I knew sexism and racism would kill my vibe, even before going abroad for a four-month nomadic trip earlier this year. I've had my share of uncomfortable encounters since my pre-teens with men on the street who catcalled, followed, or threatened me for not wanting to speak to them. I've even been groped in parties and at school.
I've also dealt with micro-aggressions in whiter spaces. People have complained about the "difficulty of my name." White people have asked to touch my hair. I've been ignored and followed while shopping in the store. Because of this, I tend to keep my guard up, no matter where I'm going.
Seeking out safe spaces with Black women who are open and non-judgmental has been one way I've learned to cope with these experiences.
I wanted to break bread with women of color who got me. I wanted to connect and build an understanding about what it meant to be a Black woman in a place outside of the United States.
It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I went to Johannesburg, South Africa first. While there, I made many connections
through the Internet by following travel bloggers and joining Black travel
group chats. I also pushed myself to attend local events in the area, including
a yoga class taught by a woman who lived in my apartment building.
I even went to an event hosted by the founder of Tastemakers Africa, a blog showing an alternative lifestyle for travelers in Africa.
In these meet-ups, I unpacked all my fears as we spoke on racism, sexism, careers, relationships, traveling, and hair. Those conversations gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Black woman, not just in America, but globally.
One woman named Brenda*, who I met at the Tastemakers event, told me how lower-income Black women have a higher-risk of being sexually assaulted at taxi ranks in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Taxis are the cheapest form of public transportation and they're not always the safest. This year, the non-profit Sonke Gender Justice partnered with the South African National Taxi Council to launch the Safe Ride Campaign. It is an effort to prevent rape and harassment against women and children who are commuting in taxis.
"This needs to end," Nonhlanhla Skosana, community education and mobilization acting manager at Sonke Gender Justice, said in a press statement. "Taxi industry personnel need to be educated about the rights of people and, more especially, they need to be sensitized against perpetrating gender-based violence."
Stories like these don't make it to the top of global news.
In May, I had a high-and-low in Barcelona, Spain. I'd attended a brunch hosted by Sienna and Danni of Las Morenas De Espana, a site for women of color living or traveling in Spain. About 20 or so Black and brown women from Britain, America and France gathered at a restaurant on a sunny spring morning. Some were finishing a semester abroad while some were just visiting.
Many shared what it's like being Black in Spain: Sometimes, they felt accepted, but they occasionally faced micro-aggressions from those culturally unaware. After the event, the group bought drinks at a small corner store. We then went to the Arc de Triomf, one of Barcelona's most iconic landmarks, where we sat on the grass, took photos, and enjoyed each other’s company.
I had a rude awakening that evening.
While walking on Las Ramblas, a popular strip of clubs and shops, my friend and I spotted Black girls, who looked as young as 16, standing on corners. They all wore blonde wigs. That's when it dawned on us that they were prostitutes.
These girls were invisible to everyone out enjoying their night. We no longer felt safe, so we turned in for the night.
This is not an unusual experience: An estimated 80% of Nigerian women migrants who make it to Europe are sold into sex trafficking, according to the International Organization for Migration. In Spain, APRAMP, a charity that helps women escape trafficking, assists assists at least 1,300 victims a month.
"This is modern slavery," Fabio Di Giacomo, of the IOM, told PBS. "These girls are forced to face terrible abuses and violence in the countries of origin, in the country of transit. But they don't even know the kind of abuse they are going to be forced to face here in Europe. It's something that should be tackled as soon as possible. It's a modern plague."
Gloria Atanmo, creator of The Blog Abroad, has even been approached for prostitution "dozens of times" while traveling in Europe.
"And before the cynics begin to question what I was wearing, it didn't matter. I was clothed, covered, and respectable," Antanmo wrote. "Whether that be in a long, flowing skirt or in jeans and a peacoat, there are just some regions of the world who see Black skin on a woman, and assume that the only way I was able to afford to get there and stay there, was by way of selling my body to a local."
