When you’re born and raised in the Caribbean there are elements of your identity that you take for granted. Your Blackness is more of a simple fact than an indictment on your character. It hardly defines you.
Sure, within the Caribbean space we have our own set of racial issues, but these function differently. Within the Jamaican context, the shade of your skin can get in the way of you getting the job or the promotion. Have the right pigmentation and your opportunities for social climbing increase exponentially, you can cut the line in government offices and you’re more likely to get a feature on Page 6 from your night out with your equally light and desirable friends. These are all realities we have learned to navigate whether or not we approve. Eventually, we all get used to it. (Word to the would-be vehement opposers and those in denial with heads in the sand: this is not a debate. We’re simply stating facts. So please, no self-righteous justification in the comments thinly veiled as objective opposition.)
Traveling outside the Caribbean, however, is a different experience. As a foreigner, my Blackness takes on a whole new meaning. In my most recent letter to Usain and Bob, I talked about the advantages of traveling as a Jamaican. And while that side of the story is much more fun and entertaining there is another not-so-glamorous side that does leave a lot to be desired.
Like my Hong Kong experience that literally left me in tears. If you’ve had your share of immigration or customs encounters based on your skin tone you can probably fill in the blanks. If not and we ever meet in person I’ll tell you the story over drinks. Otherwise, maybe you’ll get to read it in the book (yes there will be a book. Say it with me so we can speak it into being together). I was still able to make the most of the trip and enjoy the country but that immigration and customs experience was one for the books.
I am aware that there are some Black travelers who have never had a negative experience while traveling. After all, I have had wonderful experiences with immigration officials in countries some of my friends/fellow travelers have sworn off visiting ever again because of their nightmare encounter. As with so many other things, it is seldom ever black and white. (See what I did there?)
More often than not my travel experiences are good. I find that there are more genuinely warm, welcoming and open people than there are assholes. What I haven’t gotten over though – not sure if it’s the same for any other Black traveler – is the ever-looming possibility that today will be the day I get picked on or judged simply because of my skin color.
This is the part my Jamaicanness can’t fix because I don’t wear that on my skin. Black? That could come from anywhere. Well, not anywhere, but definitely any one of a hundred undesirable places. We have the unfortunate reputation of populating some of the poorest, underprivileged, crime-riddled countries on the planet so when some foreigners see us that’s the association they make.
Worthy of note is the fact that I experience this more in airports than anywhere else in any of the countries I’ve traveled to. I suppose that is in large part due to the mandate immigration and customs officials are given to protect their country’s borders from all threats (foreign and domestic). But do threats always come packaged in dark skin?
And while I can’t ignore the reality that sometimes Blacks find themselves in compromising situations in many of these countries which often paints a damning picture for the rest of us who simply want to enjoy the world for all it has to offer, I do have to wonder…why not anyone else?
Maybe other minorities have their own stories. Heck, I’m pretty sure they do. But I can’t presume to know intimately the plight of anyone other than myself. I can only tell my story.
For many of us, traveling to North America for Thanksgiving, Black Friday sales, the quick shopping trip to Miami or to visit relatives in New York and Florida – the unofficial diaspora headquarters – racial realities are often lost on us. But if you stick around long enough it always finds you.
Whether it’s the self-proclaimed racist on the bus from Brooklyn to Manhattan hurling putrid insults and fiery stares while un-phased New Yorkers look the other way, or the woman in the store in Montreal who bypasses all the white patrons to ask you if you’re an employee, it always gets you eventually.
Despite the occasional challenges encountered while traveling as a black woman, I will not be trading in my travel lifestyle any time soon. I will not be intimidated by racists or the like hell-bent on passing judgment as a result of my skin tone. Mostly because the good outweighs the bad; because there are amazing human beings everywhere; because every day there are people breaking stereotypes and proving assumptions wrong; because for every racist I meet, I meet 10 other warm and generous souls; because the world is too big for me to play small and scared; because in some small way, these trips to unfamiliar places don’t only enlighten me. They also enlighten the strangers I encounter and eventually turn into friends.