Okay. If you haven’t already noticed, Hubby is black and I’m white. (Cue Michael Jackson…)
To us, it is what it is. We are able to learn from each other’s experiences, resulting in greater empathy and understanding. We are more than the sum of our parts.
Unfortunately, racism is still a thing. It’s a complicated and loaded issue that is beyond the scope of this post. My goal is simply to share some of our experiences of traveling the world while white and black.
I grew up in Iowa, which, let’s face it, isn’t very diverse. In my rural, Midwestern, white world, diversity was a “city” thing, and essentially meant black. Yes, racial diversity is more than black and white, but America’s racial history certainly influenced my worldview.
But what is diversity? Human “races” are a social, not biological, construct. Our skin colors are nothing more than adaptive traits to varying levels of UV radiation, and our genetic diversity doesn’t fall along “racial” lines . Humans have always formed groups, uniting around ethnicity, language, culture, and religion. As a result, each region has its own definition of, and issues surrounding, diversity.
We’ve experienced racism in the U.S. I’ve been with Hubby when he’s been called the n-word in the Midwest, the South, and even the Northeast. In Florida someone once shouted “O.J. and Nicole!”, and I was once even called a “monkey girl” in Iowa.
As travelers, however, we prefer to blend in. Locals tend to treat foreigners differently, and we want an authentic experience. But unless we’re in a cosmopolitan city, at least one of us is going to stand out. Since there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, we just try to have a good time with it.
So how do people around the world react to us? It depends. On one end of the spectrum, there’s innocent curiosity. It never ceases to surprise me that our world is so big that there are people that have never seen someone who’s white or black. Pretty cool. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s outright hostility. Like the time we were afraid for our lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start at the beginning. It was 1998, and Hubby and I were in Lithuania on a choir tour, and had just started dating. Hubby was the only black person in the choir, and Lithuania had declared its independence from the Soviet Union only eight years earlier.
Hubby was like a rock star. He made the front page of newspapers, was interviewed on television, and everyone wanted his autograph. At one point, literally during a concert, a woman came onto the stage so her baby could touch him. Lithuania had just opened its doors to the west, letting in America’s greatest export: Culture. As a result, many Lithuanians bought into the stereotypes and assumed Hubby MUST be a good dancer, baller, singer…… Let’s just say it started to go to his head. (He’s insisting it didn’t. But it did. Just sayin’.)
We’ve been to Lithuania twice since, most recently in 2006. Western culture continued to permeate the country, negative stereotypes included. The result? Reactions to Hubby no longer felt innocent. And some were downright aggressive, like being followed and being called the n-word.
Germany is another interesting example. Considering its relatively recent past, Germans have done an excellent job of progressing past overt racism. As a result, we’ve spoken to many Germans who insist there is NO racism in Germany. But our experiences tell a different story.
In 2006, Hubby taught for a semester at a university in Braunschweig. The day we arrived, we were shopping at the market in the city’s beautiful pedestrian-friendly historic district when we were spotted by an older woman. Our German isn’t that great, but we certainly understood her tone and facial expressions. She clearly wasn’t happy with us. We saw her every week, and every week her reaction was the same.
And then my parents came to visit. We were all enjoying our sandwiches at the market when we spotted the old lady. My mom told me to let it go, but that’s not my style. So Hubby and I casually stood in front of her, holding hands. Okay, maybe there was a little PDA. When she saw us, she predictably scowled and cursed. But we must’ve hit a nerve, because then…. she spat on us. I still can’t believe what happened next. My mom went into full mama-bear mode, jumping out of her seat like her ass was on fire, screaming and wagging her finger in the old lady’s face. It was awesome.
We traveled every weekend we were in Germany that semester, using the train system to explore as much as possible. On several occasions we were verbally harassed, and once we were even followed. There were even a few times on trains I felt so uncomfortable I wouldn’t leave Hubby alone to use the restroom.
But then there was the time we feared for our lives. It was late at night, and Hubby and I were on a train, heading back to Braunschweig. The train was almost empty, except for a group of three men and a woman upstairs. They were trashed, and really loud. They didn’t see us until they were getting off of the train, at a deserted railway station, with no one around. They did a double take, and over the next couple of minutes they grew more and more outraged. Thankfully, just as their anger boiled over into rage, the train doors closed. So they stood outside our window, screaming and cursing, and throwing beer bottles at us. We were really shaken.
We told our German friends every time we experienced these kinds of incidents, and every time their reaction was the same. First, disbelief. They honestly didn’t think there was racism in Germany. And then they would ask us where we were. Their response? “Oh. Die Öst.” (The East.)
Does Eastern Europe have more racism? It’s anecdotal, but nearly every racist incident we’ve experienced has occurred in Eastern Europe. Last year a receptionist at a hotel in the Czech Republic refused to give us a room. In Budapest we stumbled upon an angry anti-immigrant mob. And though we’ve traveled extensively in Northern and Western Europe, even in areas with little diversity, we’ve never had any issues. It is possible, however, that our experiences are due to xenophobia, and not racism. Hubby is clearly not an Eastern European.
Because most of our early travel was to Europe, Hubby grew used to standing out. He was often the “only brother around.”
And then we went to East Africa. I still haven’t mentally or emotionally sorted out our experiences there. It was truly overwhelming. It breaks my heart that humans have to live in such complete, absolute poverty. But that’s for another post.
Hubby had never experienced being so completely surrounded by people who look like him. There really is a comfort to being in the majority, and while I knew that intellectually, I didn’t know how it felt. Hubby grew up in North Dakota, playing hockey and the cello. He’s had to learn to be the only black person around. To navigate a white world. To be the representative of his race and all the responsibility that comes with it. I can’t imagine how much of a relief Africa was for him.
I, on the other hand, have never experienced being so completely, obviously, ridiculously different. People stared and pointed. As I passed by they would yell “Mzungu!” (White person!) Children wanted to touch my hair, and take off my sunglasses so they could see my eyes. My sunburns fascinated them, as did my sunscreen. And here’s something I’m sure others can relate to: I was unable to find any products for my hair! (And Hubby had never had so many options!) But other than being charged more because people assumed that because I was white I was wealthy (and let’s face it, by their standards I certainly am), I didn’t experience any hostile racism. Just curiosity, which doesn’t bother either of us.
There are parts of the world where we both stand out, like Asia. We might as well have the word “foreigner” tattooed across our foreheads. But we didn’t experience any hostility. If anything, we were a novelty. We’ve also been in places where, even though we both stand out, Hubby is more of a curiosity. In Vanuatu, for example, tourists are almost always white, so some Ni-Vans couldn’t figure out if Hubby was a local or not. It was fun to watch them attempt to speak to Hubby in one of the dozens of languages they speak.
Bottom line: There aren’t many places on Earth where Hubby and I blend in. Unfortunately, we understand the need to be aware of potentially hostile, even life-threatening, reactions. However, most of the attention is innocent curiosity, and we enjoy the opportunity to explore humanity’s incredible diversity and embrace the numerous commonalities that unite us all.
What do you think? Have you ever been the only one who looks like you? How did that make you feel? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!