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7 Lessons Travelling Has Taught Me As A Black Woman

So, summer’s here and many of us are packing up and jetting across the world for holiday fun. But how does the travelling experience differ for black women?

I have been lucky enough to travel a lot throughout my life and have been ever grateful for this. For the majority of the 20th century, black people in the UK were, on the whole, not financially secure enough to have excess money for travelling leisurely. I, however, have grown up in a time in which travel has become more affordable and thus accessible to people who had previously been blocked from such luxuries. It is also a time in which travelling is becoming more and more a part of many careers.

I was also blessed with parents who, whilst being somewhat damning of travelling for travelling’s sake, allowed me to put my funds from my Saturday job towards going out and doing activities abroad. What’s more, I’ve been fortunate enough to find some programmes that have allowed me to travel for free, something that would have been unheard of as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.

I found ethical schemes like Raleigh ICS that equip young people with the skills to make positive changes in their own communities as well as sending them on (legitimate) sustainable development projects; all they need to do is fundraise a minimum of £800 through sponsorship and accessible activities like cake and car boot sales. Right now, I'm writing from an evening study class in South Korea on an English tutoring programme that has been fully funded by my university. It’s incredible.

But unfortunately, this doesn’t erase prejudice and ignorance. Yes, this might seem like somewhat of a #middleclassproblem, and it is, but it is still a problem that singles many black women out in our own communities at home. Travel is overwhelmingly glamorised, particularly in modern western society and many do not stop to consider the various domains of privilege that are required to really follow the dream of ‘dropping it all’ and jumping on a plane. These span ethnicity, gender, physical mobility, sexuality, class and many other areas in which individuals are oppressed, but as a black woman, today I want to hone in on ethnicity and gender as deciding factors.

Here’s what I’ve learnt from my travelling experiences as a black British woman:

1. Being comfortable with your blackness makes for a fuller experience

You shouldn’t have to spend your entire trip cowering in the shade in the hopes of avoiding a tan. Ingrained colourism throughout the black community caused by white supremacist beauty ideals means that finding the confidence to love yourself regardless of your skin tone is difficult for many, but travelling helped me get over this quickly. Yes, you will return home to be greeted by family members and friends who exclaim ‘you’re so black!’, but newsflash; I am black. Whilst there is sometimes a judgemental tone accompanying these statements, I try to overlook it and remind myself that ‘black’ is a positive descriptor.

Similar to this is the issue of keeping your hair in ‘good condition’ on the road. I hate the stereotype that black women are high maintenance. In many ways it is more difficult to keep afro hair in ‘good condition’, but it’s important to remember that our perception of ‘good condition’, as well as the prescribed ‘acceptable’ styles that we try to adhere to are shaped by norms of whiteness. So naturally, it’s a little more difficult for us to maintain having straight hair, wearing hair down all the time, etc.

I like to spend time on my hair at home, but when I travel, I settle for a few lashings of Olive Oil and two plaits (my personal go-to protective style). No way am I going to miss out on doing and seeing incredible things or push my suitcase over the weight limit from being stuffed full of product, in the name of ‘taming’ my tresses. Abandoning a complex hair maintenance regime was painful at first, but I’ve become accustomed to embracing my ‘travelling look’, in which my hair is a little bigger and dryer, as time has gone on.

2. Many countries see their fair share of racism towards black women

Black people and women often encounter discrimination, hatred and subordination abroad. I would imagine that this is not news to you. These two factors combined can make for a dread-inducing travelling experience.

I have ducked my head in the streets of Split (a city in Croatia), side-glancing swastikas graffitied on brick walls. I have, as a ten-year-old, had monkey noises directed at me and even seen my darker-skinned cousin (also ten) called racial slurs and sexualised by a group of grown men. I have felt my hair almost yanked out of my scalp, been told that I need to put coconut oil on it to straighten it and been slammed down on locals’ front doorsteps to have my ‘unruly’ hair combed out into its biggest possible state in public. Without doubt, sometimes travelling has made me feel humiliated, ashamed, different and alien, because of who I am.