Traveling as a woman of color can give you some of the life’s most memorable experiences. You expect to go to all the touristy spots, take great photos, eat exciting food and meet wonderful people.
Life in a foreign country often seems fresh and invigorating with everything made beautiful and exciting by that holiday halo. So, it often comes as a rude awakening when you’re yanked back into reality by unpleasant encounters.
What happens while traveling as a woman of color
Some of these things happen to all travelers, some only happen to people of color, and some only happen to women.
So, traveling as a woman of color, you may experience these, plus a few more that are unique because of your intersectionality as a traveler and a person of color and a woman.
It’s worth keeping in mind only a very small fraction of travelers has bad experiences, but there is nothing wrong with being prepared. Keep reading to find out what things may happen to you as a traveling woman of color, from mild to seriously disturbing.
11Greetings in the ‘wrong’ native language
I cannot count the times I’ve been greeted with an enthusiastic “Ni hao!” by either staff at tourist attractions or strangers when traveling.
I know people are just trying to be friendly, but it’s tiring having to smile and politely explain you’re not from China every single time. In worse cases, you are also asked to explain why you’re not from China when you look Chinese!
10When people tell you where you’re supposed to be from
This is true for all people of color, not just while traveling as a woman of color. It can be a very awkward conversation to have. In the US, most people know why it’s racist to ask a person of color “But where are you really from?”
But in many parts of the world, the concept of race is still quite primitive. A black person might still get asked –
“Why don’t you think you’re from Africa; you’re black, aren’t you?”
9Becoming a tourist attraction
Most people don’t expect to become a tourist attraction themselves when they travel. Regretfully, this can happen to us traveling as a woman of color. More so, if you go to the heart of some rural areas where people don’t see foreigners.
It’s a bit unnerving and for the most part, you try to understand their point of view. But it’s hard to imagine anyone not seeing another person who’s different from them. In some places, the locals will ask to touch your skin and your hair.
Those who have curly hair and dreadlocks expect this, however, you should not touch anyone’s hair unless they agree. Do this and there could be consequences!
Again, this is mostly innocent curiosity, but it is really unnerving to have strangers try to literally lay their hands on you.
8Feeling like a target in a spy movie
Traveling as a woman of color, you are impressed by how nice and respectful the locals are. That is until you realize people are secretly taking photos of you on their phones.
You convince yourself this is your ‘celebrity’ moment, but deep down you feel like you’re being watched by street police.
7Traveling as a woman of color and screaming children
It’s hardly their fault they have never seen a person with a different skin color before, but nothing can make you feel quite as rotten as when children burst into tears or run away screaming in horror at the very sight of you.
Rural China is particularly notorious for this issue, and any non-Asian can be a victim and treated like a freak. There are reports of tourists being called “devils” or “ghosts.”
6The “I know what you are” look
This only happens if you are traveling alone with a male friend of another race. Well, maybe when you’re traveling with a group of friends, too but you somehow get separated. Now, you’re alone with a male friend different from you and are uncomfortable. Why?
The locals mistake you as a girlfriend for hire, and people start to speak to you in slow, simple English. Or they won’t even speak to you at all and talk over your head to your male friend instead.
5Catcalls and blatant advances
It is sad to accept, for a lot of men, the only experiences they ever had with women of color are through movies. It’s perhaps not surprising they think these stereotypes apply to all women of color, off-screen as well.
4The link between color and criminality
Maybe you’ve seen it or have stood in these shoes: Shop-owners get up from their seat and follow you around the shop, making sure you don’t steal anything. The local police ask to search your bag, in case you have a bomb in there somewhere.
Assistants in posh (bourgeois, uppity) shops look surprised and try to suggest in a polite and indirect way that you cannot afford the products there.
Most are done quite discreetly, but you’ve experienced it back home before, so you’re not surprised to see it at your holiday destination. It just makes you a bit sad when even someone as famous and as rich as Oprah Winfrey goes through the same thing.
3A taste of local racism
Traveling as a woman of color to a place which already has problems with racism, can be a problem. It is likely people will mistake you for an immigrant and are told to “go home.”
This puts you in a difficult spot. On one hand, you are upset by the apparent evidence how immigrants are being treated. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel this is not your fight and you fear for your own safety.
2The unpleasant feeling among your own people
I left this one for last because I want to address it properly. Traveling as a woman of color, many take pleasure in finding themselves with a sense of belonging. When traveling in a region where they ‘look the part,’ they can easily blend into the crowd.
This might be the first time no one would give them a second look: a case of total “un-specialness” in the most wonderful way. Traveling as a woman of color is a powerful feeling.
We think we live in a pretty tolerant society back home, but in a situation where there is a complete lack of preconception about who you are, where you are just another pebble within a pile of identical pebbles, you feel a certain sense of relief in your new-found anonymity.
Traveling as a woman of color often makes people question their identity and their place in the world and might start you on a mini soul-searching journey. But in the end, most people often come out feeling more connected and confident about who they are.
Traveling as a woman of color is one of the most rewarding experiences and positive treats you can give yourself. Even if you are one of the unlucky few who encounters unpleasant interactions.
Once you survive it all they will only serve to enrich your experience as a human being. So, be aware of the potential problematic situations, but keep going out and experiencing the world!
Image: Max Pixel