AS A BLACK AMERICAN MALE living for the past seven years in Latin America, I’ve had more than my share of the craziness that comes with Traveling While Black. And I know other travelers of color – be they Asian, Latino, or Martian – can feel me on the foolishness.
1. The hassle of being considered a potential terrorist, drug smuggler, and/or illegal immigrant by US customs and immigration officers.
You know how you get off a long flight, exhausted but glad to be home. And as soon as you get to the immigration booth, the officer starts giving you the third degree about where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. Then the customs officer – and, depending on your point-of-entry, often someone just as brown as you are, with the hint of a foreign accent – starts asking you the same questions you were asked at immigration, then selects you for a “random” secondary screening. Three random secondary screenings in a row tend to make you question the randomness of the screenings.
2. The annoyance of “positive” stereotypes.
“You blacks have dance in the blood.” “If I could be anything else, I would be a black American because you guys can really screw.” “I just love blacks.”
Objectification and hyper-sexualization? We can do math, too!
3. The shock of seeing grotesque caricatures that have been banned in the United States for decades.
Blackface tar babies, mammies, pickaninnies, sambos, spear-chuckers – all can be seen as characters in folkloric festivals and for sale as dolls and trinkets at souvenir shops in Latin America. Of course, I’m imposing my own North American overly-PC cultural values on someone else’s culture when I grimace in disgust at this plantation-era coonery and get told to lighten up. No wonder the USA is the only major post-colonial society to have a black president. Or media mogul. Or Secretary of State. Or…
4. The indignation at being mistaken for a security guard, maid, drug dealer, or prostitute.
I’ve been sent back around to service elevators, been approached about how much a gram of cocaine costs, been approached about how much I would charge for the whole night, been asked if I would let some guys friends into VIP. I’ve had female friends who’ve been asked if the dogs they were walking were their employer’s, how much they would charge for the whole night, and blocked at their hotel lobby by overzealous security guards (who were just as brown-skinned – see #5).
5. The frustration of being ignored/hassled until it’s realized that you’re foreign, too.
I’ve been out at restaurants and nightclubs with white friends who were the exclusive center of attention, until the groupies finally noticed, “oh…you’re not Brazilian/Colombian/from here?” I don’t begrudge my white pals their fifteen minutes – it’s nice to bathe in the adulation garnered by being “exotic,” and my friends tend to be cool peeps – but you only see me when you hear English come out of my mouth? Boo.
And I hate to use my language as a weapon, but sometimes, I gotta let homies know to stand down, especially nightclub bouncers and the security staff at nice hotels.
6. The exasperation of having your background, nationality, and/or ‘Western-ness’ questioned.
Abroad, people seem to think that you can’t be a “real American” if you aren’t white: “But you don’t ‘look’ American. Really, where is your family from?” They won’t take what you say you are at face value (granted, for their own socio-historical reasons): “But you’re not black, you’re, like, caramel.”
On the other side, many people in North America and Europe seem to have a hard time grasping the concept that “Western” and “white” are not synonymous, and that Latin America is, in fact, Western. Yes, a great many Westerners are white, and the identifying characteristics of a Western country – i.e. Judeo-Christian spiritual leanings and an espousal of Greco-Roman political ideals – stem mainly from Europe. But why is Brazil not considered Western when it’s the world’s largest Catholic country? Is Peru not a democracy? And are people of color from the US any less Western because they aren’t white (hello, Asia)?
7. The rancor of having your qualifications and abilities ignored in light of your application photo.
“His CV is very good, but I’m not so sure about his picture.” This was told to a friend and colleague of mine – a white American guy – by the director at the Colombo-Americano bicultural center in Bogotá regarding my application for a teaching position. Apparently, mine didn’t represent the face of English.
Neither does this guy’s.
8. The sting of hearing, being called, or reading “nigger” in an academic paper.
Hip-hop and Hollywood movies are extremely popular outside of the USA. As such, the n-word has found its way into people’s lexicons, regardless of how little English they speak. In the Dominican Republic, some friends and I were greeted with “Hey, niggers” by a friendly, rap-loving teenager who had recognized us as American and thought that was an appropriate greeting.
In Colombia, as a university English professor, I encountered the word several times in academic papers written by students who didn’t have the historical context to know better. I read it in an official tourist guide, describing Afro-Colombian traditions and dance. I was asked by a woman there once, while responding to an oft-repeated query of my origins (see #6), why I “wanted to be a black nigger.” She knew better. And no, overseas, there really wasn’t a distinction between “nigger” and “nigga,” since the former is often pronounced like the latter depending on the local language, and the latter is rarely – if ever – written, unlike the former. But then this dropped.
*For non-black defenders of the term’s use, let me point out that not all black people are responsible for the word’s usage in music and film, so boo to the whole “well you guys use it” argument. To paraphrase John Ridley: when you get to go through slavery and Jim Crow, you get to use the word.
All that being said, I’ll never stop traveling.