I am an ambiguous mix, one that you can’t quite figure out. The most frequently asked question I get is “where are you from?”, and after a long explanation, mainly addressing my accent and then looks, I’m either accepted or denied. My mother is white British and father was mixed himself black Jamaican and White British. I was born in the UK but grew up in Jamaica and Ecuador.
From a young age I’ve been aware that my travel experiences as a women of color were different to that of other travelers. I have been traveling for as long as I can remember. I first visited Machu Picchu, Peru, pretty much back-packing, when I was 7 or 8. When travelling with my mother, a white British lady, no matter where we went, people always assumed I was adopted. The very day I was born the Indian midwife thought I was Indian too; So I guess no matter where I go, there is always that “I think she could be one of us” except for parts of Europe and Asia.
“She could be one of us look” meant I was treated differently, whether it was other travelers getting preferential treatment over me or me getting lower prices at the local market plus extras! Throughout the years, I’ve noticed that there are pros and cons of looking ‘kinda’ like a local, or of “BLENDING IN”, especially if you’re of African heritage!
- Immigration control!
I was once detained for 7 hours in Panama on my way to the USA as the immigration officer was adamant my passport was fake! He could just not get that someone of my complexion (Brown) could be British. I guess for the majority of the world, when you think of European, white and only white comes to mind. To add fuel to the fire I was travelling from Ecuador, and when I said my father is Jamaican (in a bid to explain my otherness)… well naturally a drug triangle formed in his mind. After calling the British Embassy, taking a magnifying glass and inspecting each page of the passport, in addition to my tears, he let me board the plane. As I boarded he said “I know you are lying, but I have no evidence, when you arrive up there (The USA) they will deport you back! “I still apprehensive looks at immigration controls all over the world!
- Black equals beauty and sex
As a woman traveling, the level of sexual harassment makes you feel super uncomfortable, at times it can be crude and disrespectful. I have often found it off putting and hard to handle. As if traveling as a woman is not hard enough I found that traveling as women of color in Latin America or Africa is even harder. There are two main reasons; the first being in some parts of the world we are “attractive” and appealing. I was told by a local man in The Gambia “You look local but more exotic, but dress and behave like a foreigner. Color is beauty in many parts of the world but being an outsider has an added bonus, a higher status than a local woman. An exotic factor! At first, I’m not going to lie it can be quite an ego-boost. My first day in The Gambia, I felt like Beyoncé – but that quickly wore off. Men constantly calling to me and wanting to touch me.
Secondly, sadly, in other parts of the world the stereotypes attached to women of color seem to be universal: “we have attitude” and are “hyper-sexualized” just to name a few, and I have found them to be very much present in the Caribbean and Latin America, at least from my experience. A Cuban guy once said to me I don’t know why “Morenas” (Brown and Black girls) act like they are hard to get, here, nobody wants them so they are easy.” These ignorant, bigoted and racist comments can lead to women of colour being treated differently men talking to you disrespectfully yes, more disrespectfully than usual with the ill-informed assumption we are less attractive and thus an “easier catch”,and that our often “shapely figures” are an entitlement to men.
The idea that women’s bodies are simply for the pleasure and enjoyment of men is nothing new. However, the body of a women of color historically has been demonized, sexualized and lusted from the colonial era. I have heard comments referring to women of color as sexually pleasurable, better in bed and all the amazing skills we can supposedly perform in bed. Growing up in Ecuador as a teenager I was often referred to as “damaged” which in essence meant I had lots of sexual partners because supposedly “morenas” were not only great in bed but also loved sex., which in turn, made my friend’s mother’s forbid them from hanging out with me, as my “damaged ways” would be contagious!
It’s very hard not to take things personally, not to let them impact you. Through traveling I developed confidence and a thicker skin. I’ve learnt to understand that most of the time it’s not about me, it’s about what I represent and the complex history behind this. Of course! It’s not all bad, and the cons mentioned are perhaps nothing compared to what women of color living in the parts of the world have to face, the harassment, stereotypes, racism and discrimination. However, if you are traveling and you blend in… There can also be positives.
- Local Prices
No sky rocket prices for me! Blending in means you are treated like a local, so you pay local prices: the trick; not to open your mouth until the price has been said! The price for a tourist is at least triple. I can almost guarantee it , just call it travel tax, of course the local vendor will up his price and try make an extra few dollars from you. You can afford it! No? Well at least that’s what locals think. So if you blend in, you pass for local, and everyone knows the struggle. So the price is more likely to be less.
- You don’t draw that much attention
Dance away, walk down the street, you wouldn’t stick out, so there is less chance of vendors harassing you to buy stuff or to rip you off, or pick pockets targeting you – definitely a bonus!
- A more authentic experience
Being treated like a local, well at least blending in more than others, allows you to delve a little deeper in local life, without the unwanted attention. You are also able to observe the day to day interaction, learn about the culture and see how things are done. Your familiar face may have locals warm up to you quicker and create a connection.
It’s not always about how you look! Your mannerism, your dress, your accent and the way you walk! I can spot a tourist in Jamaica a mile off, you walk so fast in the blazing sun – relax, take the local pace.
Good or bad just go!
Go and see for yourself; don’t let anything stop you from discovering the world. Experiences good or bad are part of life; you will grow so much, learn so much and see the world in a truly different perspective. Do your research, before you leave, learn about the local customs, learn a few words, “thank you” being the most important! Before and upon arrival ask around where the dangerous areas are – and avoid them!
Jade is the Managing Director of V2 Volunteer & Vacation, a UK company offering travel experiences in the Caribbean and Latin America. Jade grew up in Jamaica, Bolivia and Ecuador. She has traveled, worked and volunteered across Latin America and the Caribbean. She speaks English, Spanish and a little Quichua, learnt from living in an indigenous community in Ecuador between 11 and 19 years old.
Jade is passionate about women and ethnic minorities’ rights, responsible travel, giving back and showcasing local culture.