For Black Women, World Travel Means Overcoming Invisible Obstacles
Travel influencers get real about traveling while Black.
Black travelers spent an astonishing $63 billion in 2018, according to Mandala Research. That's a tremendous impact, up from $48 billion in 2010. Yet exploring travel culture online, you'd think Black people don't travel at all.
Scrolling Instagram Explore presents a parade of white faces mugging across all seven continents. Travel ads seldom purposely include people of color, especially Black people. Aspirational travel narratives are whitewashed. For many, these trends don't just make globetrotting seem exclusionary. They make it appear as though Black travelers are nonexistent in global experiences.
In this moment of reckoning, change is on everybody's mind. And in a travel-media complex where Black narratives are missing from the mainstream, that change is long overdue.
On the frontlines of representation are groups like Black Travel Alliance, a collective of content creators seeking to amplify Black voices. Their efforts include the #PullUpForTravel social media campaign, which aims to hold travel brands accountable for hiring, supporting, and retaining Black employees in their companies, events, and decision-making processes.
Efforts like this make a huge difference in representation, and that trickles down to social media. Scrolling down my timeline and taking in all of the colorful images and videos of these women living their best lives in places like Cappadocia, Mykonos and Shibuya is an act of self-care. Seeing people who look like me make me want to pack my bags and travel.
But behind the scenes, even the most well-traveled and respected women in travel face unseen hurdles. Every unique travel story by a Black woman contains a unified tale of resilience, caution, and awareness. I spoke with some of the most influential Black women in travel to peek behind the curtain at the long path ahead.
Trip planning includes researching the racial climate
Every traveler plans around cost, geography, and meals. But for Black travelers, there's another layer: The need to consider an area's racial climate.
International social worker Sojourner White -- who uses her blog and IGTV series to build bridges between education and travel -- said researching the amount of Black people that live in the area is one of the first things she does when deciding where to travel. And for much of that intel, she relies on the Black-traveler community.
“Following them and hearing and reading about their experience has been helpful,” said White, who lived in Spain and has spent time in Mexico, Portugal, Amsterdam, London, and Berlin. “When you have Black voices who are the writers of their own stories, I think it's impactful because it can help the rest of us contextualize something.”
Emmanuela Stanislaus, a Brooklyn native and creator of Jetsetter’s Diary, said she also takes other Black travelers’ opinions on locations into account when choosing the next place to visit. Her primary areas of travel include countries within the African diaspora, the Caribbean, and the US.
“If they say people haven’t been welcoming or they’ve been treated a certain way, that’s definitely something that I think about, although it may not keep me from going to a place,” said Stanislaus. “Sometimes it’s important to experience it yourself and develop your own opinion, because it could have been an isolated incident.”
People will constantly question where you’re from
A year ago, I visited New York for the first time in preparation for my big move to the city. It was a humid, sunny 95-degree weather day and I was standing on the subway platform, drenched in sweat.
“I love your hair,” a high-pitched voice squealed behind me. I turned around and saw a woman about my age beaming as she gazed up at my crown of curls.
I thanked her, and was about to turn around and continue staring down the dark tunnel when she asked where I was from. Skeptical, I told her I was from Georgia. Then the question I’d come to dread echoed around the platform.
"No, I mean where are you really from?"
It was as if I couldn’t have possibly been born on the same soils my ancestors built America upon. My brown skin and coily hair ran contrary to what she thought a person from Georgia should look like.
Unfortunately, this question and idea that Black people are the “other” in the states because of our appearance isn't exclusive to the US. All around the world, the assumption is that if you're American (or even if you're not), you have to fit a specific mold. And usually, that mold is centered around the white gaze.
“The whole question of ‘What part of Africa are you from?’ It's not the racism that, coming from the US, I was used to,” White said. “I don't know if they're serious or not, but when people start to debate me by saying ‘No you can't be from the US,’ like what does that even mean?”
You may feel like you’re on display
If you were to step into a room of 100 people and you were the only person of your identifying gender, race, age, or sexual orientation, you’d naturally feel uncomfortable. As Black travelers, being surrounded by people who don't look like us is all too common. And that can make us magnets for unwanted attention and comments.
