Last week I received a message on Instagram from a lovely woman who asked to learn more about my travel experiences.
Since leaving the UK ten months ago I’ve been no stranger to messages from friends asking for travel advice and I love to offer insight when possible, so immediately I was interested.
However what struck me most about the message was not the fact that a stranger was reaching out to me for travel advice, but the fact that she wanted to know how my travel experiences had been as a black woman.
It got me thinking.
Leaving the UK as a young woman travelling alone for the first time I’ll admit I was scared. I’d poured over countless blogs and vlogs and like this woman I’d reached out to others for advice, still, even after doing all this I had no idea what to really expect.
You can learn to be more self-aware, you can take measures to secure your stuff (or repeatedly check your bags for belongings that you know are still there as you’re in a locked hostel room with your bag in the bed next to you and everyone else is asleep as it’s the middle of the night) however, what you can’t do is protect yourself from people who may be unaccepting of you purely because you were born with a different colour of skin.
I’m no stranger to being the odd one out.
In school, for a long time, my sister and I were the only black kids there. I distinctly remember us crossing paths in the corridor once and a boy in my class jeering: “look, two niggers in the same classroom.”
A joke that I did not get the punch line of.
Or when I was 19 and walking home from work and a man followed me along the street shouting: “THERE WERE NO BLACKS IN THE WAR.”
A statement that wasn’t true.
On nights out: “I don’t normally like black people, but you’re actually quite attractive.” Apparently, this was a compliment.
I know right?
There have been countless other incidents. The weirdest part in all of this is that although hearing these things had hurt me I began to get used to them.
Does any of this change from country to country?
My first stop in my long overdue gap year was Thailand and throughout my month and a half stay there I don’t ever remember feeling unsafe. In Thailand, it is seen as a sign of beauty and wealth to be light skinned. Bleaching creams are a huge industry and I noticed many of the women wearing foundation several shades lighter than their actual skin colour.
In contrast, lil old coco pop over here was pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum. But the only skin related comment I remember was in Koh Phi Phi when one of the locals of the island took to smiling and waving and shouting Michelle Obama every time he saw me.
I’ll take that.
In Vietnam, I soon began to realise that while I was wandering around trying to see the sights, I had become an attraction myself. In Hoi An there was one day when I must have had at least ten different groups of people coming up to me and asking for photos.
Yes. This is what I’d spent the past five years at uni for. I’d made it – I was now a local celebrity.
I’d heard from several white travelers that they’d had similar experiences and apparently it’s common for Asian tourists to take photos of Westerners to share with their friends and family at home. So as the hoards of paparazzi (Asian tourists) gathered around me waving their cameras I cracked a smile and wiped the sweat off my face… after all who was I to turn my fans down?
After seven weeks in South East Asia, it was finally time to head to my final destination.
When I reached Australia perhaps I somewhat naively expected a similar experience. Okay, not exactly people gathering around me clamoring for an autograph, but you know, nothing untoward. Certainly not situations where I was made to feel uncomfortable.
I’d love to tell you this is what I experienced, but it wasn’t.
In my first couple of weeks, I met a woman at the tram stop. We got to chatting (after 7 weeks of traveling alone my concept of stranger danger had gone well and truly out of the window) and she shared with me that she sponsored some orphans in Uganda.
All is going well so far.
Then without missing a beat: “So is that near where you’re from?” I half expected her to offer me up some charity then and there. Although by that point in my travels I was getting pretty broke so I’d have probably let her sponsor the Efia travel fund #pleasegivegenerously.
I wrote it off as a one-off, but then it started happening ALL the time.
I was on the tram heading home one day sitting parallel from two older men. One held a bag that said: “Australia accepts all cultures”.
He pointed at the bag and then my face.
Then seeing my glare as an invitation for conversation he proceeded to tell me about a girl like me he’d seen on the X Factor from South Africa (I’m actually British Nigerian but okay…) “She ACTUALLY got quite far” he said, as if it was some sort of miracle “a girl like me“ could succeed outside her own country, and secondly assuming I actually gave a fuck.
Then it started happening at work too.
“Where are you from?” “Scotland” “No you’re not. Where are you really from?”
“I’m from South Africa too.”
“What part of Ghana are you from?”
“Where are you REALLY from?”
I soon began to realise people weren’t mistaking my light Scottish accent for Irish. Or saying I was English because I sounded that way. It was a loaded “oh hey, there’s a big black elephant in the room and I need you to explain it because you don’t belong here.”
I’ve noticed this a lot in Australia.
So while it’s true I haven’t experienced any malicious comments, it’s frustrating how ignorant people can be without realising what it is they’re saying.
In fact even as I sit here writing this post (I shit you not) a guy came up to me to inform me that I speak great English. Though I’m sure he didn’t mean to be offensive it is ignorant to assume English isn’t my first language (which it is).
So in response to the question what has your experience been like as a black woman?
In so many ways solo travel as a black woman has opened my eyes. My experiences have been varied to say the least. I’ve been celebrated and I’ve been made to feel small. I’ve learned to fend for myself because my identity or sense of home isn’t based on someone else’s opinion of me. It’s based on my personal experiences and mine alone.
Whilst traveling I’ve made some amazing friends and memories I’ll never forget. You’ll be pleased to know the good times have by far outweighed the bad. Nevertheless, even the bad times have taught me something.
Whether you’re black, white or all the beautiful shades outside and in between the unfortunate truth is that many people are going to have preconceived notions of where you’re from or who you should be. There may be people who don’t understand you, dislike you, or question whether you belong through no fault of your own.
Please don’t let bad experiences stop you from adventuring. Don’t let them stop you from taking risks and most importantly, don’t let them stop you from being proud to be you.
What about you guys? Have you noticed a difference in how you’re accepted abroad as opposed to what you’re used to at home? Let me know!