The following day, I connected with fellow college alumni at a hotel rooftop in Madrid. When I reached the reception area, one of the workers told me the rooftop had filled to capacity—though the lobby seemed quiet and empty.
Encounters like these are common. Black travelers and expats navigate indirect and overt racism while abroad. Much of it has to do with ignorance of Black culture.
"I've been asked "Can you play basketball?" "Do you have a big dick?" "Can I call you my nigga?" "Can you rap?" And the list goes on and on," Erick Prince, creator of Minority Nomad, said. "I really didn't understand the impact media has on me until I began traveling internationally."
For some, there is a sentiment that racism can be more easily dismantled abroad than in America.
Terrell Jermaine Starr, a national correspondent at Fusion, described an encounter with a Ukrainian policeman who mistook him for a drug dealer in The Washington Post. The officer forced Starr to present his passport and follow him to a mini-police station. He then accused Starr, a Fulbright fellow, of being a drug smuggler.
"Another cop soon joined him in interrogating me, demanding to know the real reason I was in Ukraine," Starr wrote. "They insisted I was posing as a student to mask my real intent: smuggling drugs. Even after showing them my Fulbright documents, they continued to harass me. Only after nearly 30 minutes of questioning did they realize I was clean and release me."
Despite this encounter, Starr wrote that that cops forwardness impressed him. "He made it clear that his stop was motivated by race and nothing more," he wrote. "In New York City, where I now live, the NYPD immediately rejects any suggestion that racism can motivate officers' behavior, even subconsciously."
The fact that they were willing to discuss race made all the difference for Starr. Danni of "Las Morenas De España" expressed a similar understanding of racism abroad.
"What I try to remind myself of is the fact that there's no Spanish Martin Luther King, Jr., there's no Spanish Malcolm X, there's no Spanish Assata Shakur," she told me. "Our cultural baggage in the United States is not the cultural baggage that Spain has. Our cultural lens is not theirs. So when I come here I try and remain conscious of the fact that they didn't have a Civil Rights Movement. They don't have the same struggles that we have."
Street harassment became another fear while traveling in a new city. I didn't experience much of this, but there were a few incidents.
One irritating man on a bike in Amsterdam harassed me: He spoke to me in Dutch and I responded in English. This only piqued his curiosity. "Where are you going? I want to talk to you."
I told him I wasn't interested at least 15 times before he left me alone.
In London, a white man approached me while I walked down Oxford Street. "Your hair looks so fluffy," he said while staring in amazement. He then asked me for my name and where I'm from, but I had already swiftly turned the corner. Thankfully, he did not follow me.
Being catcalled to the point of feeling completely unsafe is an experience many Black female travelers share. Joanna Franco, founder of Shut Up and Go, felt unsafe in Cuba at times.
"I was enraged at how many Cuban men, mostly mulatto or Black men would loudly blow kisses, whistle, scream 'BEAUTIFUL LADY,' and follow me for blocks down the street," she wrote. "I ignored them and used my silence to reflect and observe."
A Black woman detailed this very sad fact in an anonymous post on Stop Street Harassment about her life in Italy.
"It's a beautiful country but there is no peace when you are a woman of color. That is, if they don't know that you are American," the post read. "If they look at you and think you are any other type of woman of color, the assumption is that you are 'working' the streets."
Reports on sexual harassment show how this is a reality for women worldwide. In America, one in five women have been sexually assaulted and one out of three worry about being sexually assaulted. Action Aid found that 75% of women in Britain, 79% of women in India, 86% in Thailand, and 86% in Brazil have experienced a form of violence or harassment.
Despite these challenges, the good still outweighed the bad.
By the end of my trip, I had a rolodex of new sister-friends that I can travel with. While in the magical city of Venice, I did some sightseeing, ate gelato, and walked around with a Black woman I linked with in Travel Noire, a travel group. I also turned up with a group of Black women in Paris, who I met through my college alumni expat group.
Because of them, I now have a richer view of the spectrum of Black womanhood. And it's great to know I can now find safe space with them no matter what geographical lines I cross.
Main Image: Natelegé Whaley