traveling while black.

african, discrimination, prejudice, race, travelingwhileblack

Growing up in the predominantly black suburb of Stone Mountain, Georgia perhaps shrouded me from ever feeling like I was different. I grew up submerged in sea of other people who looked like me, spoke like me, listened to the same music as me. There was no clear separation. It wasn’t until I went away to school at Mercer University that I grasped what it meant to be within the minority.

And being in the glaring minority was only amplified, to gross, sweeping levels when I moved to Madrid in the fall of 2013. I had never experienced the phenomena of being the “only one” because I was always one of many, many, many others who were just like me. I had never identified with the isolation, confusion and frustration of constantly having to navigate my (literal) physical space within others who were not like me and clearly did not understand me, nor where they committed to, in the very least, of being tolerant of those like me. I never had to stuff down the constant anguish of doling out explanations of who I was for the sake of sanity or knowing, intimately, how a little bit of you dies and breaks off each time you have to negotiate within yourself to do it.

Maybe if I was more deluded, more in denial, more oblivious, I could pretend one of my greatest passions behind writing (ahem) and cooking — travel — bears some affect when my race comes into the picture. And no, I’m not just pulling the “race card,” holding a chip on my shoulder, being overly sensitive or reading too into things. This is something I know firsthand from the several experiences I’ve had over the past year, when me, my Black self, was jetting around the world in search of adventure, and I realized, a sober realization, that doing so was a revolutionary act in itself.

I can reflect on London, strolling the cobblestone streets. My feet, exposed and uncovered frozen solid, my teeth chattering, the layers of clothing I attempted to wear still rendering me frigid. Eating a kabob loaded with pickled red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, succulent lamb juicy and bursting with flavor and a cooling yogurt sauce, dripping onto my the front of shirt, laughing with my cousin and his friends. Staring bright-eyed, in childlike wonder, through the wrought iron gates, speckled with gold leaves which looked as delicate as foil, at Buckingham Palace at the change of the guards, the guards clad in morose, somber grey posts instead of the red pea coats I thought I’d see.

But I only, mostly remember, slapping a vibrant head wrap on my head the wee hours of my departure before heading to London Gatwick airport. I remember, vividly, being asked if my head wrap was donned for religious reasons and when I shrugged in confusion, leading the border control agent to believe I meant no, urging me to remove my headwrap, exposing my nappy natural hair, my TWA, matted to my head. I remember her roughly fingering my hair, attempting to feel my roots but only snagging my kinky coils, and causing me to yelp in pain. And being asked, with vitriol and aggression leaking in her voice, only seconds later, to remove my shoes, although I was originally told I could keep them on.

I can reflect on Brussels, stumbling into Grand Place, where one of the most ornate, beautiful and awe struck cathedrals I’ve seen with my naked eyes — outside of The Duomo in Milan and the Catedral de Sevilla in Sevilla — or pushing my way through the Godiva where the smell of freshly churned chocolate tickled my nostrils and aroused my taste buds. I remember the nine hours I spent there, not knowing a word of French. Eyes being cut at me, like I was a suspicion, a threat, someone to be feared. People bursting my bubble of boundaries, demanding I answer them in French, because of course, I’m Black. My skin is brown. I have to be African which means I most likely speak French. But I didn’t. Not then, not now.

But I only most remember, going through passport control at the Brussels airport and the officer looking at me stunned, blown away and utterly bewildered. After looking at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport and up at me and down at my passport, he cocked his head to side and peered at me and asked, “What happened?”

I squinted back at him and stuttered, not sure what I was supposed to say. And okay, maybe I did look different. In my passport photo, I had honey blonde hair stringy and broken off and in person, I had a dark haired (my natural hair color) nappy coils which were short and low cut. But did I really look that different? My face looked the same. These were the microaggressions. The demands to explain.

I could also go into grave detail about how dozens of times I’ve been “randomly selected” to undergo extra screening before jetting off to a new locale. Asked more questions then necessary. My belongings being rustled through for an indeterminate amount of time, threatening me to miss my flight. Or being stared at like I have three heads when out and about in a foreign city. Or feeling like I was abnormal or strange because of the color of my skin. The whispering, the pointing, the slower than slow service because of my brown face, because of course, I’m not deserving of the customer service that other, White customers, receive.

But I think you get the point. I think you can see that I’m not exaggerating. That these are very real micro aggressions which can wear on someone who is so determined to see as much as the world as possible but when other people are determined to remind you of the global appeal of anti-Blackness. How Black faces being unwanted isn’t just an American construct and how it is a global one, in every truest sense of concept, one bolstered by colonialism and White supremacy coursing through the veins of every living soul.

And yes, many will argue with my passport, my blue passport emblazoned with a gold eagle on the front presents me with a horde of privilege. But let’s also be real — what difference does my blue passport really make, that when whomever flips it open to the photo page, and they see my un-American name? When they look at it, and instantly, know it’s not American? When they know I’m foreign, in some sense of the word, and decide, right then and there, to discriminate?

Many others will tell me that yes, as a Black woman, a tall Black woman, I’m warranted the stares and the ogling I get whenever I go somewhere where I’m not in the majority. People will tell me to expect it. That it’s just because I’m tall, as a I stand, statuesque at almost six feet. And in the same breath, they’ll also tell me to extend an olive branch, to be more understanding of their confusion and the subsequent ignorance which arises in their questions and their ignorance. They’ll tell me explain, to be a good example, to be a representative on behalf of countless others.

