Traveling Abroad as a Person of Color:
The Underlying Reason Behind our Lack of Representation
You can’t really pinpoint the moment when “it” happens while traveling abroad as a person of color; but when “it” hits, you are incredible self-aware.
I sat on a hard red seat inside a crowded metro train in Paris on the way to an activity when I was hit with “it”. Quickly, yet inconspicuously, I looked around and saw a sea of faces – none of which looked like me. Slightly panicked, I walked off the metro and down the streets. Still, there was hardly a soul that had a healthy dose of melanin in their skin. I became incredibly self-aware that I was the only visible person of color represented in the streets of Paris at that time. For a brief moment, I felt alone and started to ask myself, “is this what it’s like traveling abroad as a person of color? Is this why people of color don’t travel?”
It’s not like this is the first time “it” has ever happened. I grew up in classrooms where I was the only child of color and went to a university that was around 10% African American…out of 30,000 students…in the south. I also worked in environments with only a few, if any, people of color so it wasn’t a new feeling; but, something switched on in my brain when I was traveling abroad as a person of color.
I’m the only one out here.
Just let that sink in. After a few moments my realization faded into curiosity. I asked myself, “why would a person of color choose not to travel?” I mean, I’m out here living my best life, loving everything about my amazing six-day itinerary in Paris; but where are my people? I created internal theories on why I didn’t see any person of color while traveling. My experiences traveling abroad as a person of color are phenomenal; but why was I here, in Paris, without seeing another person of color in sight? My thoughts ran with a few potential hypotheses.
Where are the people who look like me?
Money was the first thought. The numbers paint an atrocious past, a somber present, and a grim future for Black-American wealth. There’s no getting around it – travel is a luxury and there are a lot of people who are unable to afford a week off work, let alone to spend money galavanting across one of the most luxurious European cities. Not to mention there is great evidence that a racial wealth gap exists in the United States, which significantly impacts people of color. I have no doubt that for some, money is the reason why some are unable to afford to travel. Then again, there are people of color that have the means to travel, like myself, so I can’t confidently say that money is an issue for everyone.
What about desire? Is Paris a desirable location for Black-Americans? I think so. Historically, Paris has been and continues to be a desirable destination. Famous jazz singer, dancer, and activist Josephine Baker thought so in the 1920s. So did author Richard Wright in 1946 and many others left their mark on Paris until the present day. When sharing my experience, I often hear longing in my counterparts’ voices as they admit, “I’ve always wanted to go to Paris!” So can’t truly say there is a lack of desire. If not money or desire, what other reasons could there be for not traveling abroad as a person of color?
Maybe it’s the location? Maybe some people dread the feeling of being alone in a crowd so much that they actively place themselves in situations where it’s not a problem. They don’t want to feel alone, therefore, they refuse not be. It’s interesting because I know plenty of people who have taken multiple trips to the Caribbean and rave about the fun they’ve had. I’m sure the warm weather, textured white sands, low cost, and beautiful, transparent sea are worth multiple trips. But I can’t help but wonder if part of the splendor involves being surrounded by people you don’t know that look like you- a sense of community.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all people of color are opposed to travel or are broke. There are some people of color who choose to travel abroad, but there are far more that do not than those who do.
When I returned from my jaunt abroad, a lot of my friends of color wanted to know how the trip was and expressed their desire to travel. As a person of color I knew what was really being asked of me. How could I tell? The curious party would slowly draw out the “how” as in “hoooooow was it?” accompanied by raised brows. Were they subconsciously asking about what traveling abroad as a person of color is like in addition to wanting to know about my trip overall? You bet!
I took the opportunity to detail my experience and take it a step further. “Why have you not booked your trip?” After gently inquiring into their reason(s) for not acting on their desire to travel to Europe, it seemed like the responses were similar. “Where would I stay? How do I get there? What about terrorists – what happens then?” I explained they would stay in places similar to those in America, travel by plane, and that terrorists want people to be afraid so the best remedy is to not give in to their psychological game. The more questions that came, the more answers I delivered. A few minutes into the Q&A, the light bulb illuminated. Perhaps the true reason, the underlying reason, more people aren’t traveling abroad as people of color is fear.
More than money, a sense of belonging, or even time off work, the underlying reason could honestly be rooted in fear. Fear of the unknown or of being robbed, lost, or not knowing the language. Fear of being alone. Fear of an overtly, or even subconscious, racist encounter. Fear of not being able to save enough money. Fear of standing out. Fear of your obvious skin color, hair style, or clothing being put on display. These are legitimate concerns and aside from an imminent sense of danger, I usually push back a little. I don’t believe one should be tangled in fear’s paralyzing affects. You see, fear has a funny way of paralyzing your desire for adventure. If one is fearful, they are more likely to maintain the status quo, even if it means quietly suffering at the expense of your dreams. I don’t believe anyone should hold back their greatness, but I do believe this was the bottom line for the majority of people I spoke with.
Fear is the main culprit responsible for discouraging people of color from travel abroad. Now that I know what’s driving the mental block, I feel like it’s within my sphere of control to help people to break through it. Break through what? The fear and anxiety that comes from not doing the things they want to do, like taking a vacation to Europe. There are many ways to break the racial wealth gap. There are free language courses and countless resources to help you take care of the logistics. Better yet, maybe instead of silently judging my people, I should continue to tell my stories, both the good and bad, with the hope that maybe one more person would become unleashed of fear and explore the greater world around them.
Antoinette | F&C
Have you really been in Paris. There is a large non white, especially black population there.
As a black french living in Paris, I’m never alone in the street or in the subway, in the office, in the shops…
Maybe you were surrounded by tourists and you only went in place frequented by tourists, not locals ?
Thank you for chiming in! I think you may be right – I was surrounded by tourists; but, I believe that is my main point. Amongst tourists I didn’t see anyone who looked like me no matter where I went. I am curious about your experience as a black french living in Paris – do you have any recommendations on where a tourist of color should visit while in Paris that is outside of the tourist-y areas? Any insight you could share would be really helpful for my next visit!