myself in the place of those young children who saw Sandra Oh become the first Asian actress to win two Golden Globes and the first Asian woman to present the ceremony… in 2019! Non-white women are finding comfort in the idea that beauty is more than appearance, and their daughters are incorporating this concept at an ever-younger age.
In Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday, Gabrielle Union and her husband, Dwayne Wade, have recently talked taboo about surrogates, and the birth of their granddaughter. The actress and producer referred to the education provided by her own parents who had advised her to focus on intelligence: while they always encouraged her to believe in her potential, they never told her that she was beautiful. In her eyes, her parents “believed that beauty is ephemeral, so why to worry about it?” The young woman is now determined to teach her daughter to believe in her own beauty.
I tell my girls every day how beautiful they are, with their frizzy hair and their African names. Stereotypes about beauty must be challenged, not only in the dominant culture but also in the black community. Until then, it’s up to us to remind our girls that they’re smart, that they’re valuable and that they’re beautiful!