How I Found Out Racism Isn’t Just a Problem in America
When you’re Black, traveling overseas can reveal a lot more about a place than just its amazing sights.
I’m a free-spirited Black woman who enjoys traveling the world alone. On average, I visit four countries a year, making friends, experiencing new cultures, and trying different cuisines. When I travel, I do my best to live like the locals by staying either in a hostel or an Airbnb within a community, taking public transportation, establishing relationships with local store and restaurant owners, and visiting areas that aren’t frequented by tourists. To me, that’s the only way I can ensure I get the authentic version of whatever foreign country I decide to visit—even if the authentic version shows me a side that I’d rather not see, like racism.
At one point, I had no idea racism still existed
If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought racism was still a problem in the United States and around the world, I would have probably told you no. I grew up unaware of racial issues. I thought they were a thing of the past and that America was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, countries in the world for people of color. When I heard people speak of civil rights, Jim Crow laws, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., I couldn’t connect—those major events seemed so archaic. But that’s one of the problems we have in this country: History isn’t taught in a way that benefits us all; it tends to leave out certain facts and events in order to benefit those who created the system that oppresses people of color. In grade school, for example, we usually aren’t given the full picture of how America came to be, which has prevented us from actually fixing things.
I didn’t have my light-bulb moment until I was enrolled in my first journalism course at Morgan State University in 2009. My professor highlighted just what Black people have experienced and continue to experience in this nation, and I realized I didn’t have a good understanding of Black history in America. Around this time, I also learned that some of my family members had been victims of racism, but they had tried to shield me from those realities. Because of all of this, I became aware of my Blackness, the fact that racism did exist, and that the fight for equality had really just started. Although I was mainly focused on race issues in the United States at this point, I quickly became aware that racism is also a major problem elsewhere in the world.
My first eye-opening experience abroad
My first encounter with racism in another country took place in February 2012 in London. I was a junior in college and decided to study abroad in order to experience a life outside of the one I had grown accustomed to. Truth be told, I wanted to study in Egypt, as I was learning Arabic, but my family thought I’d be safer living in a country that spoke my native language, English. They were footing the bill, so it was either London or back to my home university in Maryland, so of course, I chose the former. But little did they know what I would experience there.
The first few weeks were fun but uneventful. And then, about a month in, I was walking through Hyde Park with a friend, marveling at what London had to offer, when a White man cycling through the park passed and called us the N-word. At first, it took some time to register, as it was completely unexpected and happened so quickly. We were both in shock and didn’t know what to do. That was the first time anyone had called me N-word, at least to my face. I immediately felt like I didn’t belong and wasn’t welcomed in the city. And I was suddenly all too aware that I was one of the only Black people living in the area, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and that I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I soon learned that my experience wasn’t an anomaly. Through researching and speaking with Afro-Europeans living in London, I found out that they’d encountered various issues, from being rejected from entering certain venues for being too dark to being charged more than White customers for services. As a result, Afro-Europeans, Black expats, and Black tourists found communities that better served them and were more diverse, like Brixton in South London.
My trip to Portugal was even more disturbing
I was more aware of these issues when I visited Portugal in 2017, but my experience was no less jarring. When I first arrived, I decided to walk around the community where I was staying and noticed that no one looked like me. I tried not to pay too much attention to it, as I was there on holiday, but it was hard to continue ignoring when I ventured out around Lisbon and noticed the same thing. When I returned to my hostel, I did some research. Apparently, Portugal has a history of racism, and a few years prior to my visit, 18 officers physically and psychologically tortured six young Black men of African descent in a community just 15 minutes from Lisbon.
The next day, I decided to check out some of the beaches in the area and ended up at a beach called Santo Amaro. The sand was gorgeous, and the waves were even better. I had a DSLR camera with me and decided to take some pictures. That’s when I was approached by the police. Two officers were in a squad car to my right, and they rolled down their windows. They looked highly upset, as if I were breaking the law by being on a public beach, and started speaking angrily in Portuguese. While I had no idea what they were saying, I could feel this was not going to be a positive encounter. I quickly informed them that I spoke English, and they then aggressively asked why I was taking pictures and what I was taking pictures of. When they started getting out of their vehicles, I walked away while saying that I was an American on vacation and that I was just taking pictures of the beach. I walked toward a mall so that I could be in a more populated area just in case they decided to follow me.
Santo Amaro is a public beach, which means taking pictures isn’t an illegal action. As a matter of fact, there were several others there taking pictures—though the cops weren’t bothering them. I was the only person of color on that beach, and they targeted me. The encounter was frightening, and I feared for my life in that moment. I honestly have no idea what would have happened if I’d stayed and allowed the officers to approach me. Not having to worry about encounters like this with police is just one everyday example of the glaring reality of White privilege.
Racism and police brutality are global issues
My work as a television journalist has further driven home these points. This year, many eyes were opened to the pervasive issues of racism and police brutality. While I was covering the protests resulting from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis a few months back, I saw firsthand that the protests weren’t limited to the United States. We saw protests in England, France, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea, to name a few—surprising places where citizens were saying the names of victims who were killed at the hands of law enforcement and where justice wasn’t served. People have been quiet about their encounters with racism for many years, but no more.
Did you know that in France, for example, young Black and Arab men are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than their White counterparts? Over the summer, many took to the streets in Paris to call for an end to police brutality and justice for those like 24-year-old Adama Traoré. An independent autopsy showed that Traoré died of asphyxiation while in police custody in 2016, yet no one was held responsible for his death. This is just one of many similar cases that we’ve seen all over the world.
What I’ve learned
I now know that I don’t have the luxury of selecting a destination blindly. As a Black traveler, I have to do my research to find out whether the country has a history of racism or police brutality in order to figure out if a country is safe for me to travel to or not. On the flip side, traveling is a luxury that I don’t take for granted. Regardless of the encounters I’ve had, I won’t stop traveling and meeting people from all walks of life.
At this moment, there is a huge push for change and a global call for an end to racism everywhere. If you are someone who wants to be a part of this much-needed movement, take a listen to one of these podcasts about race—it may spark some ideas—and learn how to be anti-racist. While the world is in turmoil right now, I do see a silver lining: There’s a feeling of hope. People around the world and here in the United States are hopeful that we will soon see change, and that’s a good thing.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].