Longtime travel blogger and TV host Oneika Raymond, who started her first blog in 2005 and her current one in 2009, has faced both sides of this othering spectrum. During a solo trip to Mongolia, Raymond stayed with two different families in a Mongolian ger. The families did not speak English, but she said there was still a connection present because they were curious about her and she was also just as curious about them.
“It was really cool to go somewhere where people were respectful,” Raymond said. “Obviously they saw that I was a Black person and they were really interested in that, but they were really respectful in their interactions and I was equally as intrigued by them. We had this connection that was as on a level playing field.”
That positive and welcoming experience was the opposite of her feelings in other locations.
“Oftentimes I'll go somewhere, especially in Asia like mainland China or South Korea where I'm an anomaly, a spectacle, and an attraction,” she said. “People are grabbing at me, trying to grab at my hair, looking at me, and they're taking pictures without my permission.”
“People were actually laughing and pointing at me and looking at me like I was an animal. I felt like I was on display in a zoo."
While these reactions come about as a result of homogeneity in countries visited by travelers, Raymond expressed her frustration with feeling like an “exhibit.” People might think their attention is flattering, but these actions can be deeply uncomfortable -- especially for Black travelers who reside in the US, where our physical features have been mocked, insulted, capitalized on, and (very poorly) imitated.
“Usually I don't mind it, to be honest, but a year and a half ago I traveled to Uzbekistan and that's the first time in a really long time that it bothered me,” Raymond said. “People were actually laughing and pointing at me and looking at me like I was an animal. I felt like I was on display in a zoo. Don't get me wrong, I love the country and I thought it was really interesting and it's stunning visually, but I felt very uneasy with the way I was perceived and the reactions that I got.”
Gabby Beckford, a co-founder of the Black Travel Alliance and the full-time traveler behind Packs Light, had similar experiences. During a trip to the Republic of Georgia, Beckford said she felt like she was the only Black person in the entire country. Once, she was even asked to pose for a photo with a stranger's baby.
“I did not see a single Black person, and luckily, no one was racist, but people did stare and gawk,” Beckford said. “The friends I made in different countries would be like, ‘Hey, I wanted to ask this for months, but can I touch your hair?’ because they’ve just never seen hair like mine.”
The most racist encounters occur in the US
While racism is not unique to the US, several of the Black travelers I talked to agreed on one thing: they’ve experienced more racism and microaggressive behavior in the States more than any other country they've traveled to.
This isn't super surprising. Many Black Americans, myself included, possess an inner hesitance of exploring the world out of a deep-seeded fear that we will face discrimination, be stopped by the police for “not belonging in the area,” or end up being killed or injured just for existing. Experiencing racism is a form of trauma that takes a huge toll on our mental health. In times of increased visibility and devaluation, these feelings of travel fear can heighten, especially when the spread of COVID-19 in other countries makes us the target of racial profiling and discrimination.
But even with cards stacked against us, we show up. We persevere and we don’t let the ignorance and hatred of the world stop us from exploring, which is why Raymond -- who’s originally from Toronto and has previously lived in Hong Kong for five years -- said that if you are Black and are on the fence about traveling, go anyway.
“Be well informed of the potential peril, but don't let fear of racism keep you at home.”
“I would say just go because to be completely honest with you the most racist country I've ever been to is the US of A,” she said. “The USA is the most anti-Black, racist country I have ever been to. And so anything, especially if you are a Black person living in the US trust me, it's way worse here than it is overseas.”
Raymond then went on to explain how probably as a Black American, you will likely benefit from American privilege when you travel to these places overseas anyway.
“They'll see that you're Black, but then they'll understand that you are a Black American, and so you might end up being a benefactor of American privilege, which is highly problematic but that may put somebody at ease,” said Raymond, who has addressed this troublesome privilege before. “Go and experience it for yourself and obviously be well informed of the potential peril, but don't let fear of racism keep you at home.”
“I hate to say it, but I've experienced more acts of racism in my own country than I have abroad, and it's typically in day to day interactions as opposed to on my travel,” Murray said. “I tend to avoid countries or cities that have a racist reputation among the Black travel community.”
