Dispatch is a new series of first-person travel stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
I was in London last year for a friend's wedding. I stayed with a friend who lived with five others and we were talking about which of London's open-air markets I should see. "Brixton. You have to go to Brixton Market. It's so cool and no one goes there. I swear it's the next big thing," said one of her flatmates. The next day, I miraculously took the right number of buses, and broke a one-day record for not getting lost.
This was Brixton Market? Where no one goes? No one had bothered to tell black people. The streets were full of black folk. Stores sold greeting cards with black people on them. I ate brunch at an Afro-Brazilian restaurant. I haggled with a Nigerian man selling African print cloth. Brixton Market was very black. I didn't know how to tell my hosts that black people are, well, people.
Moments like that happen on every trip. They crop up to remind me that my people are visible in dangerous ways and invisible in troubling ways, and vice versa. There are few warnings. Neither Tripadvisor nor Lonely Planet has a section for reporting racial interactions.
The first time I remember experiencing racism on the road was on a school trip. I did not know about Europe's contentious relationship with its dark-skinned population. I was not yet, as they say, woke. All over Italy, groups of men would stop to yell "cioccolata!" at me. At 16, I was desperate for male attention and, yet, I cringed and ignored it. Years later, when my sister planned a trip to Europe, we ran down the countries she would visit in order of most to least racist; my Italian experience added to its high ranking. We did not foresee what happened in Spain, where she was treated daily like a prostitute. It turns out that many of Spain's sex workers are black women.
In this, I sometimes envy other people's travels. They will have nice concierges and a missed-flight story when they come back. I leave every trip with at least one grim racial encounter. I end up looking forward to returning to the Canadian racial landscape, which can also hurt but at least it's home. Better the devil you know, I guess.
My oldest sister moved for a short time to a town in the eastern Netherlands with a large public square: wine on patios, converging paths, centuries-old churches and rows of bicycles. It is a social hub. She hated going there. Walking through that space amplified her feeling that her skin colour was under a spotlight in this very white town. Holland actually has a sizeable black population for which colonialism and immigration are responsible. In fact, one of the first stores on a path heading into the square is a black hair store. For a black woman travelling, spotting a black hair store is a safety net and a solace. My people are here, and they have conditioner.
And yet, when I flew over for a visit, I understood my sister's discomfort. Black people did not hang out in the town square. If this was a meeting place, they were meeting elsewhere. Black people were barely visible in Dutch public life. (The less said about Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa Claus whose sidekick, Zwarte Piet, wears blackface, the better.) There were few exceptions. On Kings Day, we went to Amsterdam. Kings Day is like Canada Day except that everyone wears orange and behaves. Unlike Canada Day, however, there were barely any people of colour taking part in the celebrations. The black people we did see were the security staff at the Van Gogh Museum and a black family at a train station.
This kind of sporadic visibility can lead to odd interactions for two girls trying to get their European glamour on: On a night out, a group of men approached us. One asked my sister what she did. She is an engineer, and he would not believe it. "You don't have to hide who you are; just tell the truth." Sometimes, the cost of being seen is to be devalued.
When I get on a plane, I navigate all the spaces between invisibility and visibility, attention and credibility, appreciation and appropriation. Travelling while black often means confronting social tides and currents that I don't have the language, assurance of safety or desire to call out. I am lucky to travel and I do it to learn and discover, not to carry other people's baggage.
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