Photo: travellingwithmelanin/Instagram

Not British or African Enough: the Struggle of Being a Black British Traveler

Black Travel
by Vivienne Dovi Mar 29, 2019

From discrimination and safety issues to not always relating to other travelers simply due to the color of our skin, black travelers collectively face a set of unique challenges around the world. But if you delve into the black travel movement, you will quickly notice the stark differences among us: our locations, cultures, as well as other intersectionalities of our identities like gender or religion, all shape our experiences. This is no different for the Black British community, a historically underrepresented and often misunderstood group, especially in the travel world. With more and more Black British travelers partaking in both short and long-haul travel, it’s time to shed light on our unique perspectives. Here are five struggles that we often face whilst abroad.

1. We have to convince people around the world that black people do indeed live in the UK.

From a foreign perspective, the UK is commonly known for a few things: the Queen, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, tea, and so on. It’s unfortunate that our multicultural cities don’t always make the list.

With black and minority ethnics making up 41 percent of the capital’s population, London is renowned for being a melting pot of different cultures, which is reflected through our food, entertainment, and language. Meeting people of various nationalities in London is so common that we find it amusing when we travel to other countries, only to be told that the idea of black people living in the UK is mindblowing before being adamantly told that we are American or only African. Traveling while black is already challenging, but now we have to prove our identities to the world, as well.

2. We never feel African or Caribbean enough, but we never feel British enough either.

The Black British community is either of African or Caribbean descent, and many of us are the first or second generation to be born in the UK, so we are closely tied to our heritage. Growing up in an African or Caribbean household is the norm, where our parents raise us the only way they know how: through cultural practices used in their respective countries.

Therefore, when we travel back to Africa or the Caribbean, we feel like we are going back home. Many of us have traveled back to visit relatives from an early age, and in the case of Africans, we can trace our heritage right back to our family’s tribe. But knowing our heritage doesn’t always feel like it’s quite enough because we can never fully relate. This is a consequence of many factors, but an inability to speak our mother tongue and/or understand all cultural references are often key reasons. And even if we do understand cultural etiquette, we still stand out and are sometimes treated as foreigners.

Equally, we never feel fully British. Yes, we were born in the UK, and yes, we can relate to the culture, but racial discrimination prevents us from feeling truly at home. Dealing with microaggressions, sometimes on a daily basis, is enough for us to find our daily lifestyles a challenge. And when questions such as “Where are you really from?” are so commonplace, we are quickly reminded that Black British culture is complex. This leads us to embrace both of our cultures but experience an identity crisis, often early on in our lives.

3. We are often assumed to be African American.

While this may not be considered a struggle to some, it can become annoying when people abroad always assume that if you are not born and raised in Africa or the Caribbean, you can only be African American if you are black and exploring the world.

The notion behind the assumption perpetuates a problematic stereotype: Only African Americans can afford to travel, but Africans can’t. African American culture is consequently viewed as the global standard of blackness — a harmful idea that all black people are perceived as the same, sharing the same experiences and struggles, while being expected to represent the entire black population when abroad.

More often than not, Black British travelers are asked to speak on topics that don’t directly relate to us. From the horrifying centuries of slavery that disconnected millions of African Americans from their heritage to the depressing presidency of Donald Trump, African Americans face challenges we could only imagine having to deal with on a daily basis. For us Black British travelers, these topics are not ours to define, so we should not be expected to discuss them as if they were.

This portrayal of black culture abroad leads to people thinking that African travelers are too African and that other black cultures, such as the Black British community, aren’t black enough.

4. We struggle to come to terms with our privilege — and lack thereof.

Living in a predominantly white country, discriminatory practices aren’t unheard of in the UK, and being black certainly doesn’t offer us a right to privilege. However, living in a globalized society, the Black British community is aware that our nationality offers us many privileges abroad: Our passports are among the strongest in the world, we earn higher incomes than many other countries, and our accents are universally appreciated. Traveling from a young age is quite the norm too, as visiting Paris on school trips is an early memory most of us share.

But while we are abroad, our awareness of our privilege immediately draws our attention to the poor treatment of black people who have immigrated to that destination directly from Africa. Black immigrants living in Westernised communities may be viewed as poor, sexually promiscuous, dangerous and/or violent, and we as Black British travelers are viewed no differently — until we open our mouths or show our passports.

Given the complex nature of our identity as British African or British Caribbean, we quickly recognize our problematic form of privilege: We will be treated better than Africans who were born and raised on the continent, even when we are in African or Caribbean countries.

While our privilege is apparent during our traveling experiences, the reality is that we know it will soon come to an end as we return to the UK, where we are often not afforded the same experience.

5. We rarely find other Black British travelers abroad.

The beauty of travel lies in learning about cultures and embracing differences, but we are all guilty of jumping at an opportunity to connect with someone who shares similarities with us. There’s nothing like meeting someone who understands local references, slang, and similar experiences from our younger days. Finding another black traveler of any nationality is difficult while abroad, often resulting in the unsaid-but-well-known etiquette of giving a head nod or striking up a random conversation to celebrate bumping into each other.

But while we are grateful to meet any black traveler on the go, the opportunity tends to be quite rare unless we are visiting popular destinations among the Black British community, such as Amsterdam or Dubai.

Traveling can be isolating at times. Since different black communities can face unique struggles, highlighting our experiences with people who can relate really matters. The same prejudices that can shape our experiences also tie us together. Luckily there is growing interest from the Black British community to widen our horizons. With platforms such as Melanin Travel and Wind Collective that provide black travelers the opportunity to share the beauty of seeing the world, hopefully, there will be a day when the struggles for Black British travelers are discussed more openly in order to change the narrative of black travel around the world.

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