Photo: Ilene Perlman/Shutterstock

Shared Skin Color Doesn't Equal Connection

by Tayler B Ulmer Apr 25, 2014

Whether the Caribbean, Latin America, or Africa, traveling to a predominately black location can be difficult as a black traveler. The cultural and historical diversity within the African diaspora has created uniquely connected yet disconnected cultures, traditions, and identities. As a black traveler in countries with an African presence, your skin color, race, identity, and racial authenticity are constantly being shaped, challenged, and broadened.

I have always been black. Blackness has been ingrained in me since I was a youngster in Chicago, and it is very much so a part of my identity. However, my blackness was constantly challenged this past semester when I had the opportunity to study abroad and live with host families in a variety of communities in South Africa. As a black woman in Cape Town, South Africa, given their racial theories and categories, my race, ethnicity, and heritage were confronted on a daily basis.

Black Americans are a diverse community that have a variety of skin tones and hair textures, but because of this diversity we can occupy a complex position in South Africa. My identity oscillated between black and coloured, a racial group in South Africa that denotes black, European, and Asian ancestry. Many times, it was through my voice rather than my appearance that people realized I wasn’t from there. Unlike members of my cohort, I had a privilege of ambiguity, where onlookers questioned my identity.

Until I opened my mouth and South Africans realized I was American, the ways in which I was perceived and classified solely based on phenotypical characteristics impacted the ways in which people responded to me and uniquely shaped my overall experience. I recall a particular day when my friend CJ (who happens to be white) and I got on a taxi in Langa, a black township right outside of Cape Town. The driver turned around and began to speak Xhosa to me. Even after I told him I only spoke English, he continued to speak in Xhosa. After a minute of talking in Xhosa and me responding in only English, he finally spoke to me in English and told me I should accept my blackness and not conform. Clearly, he did not hear my American accent, but he consistently wanted to push his conceived identity on me despite my own as a black American.

When I lived in Langa, my host-family accepted me as a black person in their community. When I arrived, I wore my hair in either a big afro or braided. My Langa mother’s friend even told me “I could be a part of the family.” They knew I was an American, but I was able to physically blend with them and the people in the neighborhood.

There have been countless accounts of black Americans returning to the “motherland” and not being accepted as they thought they would be.

Interestingly enough, when I moved to the Cape Malay “coloured” community I was again accepted, but now as a part of the coloured community. In Bo Kaap, a Cape Malay coloured neighborhood, I was blatantly told (mind you, by someone who was darker then me) that I should stop saying I was black, and in South Africa I was coloured. To them, they believed saying I was black was denigrating — one of the worst insults. Their perceptions were obviously influenced by the history of the place, but it was also reflective of the different perspectives of blackness around the world. I was able to oscillate at any point from being black to being coloured to being who knows what else. These experiences highlighted the fact that there is no clear boundary or definition of who is considered black or coloured.

While this is my experience, all of the black American experiences cannot be summarized within a tightly constructed paragraph. The ways in which blackness is understood abroad is unique. Yet, each person’s experience is informed by a multitude of factors. The complexity and plurality of the black American experience abroad provides a narrative of the complex intertwining of race, class, and nationality. There have been countless accounts of black Americans returning to the “motherland” and not being accepted as they thought they would be. It;s a mind-f*ck to say the least when you visit nations of the African Diaspora and people look exactly like you, but there is little if any acknowledgement of similar roots and culture.

Saidiya Hartman says it best as she recounts her sojourn to Ghana, “Old and new worlds stamped my face, a blend of peoples and nations and masters and slaves long forgotten…[but] A black face didn’t make me kin.” A golden thread connects people of the African diaspora — we have flourished independently and our cultures have been nurtured by the various influences, environment, and desires of that distinct diasporic group. The complex interplay of skin color, nationality, and class all emerge through the black American’s experience in countries with a black presence. It is up to you as a global trekker to open your critical lens and be aware of the possible impacts your skin color and nationality has on your experience.

To the black traveler: Don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, and understand blackness is not necessarily transferable. This article originally appeared on Travel Noire and is reprinted here with permission.

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