Tag Archives: racism

Traveling While Black — a young brother’s perspective

If you ever wondered what the phrase “traveling while black” was all about, a friend of mine has spelled it out for you.

Mark Twain once famously said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” It’s a favorite quote of travel writers and travel bloggers the world over, to the point of becoming a travel writing cliché — even if it’s an endearing, hopeful one.

But that’s only part of what Twain said. A lot of folks need to hear the whole thing:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

Both halves of Twain’s statement are true, but there’s a flip-side to that statement that old Mark didn’t address, namely that there’s a fair amount of “prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” out there in the world, aimed straight at “us.”

That’s okay, though, because very recently, a friend of mine and fellow travel blogger did address it. Head-on. In the doing, he also partly answered the question of why some of “us” are reluctant to travel outside the United States.

The young man’s name is Ernest White II, and he goes by the nom de blog of Fly Brother.

He had an article published today by the Matador Network that should be required reading for a lot of folks I know. His piece is entitled 8 things white people will never know about travel.”

It’s a short, pointed reminder that racism is more than a theory, not just a “card” and hardly exclusive to the United States.

I can personally vouch for the accuracy and reality of Ernest’s list, having experienced seven of his eight points myself. Whether you’re from Africa or from the African Diaspora, if you’re a black traveler, it’s not all sweetness and light out there.

As a former Mexican pen-pal of mine once said (before I got tired of him sending me Mexican stamps with disparaging caricatures of black folks with ink-black skin and bubble lips), “mas claro, agua.” The only thing more clear than that is water.

There are black folks who will tell you, “Why should I spend my hard-earned money to be subjected to that? I can get racism right here at home — and without the jet lag!”

But the last point Ernest makes in his piece is, to me, by far the most important:

“All that being said, I’ll never stop traveling.”

We owe it to ourselves to see the world, to know the world in all its realities, both beautiful and ugly. There’s too much out there that’s wonderful, glorious and uplifting to let someone else’s “prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” deprive us of it.

If we do that, we hand victory to the racists of the world. And that just can’t happen.

The world, in turn, needs to get an honest picture of us. Where are they going to get that? MTV? BET? The latest video from L’il Wayne?


Travel is indeed fatal to those evils of which Mark Twain spoke. Ernest White’s list is a reminder that their death is neither automatic nor instantaneous, and that we all need to take a hand in knocking them off.

The Star(e) of the show


RACISM: Cuba faces its demon

© Tracy Gross photo

For half a century, Cuba has pilloried the United States on the issue of racism, while largely denying the racial inequity and injustice on its own shores. Is Havana finally ready for an honest look in the mirror?

A week ago, a document was published in Cuba that might never have seen daylight a decade or two ago — a 48-point proposal to deal with racism in Cuba.

It was put forth not by the Cuban government, but by Cofradia de la Negritud, a Cuban civil rights organization that publicly advocates on behalf of Cuba’s black population.

You can find the entire document, translated into English, on the Havana Times site here.

That such an organization — and the need for it — exist at all points up the contradiction that Havana has been living with since a communist revolutionary named Fidel Castro overthrew the spectacularly corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista took over the country a half-century ago.

Racism in Cuba wasn’t really a problem for Batista — not because he was more enlightened on the issue, but because, if anything, he was a big part of the problem.

But Batista didn’t create Cuba’s anti-black racism. He and his fellow “Spanish” Cubans were merely maintaining a national tradition.

Oppression of blacks in Cuba dates back to the Spanish colonizers who imported African slaves there. Those same Spaniards also introduced the attitudes that blacks were inherently inferior, attitudes that continued long after slavery had ended and the Spanish had left.

Some things have changed for the better under Castro. Racism clearly is not one of them, something that even officials in the Cuban government now grudgingly admit.

All of this matters because sooner or later, probably sooner, Americans will be able to freely visit the island. That means that black American travelers are likely to run head-long into Cuba’s greatest self-contradiction.

A lot of what they see may not sit well with them —a marginalized black population, locked in a cycle of poverty as much by colorism, prejudice and institutionalized racism as by America’s ongoing economic embargo.

All this in the same nation that was sending humanitarian and military aid to Africa, the same nation that spent decades putting the United States “on blast” about our ongoing racial problems — and occasionally still does.

Pot, say “hola” to kettle.

Critics have been lambasting the Cuban government for decades on all this. A lot of that criticism was motivated more by anti-Castro hatred than any real concern for Cuba’s black populace, but the criticism itself was still valid.

The first step in solving any problem is admitting that you have one. Cuba is showing signs that it is ready, at long last, to face up to its racial demon.

Only time will tell if it actually does.

TRACY GROSS: To be black in Cuba “no es facil”
TRACY GROSS: Passing for Cuban
CUBA in black
Cuba travel embargo — Beginning of the end?
RANT — The Cuba Embargo


CHINA: Trusting your ears

When you step outside your comfort zone of language and culture, you can’t always trust your own eyes and ears.

This morning, I got an email that reminded me why the open mind is critical when you travel. Especially when “we” travel.

