For many Black travelers, preparing to visit a destination isn’t just a matter of booking tickets, buying foreign currency or packing a swimsuit. Often it involves mentally preparing to be confronted by something barely mentioned in guidebooks.
Whenever heading to a new destination, certain questions always enter my mind as a Black traveler: How are the locals going to treat me? Will they be welcoming or hostile towards me? What is it like there for Black people?
The more remote the place, the more questions I ask myself.
And yet, even in the face of this insidious and potentially dangerous hurdle, many Black people remain undaunted, believing the joys and rewards of travel to be worth the anguish caused by the intolerance of others.
“I have traveled to many countries despite the fear of racism,” says Kemkem Casinelli, a former pharmacist who now runs the travel blog Next Bite of Life. “I take it as an opportunity to change people’s perceptions.”
But even Casinelli, who was born in Nigeria but moved to the US as a teenager, has her limits. Even prior to the invasion of Ukraine, she says Russia was a no-go for her, having heard first-hand accounts from family members of racism there. “I have no desire to visit.”
The fear of racism while traveling can be hard to grasp for non-Black travelers, especially as many countries outlaw all forms of discrimination.
However – as shown by appalling incidents like the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the hate crime murder of Ahmaud Arbery making headlines in the US, not to mention more casually racist incidents like the arrest of two innocent Black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks – even where it’s illegal it can be a serious problem.
So, it’s hardly surprising that some Black travelers want to know what they can expect in another country, and what will happen to them when they’re there.
These are the same questions that faced Black people during the pre-1965 Jim Crow era of legalized racial segregation in the United States. Back then, they relied on word of mouth and guides such as “The Green Book” to find safe places while on the road.
Fear and apprehension
Although such guidebooks are, officially at least, no longer as urgently needed, decades later the feelings of fear and apprehension persist.
Nadeen White, a US physician who has authored several travel books and writes a travel blog, The Sophisticated Life, says accounts from other Black travelers have made her think twice about certain destinations.
“China gives me pause because of the experiences I have heard of there,” she says. “Black people being stared and pointed at, being asked to take their pictures, touching their hair.
“It is hard to imagine in 2022 that no one has ever seen a Black person in real life before. But I do want to see the Great Wall.”
Some Black people hesitate to travel in their own country.
“There are few places abroad that I have avoided due to racism since I’m more concerned or worried about racism in my home country USA,” says Nicole T. Brewer an English teacher and travel blogger at iluv2globetrot.
Brewer, from Detroit, says she’s fearful of traveling through so-called “sundown” towns – a name given to all-white communities that have historically excluded Black people and minorities – in the US Midwest and South.
Nadeen White expresses similar concerns.
“I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Southern states scare me. Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and even parts of North Carolina and Florida,” she says. “During the past two elections, my husband and I were cautious about traveling to these areas and canceled a road trip to Tennessee.
“Last month I canceled a press trip to North Carolina. It was in an area I was not familiar with and based on the activities and pictures of the place and previous events I was worried that we may not be welcome.”
Compounding this trepidation is the apparent lack of representation of Black people in the travel media and advertisements of many countries.
Black audiences reading accounts written by white travelers about “safe” destinations may still be left thinking,”Great! But is it safe for me?”
Of course Black people do travel, and in large numbers. Black leisure travelers in the United States spent $109.4 billion on travel in 2019, according to a report from MMGY Global, a US marketing agency.
In my experience, many non-Black people are surprised, even shocked, when they find out that Black people do research related to racism before they travel.
“I do think of potential racism before traveling. However, it hasn’t stopped me,” says Casinelli. “I refuse to let other people’s problems dictate my travels.”
Tayo Jaiyesimi, a British travel blogger who publishes the Five to Nine Traveller blog, also says that she factors in potential discrimination while abroad.
“I just know I’ll be stared at and stand out and I could encounter it,” she says, “but I just accept that it’s possible in any country, be it Russia with perceived racism, or Portugal where I actually had racist behavior directed at me.”
Friends and family can also create subtle obstacles to the travel dreams of Black people.
“Are you sure you want to go there? Is it safe for us?” are common questions.
“I currently live abroad in Oman and many people were concerned about me moving to the Middle East.” says Brewer.
“Some relatives don’t like me visiting places where there is not a prominent Black population but do you know how incredibly restrictive that would be to my travels if I had that mindset?”
For those Black travelers prepared to make the journey to faraway lands, the experience can be fantastic and enriching: breathtaking landscapes, delicious food and friendly locals.
Several years ago, I traveled in Central Asia, taking in countries including Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Finding basic travel information about visa policies, things to do, how to get there and so on wasn’t difficult, but there was nothing on the Internet about Black travelers’ experiences in the region.
Although this made me nervous, I was determined to go there. And fortunately, everything went fine, and I discovered people there were happy to see Black faces.
Yet even the return home with fond vacation memories can be clouded by the pragmatism of Black friends asking: “How was it?” – a question that often implies, “How racist was it?”
“I’ve gotten questions about traveling throughout Europe, Asia, et cetera, about if I’ve dealt with racism,” says Brewer. “I primarily tell them that I’ve dealt more with curiosity about being a Black woman abroad than racism.”
All seasoned globetrotters, whatever their skin color, develop a sense for staying safe on the road. And over time and with experience, Black travelers realize that most of the time, everything goes fine.
Locals may stare at you or ask to get a picture with you because they’re not used to seeing a Black person in the flesh, but that’s it.
Moreover, let’s face it, it’s impossible for a whole country to be racist, no matter how small the country is.
One African-American couple I met in Rome recounted to me the story of how they’d been nervous about making the trip until certain ironies were pointed out.
“How can you be scared to go to Italy when you live in the US?” they were asked by a Black Canadian.
They conceded the point, booked their tickets for Italy and had one of the best vacations of their lives.
And as Tayo Jaiyesimi points out, while travel broadens the mind of the visitor, it can also broaden the minds of those visited.
“People will never know about Black people and how we really are, not how the media portrays us, if they don’t meet us,” she says. “We are not a monolith. Us traveling shows so many of our individual selves to populations where we are a minority.”
Top image credit: Courtesy Roobens Fils
Roobens Fils is a Black travel blogger from Paris who shares his travel experiences on his website Been Around The Globe. He’s the author of “Traveling While Black.”