But dammit. That isn’t me. The me I am, the me I have grown to be, isn’t interested in that. The me I am isn’t interested in extending nary of even a damn twig branch. The me I am isn’t here to be your bridge to cultural understanding. The me I am isn’t here to be representative of what it means to be Black, to be Black American, to be African. The me I am doesn’t want (or ask) to be affronted with the different treatment and surely doesn’t want to be exhausted to have to bother to explain. To me I am understands that Black American and Africans aren’t a monolithic group. That there are differences and wavelengths that vary along gender, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic levels. And to be asked to be a representative is insulting and denounces the vasty amount of diversity that exists within us, among us.

I understand my existence, for most, is audacious. That daring to be a Black American and African woman who is unapologetically proud of who she is…unfathomable. But who I am is who I am. Who I am is proud. Who I am is authentic. And who I am won’t stop daring to see the world, one city, one town, one country, one continent at at time. And the who I am doesn’t ever want to, have to, desire to, have to explain.

paris

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obstinate othering.

Uncategorized

Somewhere in-between all the hey day, thousands of adjustments, millions of failures and just plain trying to figure shit out, five months have passed since the green light flashed and I said a resounding, “Yes!” to living my life as an expatriate.

I’ve changed addresses twice. I’ve made fast friends with people only to realize the people I befriended I couldn’t stand. I’ve quit teaching jobs (and of course, been fired, heh)  and re-embraced the philosophy central behind the reason I left my life behind in the States–my comfy lifestyle with my expensive car and driving to a job everyday that I hated–slowing down enough to be present to enjoy the gifts life offers. I’ve started writing more, or should I say consistently, versus going days, weeks and months without trying to make sense of life as it unfolds with my words. I’ve cooked the most amazing meals of my life in a kitchen the size of a pantry and an oven the size of a shoebox. I’ve slept in twin sized beds so little and compact my feet dangle off the edge if I don’t sleep in the fetal position.

While so many things have changed, while various components of life as I know it, my Madrid experience as I refer to it when I’m all by my lonesome, other things have remained static, unchanging and rather, things I’ve not wanted to consciously deal with or think about so most of the time I (try to) ignore them.

The ill-fated r word: race. And it’s dear friend, the ill-fated cousin: racism.

When I was home for Christmas, many people asked me if there were many “Black people” in Madrid. So many people looked at me, doe-eyed, wanting to know if there was an inkling of people of color, people who looked like me or them. Most of them were shocked or confused (or both) when I declared there weren’t and that because I was one of the few and I was quite tall, it made me a spectacle. I found (and still find everyday) stares lingering far past the typical “Spanish stare.”

But the way Spaniards deal with race in particular is quite…interesting. They won’t come out and say really prejudiced and racist things that would shed light on the way they view other races and other people in general that are different from them.  Instead they box those “other people” into these neat little categories. I suppose categories which make it more comfortable to wrap their minds diversity and enable them to distance themselves of the concept of being open to the concept of diversity altogether.

Here’s a relevant example I’ve received from Spaniards as well as fellow expats quite a bit:

There’s this neighborhood in Madrid, which, although I don’t go there often is easily my favorite. It’s called Lavapiés, also known as a vibrant, thriving melting pot of culture.

Image

Buildings lining the street in Lavapiés on a sunny, sultry Sunday evening.

The first few times I ventured to the barrio I was in search of delicious food because the bland and greasy Spanish dishes weren’t quite hitting the spot. I’ve had delicious Indian food on a table lining the streets while languages whooshed past my ears that certainly wasn’t Spanish and enjoyed the tastiest tacos with equally invigorating margaritas in the same barrio as well.

Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and numerous other ethnicities call this barrio home. I love being in that neighborhood because there I feel less like an alien. I can look onto to the faces of people who look like me, who are clearly different, whose heritage is closely aligned like mine and for once, I don’t feel shame. I don’t feel inclined to try to ignore the racist rubs and inclinations I’m faced with almost daily.

When the subject of the neighborhood has arisen naturally in conversation with either my students or others of Spanish descent or fellow expats or even other immigrants here who aren’t those of color, they say the same sort of things. They frown up at the neighborhood. They immediately say the neighborhood is composed of immigrants, as if it is bad thing. They’ll say the area is notorious for crime and to “watch your purse and belongings” if you venture there. They’ll also mention the alleged bed bug infestation and how the buildings look dirty and the area is dirty in general. There’s never a positive nod to the abundance of rich culture there.

And it reminds me of the same notions from back in the States. As an Atlanta native, these are the exact same sentiments I’d hear about people not going to “that part” of Decatur or Stone Mountain or Lithonia on the Eastside or anywhere on the Southside past a certain time because of course “thugs” abound. Because of course, any area where there are a lot of people of color there’s sure to be crime and it’s not safe and it’s not anywhere anyone would want to be. Right?

I used to live in Tetuán, a surburb roughly 20 minutes north of Madrid. I only lived there for three months and moving from there had much more to do with me not liking being compadres with the three cats and dogs (along with three human roommates). I got sick of cat hair being on all my belongings and also being so far from the city center. The commute drained and depleted me. But again, if you ask many people their opinion of this barrio, all negative. They’ll mention, immediately, the number of immigrants. And how the area isn’t pretty to look at. And how there’s nothing to do there. Same things said about Lavapiés.

But these notions, these reactions, these thoughts I’m continually bombarded with has me thinking: is this how I am viewed when I’m just innocently walking around, commuting on the Metro, eating in a restaurant? Are people in Madrid automatically thinking negative things when they see my face or are they already internalizing the type of person they think I am because of the media and other negative interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, to be Black, to be African?

As I’ve stated before, I’m not interested in changing any aspect of me just to fit in or be desirable and to not get the rampant amount of lingering stares. But at one point or another, one has to wonder whether or not it’s truly worth calling yourself a temporary resident of a country, despite its beauty and slower pace of life and many, many, many enjoyable things, that in one way or another is committed to misunderstanding you, to othering you and plain out making you feel like you don’t belong.