It was from Mike Franklin, a photographer with whom I used to work in San Diego during our newspaper days. He’s still in daily journalism, only nowadays, he’s practicing the craft in China. Beijing, to be exact.

Naturally, he’s keeping a blog. And recently, he posted something that he wanted me — and you — to see.

“I put up a blog post that I thought might interest you in terms of your blog, “I’m Black and I Travel.” I don’t know if you have ever been to China but if you have readers who may be traveling there this could save some bad feelings.”

It’s about race and racism. It’s also about the power of words and the greater greater power — and danger — of perception:

“After a short time in Beijing I started to notice that people use a word that sounds way too close to the shortened version of the N-word. At first you just think…Naw…. I must be hearing things: then you begin to hear it everywhere. Once you start hearing it you notice it all the time. It is hard to deal with. People start off sentences with it, they use it in the middle at the end in between words. I start to wonder if they picked it up from some movie that was popular in China.”

As you’ll see when you read the whole thing, all is not as it seems, or sounds.

You can read the entire post here.

A lot of us, shaped by culture, family and life in general, grow up to be extremely sensitive to the slightest perception of racial slights. I’m talking hair-trigger sensitivity and we take it wherever we go, including out into the wider world.

With that sensitivity comes the potential for some truly ugly misunderstandings.

I am the last person to suggest that a black man or woman ignore a racial slur hurled at them. But Mike’s blog post reminds us that when you’re moving not only outside your cultural comfort zone but outside your own language, you need to check yourself first. Is what you just heard actually what you just heard?

It might not be.

One of the fears that keeps a lot of us from traveling is the fear that we’ll encounter racism and prejudice abroad as we’ve encountered it here at home. And when you do travel, that hair trigger goes on high alert. But the cultural experience that we wear like armor at home can easily become unwieldy baggage abroad.

The moral: Keep an open mind when you travel. Presume nothing, assume nothing, ask questions about everything. Mike’s post is a reminder that, when we’re taking those first tentative steps into someone else’s world, we can’t always trust our own eyes and ears.

Travel is about picking up new experiences, not validating old ones.


The Middle East & North Africa in Black

Beirut by night
Beirut shoreline by night — © Ddkg | Dreamstime.com

There are plenty of reasons to visit this fascinating part of the world — but where “we” are concerned, these regions have issues.

As a traveler, a history nut, and a Christian wanting to better understand Islam, I definitely want to see the Middle East and North Africa — but this week, I was reminded why I’m in no hurry to do so.

It starts in Lebanon, the de facto vacation capital of the Arab world. At first glance, Lebanon appears custom-made for travelers — natural beauty, archeological treasures, dynamic nightlife, all packed into a country smaller than the state of Connecticut.

Depending on the season, you can ski in Laklouk in the morning, sun yourself on a Beirut beach in the afternoon and party in Sidon until the break of dawn — all on the same day. 

You can find unforgettable destinations like this throughout the Arab-speaking world. Are you kidding? Who wouldn’t want to go?

That’s when your Web wanderings take you to something straight out of 1950s Alabama.

Looking further, you come to the observations of blogger Jane Rubio:

“…if you’re sitting on the bus, people will solicit you to come to their house and clean…if you’re walking with your white friend, and she’s carrying her bag or her baby or her groceries, you will get yelled at for not doing your job…you will be called ugly and ‘slave’ to your face.”

Read Rubio’s full entry here.

Nor is this limited to Lebanon, or the Middle East, as you’ll see here.

Moses Ebe Ochonu is an African scholar teaching history at Vanderbilt University, who writes on his site, the Nigerian Village Square. According to him, similar attitudes exist across the Arab-speaking world:

“Till this day, the generic word or for a black person is the preface “abd,” which translates as ‘slave.’ “

Don’t forget that Palestinian editorial cartoon back in George W. Bush’s day, the one depicting Condoleezza Rice as being pregnant…with a monkey.

Professor Ochonu again:

“…throughout much of the Arab world, the only ticket to social visibility for blacks is soccer. Becoming a soccer star gives a black person access to coveted corridors of society and enables them to ‘marry up,’ racially speaking.”

Replace “soccer” with “the NFL” or “the NBA” and this unfamiliar part of the world begins to sound very familiar. According to the professor, ethnicity also plays a role in the Darfur tragedy:

“…until the Janjaweed and their racist and murderous Sudanese government backers gave a bad name to the art of hating, marginalizing, and murdering blacks, Arabs never quite saw the raiding of black villages for slaves and cattle, especially in Southern and Western Sudan, as a crime.”

Read Professor’s Ochonu’s full text here.

Is this 2010 or 1510? When I hear things like this, it makes me question my calendar. It also makes me want to re-draw my travel map.

What is going on here?


CUBA in black

Havana’s ugly little secret — racism — is coming into the light.

Something long whispered about in Cuba is now being spoken of aloud, and it’s not all those antique “hoopties” rattling around the island. Discrimination against blacks is the bull in Fidel Castro’s revolutionary china shop.

