The first time I truly became aware of my brownness was at the Beijing Zoo in 2007; I was 17 and traveled to the far east with my black dad and white mom. We were trailed, right on the heels, by a group of five bickering Chinese men. I turned around a few times to smile and did my best not to notice their immediate halts in conversation. Once we got to the panda exhibit, the men circled me to point and laugh while imitating monkeys, and so I did what any insecure teenage girl would do when being ridiculed by men in another world – I cried. My parents were naturally beside themselves. After that, the remainder of the trip was a blur of my father being asked if he was Shaq and if I were part of Destiny’s Child. That singular trip, one of the dozens I’d been on by then, solidified the errant thought that brown people (particularly American), more than any other group, must travel with a purpose.
The stereotypes of Black Americans as perceived by the world, in my experience::
- The men are all rappers
- The men are all gangsters with guns
- Ball is life
- Are impoverished & lazy
- Are every possible Black celebrity
- All listen solely to hip hop
- All smoke weed
- Have super coarse hair
- Brown women are overly sexual
- We all must love President Obama without question solely due to color
In many countries, particularly in my experiences with China, El Salvador, Morocco and a few others, it was assumed that I was some if not most of the list above. It is imperative that as brown people, we are aware of the stereotypes so that we might shake them loose. (Even if you’re lucky enough to never have to personally deal with any). With the Hollywood and music industries spreading these outright, generalized falsehoods like moths to flame, we simply have to accept that we might have a different travel experience from our fairer skinned brethren. The significant increase of brown people traveling for leisure is a wonderful and exciting change in the movement of peoples (finally), but I believe it comes with a certain, evolving duty.
I’m sure that many fellow brown travelers have had similar experiences as mine, both positive and not so much. How about this one – I once was interviewed by a group of young Turkish boys in Istanbul thinking they’d hit the jackpot since I was obviously Rihanna. #LowKeyWin. Traveling while brown is, arguably, a new phenomenon that has the unique potential to massively alter perceptions of an entire people. Slowly, yet deliberately.
While wandering for nine months through Central America in 2015, I made a pit stop in El Salvador, to the cringes and scowls of my fellow gringo-trail backpackers. At the time, I was traveling for a bit with a cool girl I met on the road whom spoke fluent Spanish. We’d been couchsurfing at a private home for several days when we took a chicken bus to the beach for a weekend jaunt. We stopped near a high school and every one of the roughly fifteen students that boarded, firstly stared wide eyed at me and secondly made sure they didn’t sit next to me. I had an entire bus seat for four to myself while every single seat in the bus was thoroughly overcrowded – I got the message loud and clear.
My German friend, was sitting behind me and squeezed my shoulder while I dropped my head a bit. I looked to my left and an older woman had been gazing at me for a long moment before getting up to sit next to me. She touched my arm without hesitation and (through the translation of my friend) asked me not to judge the children of her country too harshly. She told us that as a result of a decades long dictatorship, people of any Afro descent were banned from entering the country. El Salvador had only been opened to tourism for a few years before my arrival there and it was likely that most Salvadorans had actually never seen a brown person, unless they themselves had traveled. She apologized on behalf of her country and asked that I never look down upon myself, that I was beautiful and to allow her country a grace period of catching up. Then she kissed my cheeks and departed. This is purposed travel; this is the true cross cultural teaching that only immersive travel can bestow.
The topic for this post came to mind because as I write this, wandering throughout Spain and Madrid for these two weeks, an interesting set of the same event occurred. Let’s face it, it’s early fall of 2016 and dabbing is all the rage. #EyeRoll. It’s in music videos, on youtube and every preteen InstaGram and Vine available. So the first two times that my best friend/travel mate, Yemi and I were dabbed on by some adorable Spanish kids, we thought it was hilarious. By the fifth and sixth times, with the resultant low-key giggling and gaze aversion of the rest of the kiddie squadron, Yemi and I were confused.
Were we being singled out for looking American (Yemi is British), for being brown, for no reason at all, or for every reason compiled in my earlier list? We tried asking once or twice, but were promptly left in a ring of dust as the kids sprinted away to their teachers. This scene, within five days, happened at least five separate times by different kids. Yemi and I were unsure if we were looking too deeply into it, but by the final time, it did become slightly disconcerting, even if weren’t certain as to why. We have to try to acknowledge that we have an additional purpose when on the road – we can’t just be travelers, we must also be educators. It’s not everyday that an average joe at home can be a role model on vacation. I see it as an honor.
Speaking with a local Palestinian at Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem in a conversation about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and his surprise at me knowing anything at all about the subject, 2011
It’s possible that for big change to occur, people need not only be made aware of the overflowing positives, but also the serious areas of improvement. My hope is that the idea of being a game changer will feel empowering to those of you reading this. I hope that you might feel inspired that little ol you, can make positive and lasting impact with every step onto new land that you endeavor upon. Domestic or abroad, near or far, but every single step is necessary if we want to erase what was and begin writing what is.