Traveling while Black

I decided to write this post after reading my husband’s poem about his experience of staying at a plush hotel in Southern England.  It was quite sad listening to the stanzas that echoed the pain of racial isolation in recreational spaces owned by the dominant racial group.

I have lived in white areas and worked in predominantly white organisations for over 20 years. So, I had become accustomed to being the sole black person in these environments.

However, the sole black person phenomenon became exponentially obvious when I began traveling with my husband and black family/friends to European countries, but more so when we go for walks in my local towns and villages.

The stares are blatant and uncomfortable. We receive stares from white people of different age groups. For those who have traveled while being black, you’ll understand the look. 😲 Mouth open, neck crooked and eyes bulging as though a black person has never trodden the pavement. In fact, the looks received frequently make you feel as though you are an alien from a faraway place.

Now, I could assume when abroad that the locals may not have seen a black person before. However, when you receive the same looks when traveling in the UK, river thamesI find myself asking the following question:

Have attitudes really changed from the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs in British pub windows and houses of yesteryear?

I’m not sure. There are some white people who may have a genuine curiosity when they meet a black person for the first time. I have engaged with individuals who have declared I was the first black person they had met and spoken to in the UK, not abroad, but here, the country of my birth. While there are others who have displayed hostile attitudes, as though ‘we’ as black people have no right to enter certain towns, villages, and businesses in the UK.

It is easy to make the assumption that traveling while black in Europe and in the UK, encountering curious stares or hostility from white people, is a form of everyday racism. But are these situations in Europe and the UK the same? Before I continue with my discussion, let me first explain what I mean by everyday racism. Everyday racism is more than individual prejudice, or discreet acts of discrimination. It’s the manifestations embedded in practices, artifacts, discourse, and institutional realities. Brown et al (2003) eloquently assert that everyday racism is akin to the water in which fish swim.

Another question. Do all non-white people experience everyday racism in the same way? I can recall while conducting my interview for my book: Black Women Prison Employees: The Intersectionality of Gender and Race. I interviewed a participant – Raisa, a British Asian woman, who had explained that she had never experienced racism until she worked for HM Prison Service. I have met other men and women of Asian descent who have informed me that they have not experienced racism. There has always been an assumption made by the dominant group that all non-white people experience inequality in the same way. Clearly, they do not.

Now the 2011 Census, showed that 19.5% of the UK population were from non-white groups (Race Disparity Group, 2018). So there are plenty of non-white people dispersed across the UK, and we do not all live in large cities. But don’t be quick to assume the demographics of the different ethnic groups are the same. Or like my friend, when I was discussing writing this post, had made the assumption that people of black Caribbean and/or African descent were the largest group. We are not.

People from Asian ethnic groups make up the second-largest percentage of the population (at 7.5%), made up of Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Asian other. Followed by Black ethnic groups (at 3.3%), which comprise: African, Caribbean and Black other. Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups (at 2.2%) and Other ethnic groups (at 1.0%).

Similar to the variation in numbers amongst ethnic groups, there is a difference in the experience of inequality and everyday racism amongst black and Asian people in the UK. Unfortunately, UK policymakers, organisations, individuals, etc tend to treat ethnicity and race as a monolithic concept, in which all those who are non-white share the same experience of inequality. This approach acts as a means to minimise the diversity that exists amongst different ethnic groups.

I strongly believe there is a need for a new way of understanding, theorising and addressing the ways non-white people are affected by everyday racism. And for policymakers to recognise the inadequacy of treating all non-whites as a homogenous group. For this reason, I have continuously advocated for a bridge to be developed between policymakers and academics, as there appears to be a lack of understanding that ethnicity and race are socially constructed in different ways, and therefore explain different aspects of inequality within different conditions, context, relationships, etc (Valdez, 2017).

I had planned to give a few tips on how to remain safe, and comfortable when traveling while black. But I got distracted when I began to think about the difference in the experience of everyday racism between black and Asian people. I am of the opinion that everyday racism is the root cause of the negative experience we encounter as black people when traveling. I strongly believe there is a need for intersectionality to be used as a psychological framework for understanding multiple social identities. And until this framework is applied across disciplines, we as black people will continue to encounter everyday racism when traveling while black.

References

Brown, M. K., Carnoy, M., Currie, E., Duster, T., Oppenheimer, D. B., Shultz, M. M., & Wellman, D. (2003). Whitewashing race: The myth of a color-blind society. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Affirmations

At times you become so engrossed in the day job, projects, family life, surviving the challenges of racial micro-aggressions, systemic racism and everyday challenges that result from the intersection of race and gender, etc.  You end up literally falling into autopilot mode and forget to take a moment to just ‘stop’!

The last three weeks have been difficult.  My credibility and integrity have been brought into question.  Like my many black mothers and sisters who have gone before me, and black women of this era who encounter barriers, challenges, and even ridicule because of their activism, their work ethics, even their intelligence.  I adorned myself with the masquerade of ‘strong black woman’ and continued, to carry on.  Not even my close associates, people I come into contact with daily, are aware of my current struggle.

I share this because of the affirmation I received this evening as ran through the South Downs.  I decided to be accompanied by DJ Proclaimer gospel reggae takeover show, playing in my ears.  I don’t usually listen to music when I run in the Downs, that’s what makes this run even more profound because DJ Proclaimer’s motivational words, backed up with Christian teachings and several songs spoke directly to me and my current situation.

One specific song resonated with me, Judith Gayle’s song I’m approved’. This song played when I reached the top of a peak in the South Downs.  I had to raise my hands and skank.  The ecstatic feeling of running up a South Downs hill and reaching the top without stopping, and knowing I have accomplished my Doctorate, published my thesis with a reputable academic publisher, and achieved my goal, which was to make black women as gendered racialised subjects visible in prison occupational literature, deserved a moment of acknowledgment and needed to be put into perspective in relation to my current ordeal.  The words:

I am approved, when man says disapprove, God says I approve.  You are approved when man says disapprove, God says I approve”  

I came to the realisation, that it really does not matter what others may or may not think about me, because what I have achieved, no one can take that away from me.  And if I choose to ‘stop’ for a moment, then I will because I have nothing to prove.  My reputation and research speak for themselves.  I’m human, not superwoman.  So today, I remove the mask of the strong black woman.

graduation pic