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The intersection of race and travel: A few lessons to note

Those of us who live in America are reminded of simmering and overt racial tensions far too often. We see it in news images of black effigies being hung from a tree in a front yard while the homeowner goes on record saying that the world shouldn’t be ignorant; he just wanted to make his place scary for Halloween. We also hear it in the quivering voices of grieving family members who, having lost loved ones under questionable circumstances, have had to face intruding cameras to try and make coherent and dignified statements when the justice system sets the aggressors free. And many of us can’t help but connect with the raw emotion of kids like the courageous nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant, who felt compelled to make a desperate plea to her city council to “stop killing our fathers and brothers”.

Image source: Affinity Magazine

Since I write about travel, on the eve of the Martin Luther King holiday, I couldn’t help but ponder how narrow-mindedness and bigotry affect people who go on vacation in this country and abroad. Make no mistake my fellow globetrotters, this sort of incendiary behavior isn’t limited to the United States alone. If a billionaire like Oprah Winfrey can have a retail sales assistant in Switzerland refuse to show her a handbag because she felt she couldn’t afford it, and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s  sister and mother can get screamed at on a train from Milan to Basel when no one else is being treated that way, you’ve got to wake up and smell the coffee. The intersection of race and travel could converge around you!

I wrote about my first encounter with racism here, and I encourage you to read that story when you finish this post. Below, I share a few other incidents that resulted in valuable insights along the way. My experiences may be different from yours, but the lessons are universal.

Lesson #1: In-your-face racism can happen when you least expect it. If you are not in physical danger, stay calm and try not to let it get to you.

I remember once when my family and I went for a dip in a pool at a time-share in Daytona Beach, Florida, and everybody inside suddenly remembered they had someplace else to be – at the exact same time. We simply splashed around for a short while after the mass exodus, then left with our heads held high.

Also, on another occasion when I was on a business trip to West Palm Beach, I went to exercise at the ritzy hotel’s gym that doubled as a private club. Almost immediately, I felt daggers shooting from the eyes of a few older patrons who appeared startled when I displayed a legitimate room key that guaranteed my entry. One gentleman was so put out, he left. With the palpable rancor in the room, I was tempted to leave myself, but I thought of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and memories of the other civil rights activists who risked their lives and limbs so that I could be free to go wherever I pleased. That knowledge kept me rooted in place. Facing the staring squad, I raised eight-pound dumbbells in quiet and dignified defiance.

Lesson #2: Sometimes the encounters are more subtle, which makes it difficult to tell if you’re being profiled because of your race, your accent, or your nationality. It will irk you, but don’t do anything to give the individuals justification to take the harassment to another level.

Case in point: I was pulled out of the immigration line in China and questioned in halting English about the validity of my picture, despite having the required visa (issued by my local Chinese embassy) in my Jamaican passport. After a few moments of apprehension, I was able to figure out the “issue” that caused me to be singled out, while everyone else in line went through without any additional interrogation. They thought I looked older than my passport photo.

A faulty picture? Yeah, right.

Miraculously, upon more detailed review, tangible evidence of access and travel to “first-world” countries in the form of U.S. and U.K visas and stamps seemed to make me less of a possible border threat. Eventually, I was allowed to go.

Lesson #4: On occasion, prejudices can affect your trip budget. Always have access to back up funds you can tap into when faced with unforeseen circumstances. 

Italy remains one of the most alluring countries I’ve ever visited, and I love it, but racist persons reside there too. Years ago, when I took a spring break trip to Europe, my best friend and I were denied entry at an inn in Milan because they mistook us for illegal immigrants. We were students crisscrossing Europe by train with no set itinerary or agenda, and because it was the era before Airbnb and travel apps, we went directly to the tourist board to get help with securing budget-friendly accommodations as soon as we arrived in the city. The officials there gave us recommendations and called ahead to one of the facilities that said it had available rooms.

When we arrived at the address and rang the buzzer at the gate, they spoke to us through the intercom system (which had a prominent camera in place). Suddenly, they had no space.

