Black Beyond Borders
By Rachel Hill
The first time I went to China, I was stared at with no shame. People enjoying a bowl of soup would put down the bowl and simply gawk. There was even a time when an elderly woman came up to me and rubbed the brown skin on my hand. My translator told me that the lady once “read” about black people in books but never actually saw a black person in real life. Her rubbing my hand was to ensure that I was, in fact, real.
Surprisingly, I was not mortified or offended. I understood the cultural context. Much of the outside world was cut off from China until the late 1970s, so many people growing up during this time had never been exposed to foreigners.
While the encounter with the elderly woman was the most extreme case, people stopping and staring at a young black traveler is not uncommon. Here are three suggestions that will make your “traveling while black” experience more comfortable:
1. Be open
Let’s be honest, the majority of the non-Western world does not see a large group of young, black travelers on a regular basis. Seeing young white travelers backpacking is rather common — we, unfortunately, are not. Keeping that in mind, be open to the possibility that you may be the first black person an individual has ever seen. Typically, the stares and gawking is out of sheer curiosity and not meant to be offensive and rude.
2. Do your research
Before traveling anywhere do research on the culture. Learn what different hand signals and gestures signify. Look into social norms, and current events. This will help you gauge how to interact with locals. Unlike in the United States, in China, it is not considered rude to stare. To mitigate this, I would smile and say hello in the native language. With that, I would either make a new friend or the staring would cease.
3. Reach one, teach one
Do not allow what outsiders see in music videos and pop culture to define the perception of young black travelers. Be willing to share your culture with others. There is much to learn from everyone and everywhere we go. I remember being called a “nigger” by a Kenyan man while in Nairobi as if it were a term of endearment. His perception of the word was from American rap music; my perception was very different. Over a beer and burger, I politely explained the true meaning and impact of the word in my society.
This article originally appeared on Rachel Travels