Diverse countries can equal comfort
Murray said that while she's felt comfortable in less-diverse European cities, her favorite region to visit is the Caribbean, and suggested starting there or Central America to get more comfortable with traveling outside of the states, specifically along the Caribbean coast of Belize, Honduras, or Guatemala.
“You will be in a majority Black or Brown destination, which should make for a more comfortable experience, especially as you venture out among the local population and off the resorts,” she said.
If the thought of international travel brings you anxiety due to not being around people who look like you, a general rule of thumb may be to start with traveling to areas in the States with a large amount of people who do.
"I'd recommend starting off small, whether that means visiting a nearby city or visiting a destination with a large black population," said Ciara Johnson, solo travel guru and the voice behind her blog, Hey Ciara. "This can really help to find a sense of familiarity in different environments, while still having the opportunity for new exposure."
Stanislaus’ main areas of travel focus on places within the African diaspora, with some of her favorite destinations to visit being Tulum, Grenada, and St. Lucia.
“One of the things that I really concentrate on when I travel is going to places that are part of the African diaspora. I just think that’s super important, and now especially,” Stanislaus said. “For me, I was like I could always go to Europe, I could always go to Spain and places like that. But the way that I’m set up, I really don’t want to give more exposure to those countries that were very central to the Atlantic slave trade. I’ve concentrated a lot on the Caribbean and Mexico and hoping to expand into South America too.”
The Stylish Trotter founder Victoria Alao began her life as a traveler in 2016 with a trip to Colombia. “I just liked the idea of being out of the country and that was my first time being out of my comfort zone,” she said. “I liked the idea of being away and just seeing new cultures.”
Alao showcases many of the locations she’s been to on her Instagram, including Sri Lanka, Cabo Rojo and the Chai Lai Orchid in Thailand. She told me she didn’t remember any times where she experienced racism while traveling abroad, but she definitely has in the States.
“Growing up in Nigeria, I didn't realize that I was a Black woman because when I was in Nigeria, I was just surrounded by a lot of Black people,” she said. “So you don't look at yourself with your color because you're surrounded by everybody of the same color. In Nigeria, I was just a Yoruba girl.”
The Yoruba people are one of the three largest ethnic groups found primarily in southwest Nigeria. Once Alao moved to the United States in 2007 and participated in an internship, she then realized that she was a Black woman in American because of the amount of racism she experienced.
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What comes next?
The thread that links all of the travelers’ experiences together is the collective agreement that representation of Black people in the travel industry needs improvement. It is unfortunate that it took the murder of Black men, women, and children for the rest of the world to wake up and realize that we do in fact matter and exist in a variety of entities, including travel.
On Packs Light, Beckford has a page dedicated to funded travel opportunities, including scholarships, grants, fellowships and trips that she encourages young people to take advantage of.
“I would like to see long-term representation and inclusion, of course, but I would also like to see not just pictures of Black girls in magazines, but also more in-depth stories,” Beckford said. “I'd like to know where they're from. Just using Black people as props in marketing is not attractive to me. I would like to see more original Black narratives being shared.”
Alao emphasized the importance of brands recognizing the value of Black life and experiences, but added that the recognition shouldn’t go away even after our pain disappears from headlines.
“I think it's good that all these brands are saying that Black lives matter and are with the movement now, but I'm really hoping it's not just temporary support,” she said. “We need this 365 days, all year, every year. It shouldn't just be a moment.”
For Murray, traveling has always been a significant component in her life, so Black representation in the industry is a priority.
“My parents and their parents were world travelers, so I guess I could say it's in my blood,” she said. “It's one of the reasons why representation in travel media is so important to me, because the narrative that Black people don't travel is simply false.”
Raymond, who hosts Travel Channel’s digital series Big City, Little Budget and One Bag and You're Out, said it’s been hard for Black women in the travel industry because there are fewer opportunities -- and they’re not getting jobs that would allow them to share their diverse voices and perspectives about travel. Along with more representation in the media, she also wants to see more resources for travel for marketing allocated toward Black travelers.
“I absolutely want to see more diversity in the travel space.I think the travel industry is very white centric, male centric, and it's very ableist,” Raymond said. “Even people with physical disabilities for example or differently abled people are excluded by and large from the travel industry in terms of destination marketing and things of that nature.”