The realities of travelling while Black: 'Racism abroad can be life or death'
Before the pandemic set in, we were living in a world where travelling between countries and continents had become simpler and more accessible than ever before.
Cheap air travel and increasing global connectivity has meant the world has been getting smaller, and frequent travel – even to far-flung destinations – has become the norm.
But this increasing freedom isn’t equal for everyone, and Black people have additional pressures to consider whenever they choose to get on a flight and travel abroad.
Thanks to the global nature of racism and anti-Blackness, Black people report experiencing discrimination, hostility, even violence, all over the world. And the vulnerability that comes with travelling – the unfamiliar settings, different languages, isolation from your support systems – can exacerbate the impact of racial discrimination.
Put simply, racism while travelling can feel even more terrifying and unsettling than the racism you face at home. And this has an impact on the way Black people choose to travel and experience other countries and cultures.
A US study from 2015 found that racism while travelling is a widespread and deeply damaging phenomenon for Black communities.
‘It is clear that many African Americans continuously suffer racism while they travel and this negative experience substantially limits their mobility and tourism activity,’ wrote researchers.
As a result, they found that Black people have to plan their holidays much more carefully than white people, avoid certain areas and countries altogether, and travel less frequently than other racial groups. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to Black people from America.
Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Kenya. Travel is her passion and exploring the world is an integral part of who she is.
Nanjala has written a collection of essays inspired by her travels – Travelling While Black – that examines what it’s like to travel when guidebooks aren’t written with you in mind. Through her experiences, she brings to life the legacy of ‘othering’ and colonialism that impact how Black people are perceived and treated around the world.
‘Human mobility is actually an incredibly important part of who we are as human beings,’ Nanjala tells Metro.co.uk.
‘If you can understand why a middle-class person would go on holiday, for example, you can start to understand why the dynamics of travel, and making it possible for people to move around, are so important.
‘I have always felt that the conversation on migration is far too limited. People look at the folks who are on the other side of these issues as abstract, and as statistics or ideas, and not as actual human beings who have complexity behind them, and have complicated lives behind them.
‘So, my aim is to use my experiences of travel to try to get people to have more nuanced conversations about human mobility.’
Nanjala’s essays range from exploring her work with migrants, to confronting archaic perceptions of Africa, to her personal experiences of racism while travelling and on holiday.
In one essay, Nanjala shares a terrifying experience in which she almost died while attempting to reach Everest Base Camp while trekking the Himalayas in Nepal. She unpacks how the hostility her trek leader felt towards her led to her being denied adequate water until she fell dangerously ill with dehydration. At one point she couldn’t breathe and could feel her mind shutting down.
‘I want people to think about these microaggressions and these instances of overt violence, or covert violence, not as, individual events – to not think “oh, that’s just one random bad person” – but as part of something bigger and more systemic,’ Nanjala explains. ‘When we allow these smaller things to be normalised, we create a context in which more extreme inequality becomes normalised.
‘My story of my time in Nepal is just a reflection on how race can show up in unexpected places, and lead to very serious consequences.
‘In the face of racism, people often tell you to just leave it, just move on, but it’s very hard to do that when it becomes a life or death issue, which it does for a lot of people.
‘I write about myself in Nepal, but I imagine if the migrants who were in the dinghies in the Mediterranean or the Channel had a chance to tell their stories, the way that they would speak about themselves, not as statistics, but as human beings, I imagine these are some of the things that would come up for them as well.’
What struck Nanjala the most about her experience of racism and neglect on the side of a mountain, was the way she could see herself being dehumanised. The man who was denying her water and who was indifferent about her care, didn’t seem to see her as a person.
‘People have stories,’ she says. ‘Where I was stuck with this guy, I looked at him and thought to myself, “you don’t think I’m a story. I’m just the person that you need to get to Base Camp and get off your case”. But I have family and friends and a life, and I deserve to not have this happen to me.’
Nanjala outlines other similarly dehumanising experiences she has had while travelling over the years. From being singled out for excessive and aggressive security checks at airports, to the impossible hoops that African citizens are forced to jump through in order to obtain visas to access other countries – she had to provide three months of bank statements and proof that she owned a house just so she could go to her friend’s wedding.
‘In Nairobi, people were having to sleep on the street in order to get an appointment for a UK visa. This happened in Lagos as well,’ says Nanjala.
‘People who have passport privilege who can walk into an embassy and walk out with a visa on the same day, often don’t understand that particular element.
‘What we really have to keep coming back to, is that all of this stuff is made up. This stuff is constructed to serve a political purpose and a social purpose. That social purpose is often exclusion of the other. We need to actually be able to sit in the discomfort of that and ask ourselves – is there any point in making people humiliate themselves just to be able to come to our country for two days? Or is there a kinder, more human way of doing this?’
Travel and holidays are basically off the agenda in 2020, unless you’re willing to do a complicated dance around the ever-changing quarantine requirements, closed borders and expensive Covid testing.
It is hoped by many that this enforced break in global travel will change the way we move around the world for the better, that it may make us more appreciative, more conscious of the environmental impacts. Maybe this is an opportunity to also address the racial inequalities that exist in travel and tourism too.
‘Travel can be an entry point for reminding us of the things that bring us together. And I think that is incredibly important,’ says Nanjala.
‘I feel like we should be travelling in a way that contemplates equality. I have nothing against tourist resorts, people work there, and it’s good for tourism in many ways – but I think we should strive to travel in a way that is respectful to the society that you’re entering into.
‘That means looking for a connection, rather than a disconnection. I think that can be a really important thing in a very divided world. And it can bring a new sense of similarity and connectedness that many of us will not have, because of the critical way in which we consume information about other places in the world.’
Travelling While Black was released on November 19, published by Hurst.
The State of Racism
This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.
We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.
It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.
We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]
Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.
Get in touch: [email protected]
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