What It Means to Be a Black Traveler

"I will confidently take up space as a proud Black traveler. Because I do belong."

Vanessa Wilkins personal travel photos from Childhood at Old Faithful
Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Wilkins

“They’re staring at us because they’ve probably never seen a Black person in real life before.”

That was just one of many hard truths my parents would have to explain to my siblings and me as we navigated our way through the world as Black travelers. This week, all eyes have been glued on America, as thousands of protestors from every state call for justice after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as equal opportunities for the Black community. I have spent much of my week reflecting on my own personal experiences with racism, and specifically because travel means so much to me, I wanted to share my experience of traveling while Black.

Vanessa Wilkins personal travel photos from Lisbon
Courtesy of Vanessa Wilkins

As a child, my parents taught my siblings and me the importance of appreciation and respect for different cultures through travel. We learned about Bollywood in Pune, practiced French in Sancerre, and admired the pyramids in Giza. Being exposed to so many people from diverse backgrounds at a young age shaped me into the tolerant and worldly adult I am today. But as we became accustomed to interacting with people of all colors and shades, my parents had to remind us that not everyone would want to interact with ours.

Vanessa Wilkins personal travel photos from Childhood in India
Courtesy of Vanessa Wilkins

In the Black community, there is no use sugarcoating racism. My siblings and I were taught to be hyper-vigilant of how we acted, dressed, and spoke, and to always be aware of our surroundings because “some people just don’t like Black people.” We had this lesson drilled into our heads extra hard any time we packed for another trip, because in some cases, the racism abroad is even more hostile than in the United States. Growing up, what I remember the most were the stares. Some stares were curious, like a child who may have never seen braided or kinky hair in their life. Others were skeptical, like the waiter wondering if we could afford to eat at their restaurant. And some were simply cold. Their opinion of my skin transcended any language barriers. There were all different types of stares, but the eyes all implied the same thing: You don’t belong.

Despite that ever-present awareness of our Blackness, my parents never stopped persisting in their mission to show us the world. They taught us to ignore the stares, and pushed us to take up space. It’s one of the most important lessons they taught me.

Vanessa Wilkins personal travel photos from Paris
Courtesy of Vanessa Wilkins

As I got older and began to travel more on my own, I started to experience the blatant racist experiences my parents prepared me for. There was the time I took a business trip to Barcelona, and a waiter was so outwardly racist toward me during a dinner with co-workers that I couldn’t even stay until the end of the meal. Or, the local man I met in Iceland who was convinced that he could call me the N-word because he hears it so much in Black American music. When I speak with fellow Black travelers about countries I’d like to visit, I get warnings that I may be mistaken for a prostitute or a thief, so to make sure I “look as American as possible” to avoid confusion.

Vanessa Wilkins personal travel photos from Iceland
Courtesy of Vanessa Wilkins

But just like my parents, despite these negative experiences, I still love to travel, and won’t let racism stop me from going out into the world. Because I shouldn’t have to shrink myself to make others feel comfortable. I am Black, I am proud, and I matter just as much as anybody else.

This week, in addition to the millions of Americans in the streets demanding justice, I was especially moved by the strong shows of support for the Black community from countries around the world. The solidarity marches in Paris, Cape Town, Auckland, Copenhagen, and so many more international cities remind me that despite our distance and our differences, there is a lot more that connects us than divides us.

Travel inherently teaches tolerance. It opens our minds to new cultures, forces us to embrace different experiences, and encourages compassion and empathy for others. When we are able to travel again, I will confidently take up space as a proud Black traveler. Because I do belong.

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