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, 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 I was a kid, 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 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 remembered Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and 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. More like an unfamiliar and “third world” passport.

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 that 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 unfortunately there are people with biased predispositions residing 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 African 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, as soon as we arrived in the city we went directly to the tourist board to get help with securing budget-friendly accommodations. 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 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. out of the blue, 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 cricket, and 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. I’ll confess there was a certain amount of poetic justice to the fact that he had to drop me off last – the only black person on the bus –  at The Four Seasons.

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. At the same time, 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. And do it triumphantly!

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

My brief tango with Argentina

One of the greatest things about the tango is that it has infinite possibilities. There are no fixed rules for timing, speed, or direction and that freedom allows dancers to improvise and live ‘in the moment’.

Some of my best vacation moments happen when I do just that – live in the moment. That’s why I took an extra vacation day to do a quick dance with Argentina after my business conference in June 2010. After three days of touring nothing but plush yet generic meeting room space, I desperately craved a dalliance. Day four was my ballroom and Buenos Aires was my partner. I set my own pace and timing.

The conference was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of Buenos Aires. Regrettably, I didn’t get remotely close to the country’s famed snow-tipped mountains in the South Chilean border. Nor did I see the magnificent natural beauty of the Perito Moreno Glacier, or any of Iguazu’s breathtaking waterfalls.

Former castle coverted to hotel
A former castle that I snow a hotel

However, what I did see was impressive Spanish Colonial Architecture – with Italian and French influences; fashionably dressed porteños; and a thriving Buenos Aires arts scene. Plus, some of the best leather products on the planet. Luckily, I escaped credit card purgatory by consciously avoiding the handbag stores.

But I couldn’t stay away from the shoes. I tried to be strong, and was quite happy I only ended up buying a pricey pair of thigh high boots. They were SO worth it!!! Let me tell you something, those hot patches of leather shoot my swagger through the roof every time I wear them. Rihanna WHO? In them, I’m the one who is totally badass!

World Cup Fever

Perhaps the best part of my impromptu vacation was the fact that I got to experience a part of the Argentine culture that only kicks into high gear every four years. You could call it World Cup Mania. I toured the official World Cup Village and felt the nervous yet expectant energy bouncing off everyone I interacted with. The love of the game was clear.

2010 World Cup Headquarters
2010 World Cup Headquarters

Massive billboards and posters of their star athletes lined the city center. Blue and white jerseys displayed national pride from every shop window, and everything – speech, transactions, productivity, sheer movement – stopped when a match was in progress. The same thing happens in my country when we watch the track and field events during the Olympic Games.

City Tour

Did I forget to mention that one of my college friends is from Argentina? Lucky for me, he lives in Buenos Aires and he agreed to play tour guide and translator for most of my free day.

We took a three hour bus tour, and did some walking on our own.

The three icons of Arentina_Maradona, Evita Peron,Carlos Gardel
The three icons of Argentina – Maradona, Evita Peron,Carlos Gardel

At various stops along the route, we walked down the colorful streets of el Caminito in La Boca; stopped for tea or coffee in a local cafe, and took pictures at notable landmarks like Maradona’s statue and the Casa Roda. The latter is a baby pink mansion that houses a museum and the executive office of the President of Argentina. La Casa Rosada (equiv of the White House)

While walking, I also caught the tail-end of a union strike. Police battalions were out in large numbers to force back the expected crowds. Strikes appeared to be commonplace occurrences.

In the evening, I went to see a dinner and dance show with one of the conference delegates. My college buddy had ditched me at that point because he refused to watch a dance show for tourists. Well, there was no way I was going to leave Buenos Aires without seeing the famous Argentine tango.

The Argentine Tango
The Argentine Tango

The performances were elegant, energetic and fun to watch. Yo no podía quejarme de nada. _______

Editor’s Notes:

As is the case with any other big city, you need to walk with your wits about you in Buenos Aires. At the dance show, an elderly couple told me that they were robbed on the subway.  The thief used a coughing and hacking technique to get into the husband’s personal space. He lost US $100 and his wallet in the process

Despite my overwhelmingly positive experience in Buenos Aires, I must admit that I had one negative episode myself.  It involved a rather pathetic individual  who spouted a racially discriminatory comment during a tour.

The slight wasn’t directed at me in particular but I’ll be honest, my blood literally ran cold at that moment. I thought long and hard about what to do or say and eventually took the high road.  Especially after I realized that the man was an equal opportunity abuser. He had nothing good to say about Americans, Chileans, Peruvians or Brazilians either.  The irony was that for all his arrogance, he was an immigrant who was in a dead-end job; obviously bitter and frustrated with his circumstance.  Tres touché!