We argued our case to no avail, and when we went back to the tourist board to let them know what happened, the people there apologized profusely. They called the innkeepers back and challenged them about confirming the space then turning us away, and they admitted to thinking we were not the persons the tourist board had sent over. I still chuckle when I remember that they had the gall to invite us to come back.  Naturally, we were having none of that. It was on to the next prospect, regardless of cost!

Lesson #4: Narrow-mindedness reflects on the individual spewing the hate, not necessarily on everyone who resides in the country you’re visiting. So, never let one negative incident color your overall impression of a place.  

I recall being on a walking tour in Buenos Aires, in which the Mexican-born guide was reciting the city’s history when he mentioned that Argentina was “lucky” they didn’t get any African slaves when the Europeans arrived. To this day, I still wonder if that was a deliberate statement or a factor of details getting lost in translation. His English was not very good, but the guy had been nice to me up to that point. Shortly after boarding the bus he had found out I was Jamaican, and we’d had a brief conversation about my country’s uncanny ability to excel globally in music and sport.

I pondered saying peace out and walking away after that explosive comment,

but it was my one extra day in the city after a week-long conference, and I wasn’t going to allow him to dim my glow. I’d already paid for the tour. Plus, I was getting to spend time with my buddy from college whom I hadn’t seen in years. He was from Argentina, and he assured me that the man’s views were not reflective of his people and his country, so I bit my lip, ignored him, and got back on the bus. Surprise, surprise! The dude turned out to be an equal opportunity abuser with a serious case of verbal diarrhea, because he went on to say unflattering things about people from Paraguay and Chile too.

A few ensuing moments of lulling vehicular motion helped me to zone out the negativity of that “transplant” to the extent that I was able to get through the last hour of the tour.

Lesson #5: There may be individuals who actually feel they have the right to invade your personal space because they consider you intellectually or socially inferior. Stand your ground!

I will never forget the white Afrikaans woman who sat behind me and my mom on a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg. At four o’clock in the afternoon, she decided we had no right to have our window shutter open because she wanted, and was entitled to, a dark cabin to sleep. It didn’t matter that it was about 30 minutes after takeoff, nor that she had an eye-patch issued to her by the airline (like the rest of us), or that the price of her ticket was the same as ours – perks free.

Without any request or other form of conversation, she took it upon herself to reach across my Mom to slam the window shut, brushing her shoulder in the process. We could hear the accompanying harrumph punctuating the self-serving move.

Our jaws almost fell to the floor. Naturally, we were having none of that.

“I beg your pardon!” Mom turned around and said indignantly. My darling mother wasted no time pushing the shutter back up.

The crazy woman then started ranting about how we clearly didn’t know the protocol on international flights, which in her world meant you closed the windows right after takeoff, even if it was still daylight. Seriously, who needs to sleep for 15 hours straight? Of course, I didn’t feel it was important to list how many international flights we’d been on up to that point, but we shut her down nonetheless – in a manner that could never be misconstrued as ‘angry black woman’ mode.

Pretty soon, multiple flight attendants came running over to avert the brewing situation, just as we started getting thumbs up signs and notes of encouragement passed down to us from neighboring passengers who were as outraged as we were at this woman’s pompousness.

She eventually simmered down when she realized no one was taking her side. It took her a little time to realize she wasn’t dealing with ignorant or submissive folk. I won’t bore you with all the details, except to say the incident resulted in me writing and submitting a formal report to the airline about her obnoxious behavior. Upon deplaning, the purser and flight crew met us at the door to apologize again, and to thank us for how well we had handled the situation.

Lesson #6: Don’t let fear of possible racial slurs or uncomfortable situations keep you from pursuing your desire to travel. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and negative incidents are usually few and far between. First ensure your safety, then deal with whatever comes your way with grace and dignity.

In spite of the bad eggs in the bunch, my wanderlust hasn’t ceased, and my travel wish list just keeps growing. When taken by surprise, I always push myself to remember a quote from Nelson Mandela about his time of imprisonment. He said in part, “we would want it [Robben Island] to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness. A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

My country’s most famous icon, Bob Marley, also talked about emancipation and the fact that “none but ourselves can free our minds.” So, I say forward and onward in this generation, my fellow black travelers – triumphantly!

Do you have any stories to share? What happened, and what did you learn from it?

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