I’ve seen many individuals sharing their experiences of being black and travelling abroad on multiple social network systems and since I’ve done a fair bit of travelling this summer, I thought I’d share my own experiences of being bi-racial abroad. By no means are all the anecdotes mentioned in this post exclusive to biracial people (there can be general overlaps with people of a sole ethnic background), however there are some specific cases in which I think the racial ambiguity of being biracial has inspired both intrigue and discomfort.
Having afro-textured curly hair, when it comes to travelling, the style in which I choose to maintain my hair is very important. I’ve tested out an array of different hairstyles over my years, from weaves and braids to straightened and natural hair.
Hair is always a touchy subject for anyone with curly hair, but I’ve found that it is even more so abroad. One time, when I was visiting family in Italy (a small village in the mountains) I drew an inordinate amount of attention for no other reason than the fact that I was wearing braids, and I had to explain on numerous occasions (unsuccessfully) that braids and dreadlocks are not the same.
My natural hair left out also appears to be an attention grabber too, and I think more so now that it has been cut into a twa (teeny weeny afro). Yes, I’ve been a victim of people sticking their fingers in my hair (without asking). It seems that especially in places where there isn’t a great ethnic diversity, the community is not really acquainted with the etiquette around asking for permission before touching.
An obvious topic which is almost inevitably going to arise if you’re bi-racial is people guessing (successfully or unsuccessfully) where you’re from. When I was at the beachside in Athens, as I was making my way to leave a woman approached me and asked me if I was Indian. I had noticed the woman staring in my general direction for quite some time so I was not really phased by the question. What I was confused about was the fact that she was adamant that I was from India even after I told her I was from the UK and also about my parents’ backgrounds.
The list of misplaced ‘identity’ goes on and on, I’ve been mistaken for Moroccan, Ethiopian, Mexican, Brazilian and have had people approaching me speaking both Arabic, Portuguese, and Spanish. I can say with certainty that this are one of the few times I’ve felt both honoured and embarrassed concurrently.
That brings me onto the next topic; being ‘the exotic.’ If you’re biracial do not rule out the possibility of being approached by people, who I can only guess because they haven’t seen people of your ethnic background, don’t have any other mode of comparisons besides famous celebrities and so will call you Beyonce’s sister.
I feel however, with this ‘exotic’ and ‘unknown’ tag, comes also the need for classification. I’ve seen how for some, their inability to understand me or my cultural backgrounds at first glance makes them feel uncomfortable and leads them to making generalisations. I’ve also learnt however that this is a natural human tendency which I am guilty of aswell. When I was in Gambia and was walking down the street with my mother, people would shamelessly shout toubab which means ‘white (wo)man’. Unlike the general silent stares I sometimes receive travelling through Europe, I feel more at ease with this form of calling me out because they did not just shout toubab for the sole purpose of making me feel discomfort but rather, I was also greeted with handshakes and a crowd of curious children who had all gathered round to see the foreigner.
Be prepared to experience a lot of shameless staring, but do not be enraged by it. I always turn this into a little game and have a staring competition with people. Generally people will feel ashamed after a while and look a way, but some keep on staring. I used to get a little upset by this but I realised it’s mostly the case that these individuals don’t see a lot of different races, especially black people. Paradoxical to the asian/ oriental tourists who have a worldwide reputation, black tourists make up a minority of travellers (especially in eastern Europe) and so in a sense, have not been completely familiarised in the travelling scene. Certain ethic groups never really get stared at because they’re always travelling and of course this changes from individual to individual. I feel that a lot of these stereotypes and pre-assumptions that people have about a certain race are based on their limited interactions with them in their own country or the portrayal of these races in the media.
For example in Italy, with the ongoing immigration crisis, there is a lot of division and racism inspired by the right wing political party which I sometimes feel is also reflected in the attitude of the people. As far back as the ancient roman times and closer in history, grounded in its fascist roots, Italy and Italians are renowned for their homogeny, which has more recently been under ‘threat’ by the influx of immigration from Africa and Eastern Europe.
Having spent a bit of time in Budapest this summer with my friend’s family, I gained an insight into the government’s ostentatious anti immigration policies. Billboards with anti-immigrant messages which urge the Hungarians to vote against the EU’s request for countries to received a quota of immigrants on the October (2016) referendum sadly falls blind to the tourist’s naked eye, however once you’re made aware of it, it’s hard to ignore it after that.
So we had a lot of staring. Interestingly however, when I was visiting my friend in Bulgaria last summer, hardly anyone blinked at eye towards me and at most I noticed that there was more of a dissension between Bulgarians and Romanian ‘gypsies’.
Travelling however and being biracial is important, because you can help dispel these assumptions and change people’s ideas and conceptions when they interact with other people from your race. It’s not all bad and honestly, I have yet to experience any outward forms of racism from my travels. At the most, I’ve experienced ‘excessive’ staring, because they don’t know or are unfamiliar, but you shouldn’t take it badly. Travelling not only breaks down stereotypes but it also helps to educate oneself about the cultures of others which for me, is a most beautiful and rewarding experience.