When in Vienna, do as the Viennese do. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
I’ve worked in media for years, but due to rigorous production schedules, I never had time to travel. Seeing the world was always something that I had a deep desire to do. But it never seemed like a real possibility.
That all changed last summer when I took on my current position at Yahoo Travel. After I joined the ranks of travel writers, I immediately started getting messages from other black people in the community — writers, bloggers, PR reps, etc. — congratulating me on my new gig. “Glad to see a face of color,” one writer said. “There aren’t nearly enough of us.” I hadn’t really thought about it before, but when I looked at other travel sites, it became very clear that there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. Travel isn’t necessarily seen as something that black people do.
I’ve never been one to pull the race card. I grew up in Nebraska, a place so white that I’m basically related to all of the other black people there. Pulling the race card there would be an exhausting hobby. Even so, in my travels to China, Africa, and Europe, I’ve learned that traveling while black comes with its own set of perks and challenges. From talking to white travelers, it’s clear that my experience is different — not better or worse, but different.
Sitting atop Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
For instance, I recently went to Cape Town, South Africa. I obviously knew the country’s history with Nelson Mandela and apartheid. Still, I never imagined that the race relations there would still be so strained. As soon as I got into Cape Town, I could see that they still had a long way to go. From housing to employment, there was a very clear division between black and white. We have our own racial segregation in the U.S., but Cape Town’s lack of a middle class makes this separation seem like a wide, impassible canyon. The poor are painfully poor, and exclusively black.
The vast majority of black South Africans live in these townships just outside of downtown Cape Town. Seeing these living conditions was an eye opener. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
As I navigated the city, I noticed the local black people looking in my direction. I spent most of my time in a group, but the moment I was alone, the locals started talking. “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “What is it like to be black in America?” I had a very deep and enlightening conversation with my cab driver, who confirmed that life for black Africans in South Africa was tough. He wanted to know if there was less racism in the U.S. and if I thought things would ever be more equal in Cape Town. While recent headlines have pushed America’s continuous struggles with race into the spotlight, my visit to South Africa showed me the progress we have made since my grandparents were born in racially segregated Georgia in the 1930s. Skin color allowed me to have conversations with the locals that I’m sure other travelers would never get to experience.
I hope that everyone has the chance to travel abroad at least once. The experience is sure to change you. For black travelers, I have a few tips from personal experiences. But I’m hoping that all readers will find some inspiration in the following words as well.
Prepare for stares
As the youngest child in my family, I’ve never had an issue with being the center of attention. That is, until I started traveling to different countries. When I went to Vienna, I saw maybe three other black people the entire time I was there. When I attended a fancy event I could feel eyes on me as I navigated the room. After visiting China, I wrote this story about all the attention I received just by walking down the street. While I initially felt uncomfortable, I quickly realized that the stares were coming from curiosity, not distrust or hate. People tend to look at things that are different than what they know, and when you’re a tall black girl walking down the streets of Shanghai alone, you stand out. If you’re traveling, don’t be offended by the stares. Just smile and keep on walking.
Travel without limits
OK, I’m not saying you need to pose with a cheetah, but you get the point. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
Over and over again, I hear that black people don’t do adventurous things. They don’t skydive, they don’t hike, they don’t snorkel or scuba dive. Nowhere in my “Black Manual” does it say that I can’t live a life filled with thrilling experiences and adventures. If you’re a person who doesn’t like to push the limits by swimming with whale sharks or surfing in Hawaii, then by all means don’t do it. But if you want to have unique experiences, never let your race be the thing that holds you back.
Don’t take it personally
I’ve definitely been asked personal questions about my hair and skin at home and abroad that can catch me off-guard. I’ve even heard stories from black travelers about other people touching their curly hair without asking (my blond friends have the same problem when traveling to Asia or Africa). Obviously, no one likes having strangers in their business, but you can use these interactions as teachable moments. The only way to end ignorance is to talk openly about the things that strike anxiety, fear, or curiosity in others.
Bring your own conditioner
Experiencing joy and questionable hair during a shark diving trip (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
You may have noticed that a lot of the activities I mentioned above involve water. Now, the stereotype that black women don’t like to get their hair wet is true, real, and the secret behind a billion-dollar industry. And I’ll admit that the stress of taming my hair after a day in the ocean is not something I look forward to. Nevertheless, I promised myself a long time ago that I would never be a woman who didn’t do something because of my hair. So, braid it (I’ve done it), wrap it (I’ve done it), or get a keratin treatment (my current method), and get on your way. Oh, and bring your own shampoo and conditioner. That stuff in the hotel is not even close to strong enough.
Do it for yourself
You’re going to experience culture shock. You might feel out of place. I guarantee that there will be a time when you survey your surroundings without seeing another face that looks like yours. Embrace it. You’re not traveling to break or fit into any stereotype. The beauty of traveling is realizing the growth and knowledge you gain from trying new experiences and exposing yourself to different cultures. I can say that at the end of each trip, I feel a greater understanding of the world I live in and where I fit in.
I can assure you, feeling the community that comes along with traveling is something that easily transcends race.
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