And the bull is getting noticed.

Let’s be fair. Cuban racism is a good four centuries old. When the Spanish colonizers found the native peoples unable to withstand the rigors of slavery, they brought in African captives to replace them.

If you’re a black American, you’ve already seen this movie.

Which means that oppression of blacks in Cuba predates not only Castro, but the man he overthrew, the breathtakingly corrupt Fulgencio Batista.

But while Cuba’s racism didn’t start with old Fidel, it clearly didn’t end with him, either.

Today, there are signs that Cuba’s blacks are no longer accepting revolutionary platitudes at face value. They’re speaking out about their plight.

In years past, critics who tried to bring this up were dismissed as counter-revolutionaries in Cuba and shouted down as Uncle Toms over here. Cuban academics like Esteban Morales of the University of Havana proclaimed that Cuba “is the only country in the world in which blacks and mestizos have the state and the government as their ally.”

But even Morales admits:

“We are not dealing with the racial problem openly, completely, and profoundly, as we must do internally. We used to think that it wasn’t necessary to talk about it.”

On both sides of the gulf between Miami and Havana, those days may be over.

Stick around. This could get interesting.


Dr. Carlos Moore

Dr. Estaban Morales


CHINA in black

Is racism China’s other Great Wall?

The presence of Barack Obama as America’s first president of African descent is prompting a more open discussion about race and prejudice, and not just in the United States.

Check out this piece in the Washington Post about Chinese attitudes toward blacks.

By the time you finish reading, you may suspect that there’s more than one Great Wall in China.

Nor does this qualify as a revelation. The most casual Google search on the issue will yield scores of discussions and opinions — and more than a few conclusions that the Chinese do indeed have an “attitude” about black folks.

At the same time, you also can find blogs and websites from Africans and African-Americans studying, working and living successfully in the Middle Kingdom. One example would be AfroShanghai.com.

You can even turn on CCTVChina Central Television — and see a travelogue hosted by a young black American who seems perfectly at home in the entire country (the fact that he can switch between English and Mandarin the way you and I turn the lights on and off probably doesn’t hurt).

So what’s the deal here?

As is often the case in matters of race, the truth about China seems to be nuanced and depends on who you ask — and since I haven’t been there yet, I’m having to ask a lot of folks. However, there’s one thing I’ve noticed in my own travels that seems to apply here. It’s a recurring pattern in Europe and Asia.

Blacks, especially African students living or working overseas, can find themselves discriminated against, openly disrespected, shunned, even attacked. Black American visitors, on the other hand, can sail through these very same environments with no problems.

How is this possible?

The key lies in two words. One is “American.” The other is “visitor.”

People in other countries don’t perceive us the way we perceive ourselves. While we debate amongst ourselves over whether we should be thought of as black Americans or African-Americans, most of the world looks at us and just sees an American, period. This is especially true for those who’ve never spent any time in the States. America’s racial angst just doesn’t register on their social radar.

Being perceived as an American means being perceived as someone with money…and when you’re traveling, than can actually be a good thing.


Ditto for your status as a visitor or a tourist.

Even if they don’t care for your complexion, they do love the color of money, and so thus are likely to be nice to you on that basis alone.

For the African in those countries, it’s often a much different story.

In Europe, its a matter of Africans seeking a better life in the nations that had once colonized their homelands — and in most cases, enslaved their ancestors. For the most part, they don’t have money. They come looking for jobs, which some Europeans resent. Many have to hustle on the streets just to survive, and some do turn to crime, which just turns up the resentment even more.

Sound familiar at all?

The deal in China, as well as the former Soviet Union, is different.

In those places, young Africans were invited as university students out of “solidarity” with the “Third World struggle.” Translation: They were as bent on exploiting Africans politically as the European colonizers had been on exploiting them economically. Neither had any real love for them.

But if the Chinese didn’t have the love, they did have an agenda. To further it, they brought Africans to China for college educations, free of charge.

Can you say “Instant resentment from the locals,” boys and girls? I thought you could.

For a variety of reasons, some of those Africans stayed on to build lives in China, seeking jobs and creating families, including marrying Chinese women.

Result: Resentment up the ying-yang, so to speak. Behind all that rhetoric about solidarity, it seems, was a lot of good old-fashioned bigotry.

And if the Post story is any indication, it’s still there.

None of this may be reason enough to stage a personal travel boycott of a land with great diverse natural beauty and a cultural heritage 5,000 years old. China has a lot going on these days that make it worth a traveler’s while.

But it does remind us that prejudice, and the need to combat it, are universal.


JAPAN in black

Even in the 21st century, the Land of the Rising Sun still is a source of bewilderment and suspicion to much of black America.

Japan flag

Japan is one of the world’s great travel destinations, but a tricky one for any independent traveler. For black Americans, though, there’s an added, uncomfortable question:

How do the Japanese feel about “us”…really?

The question actually could apply to nearly all of Asia, but it comes up first in any dscussion of Japan.

We’ve all heard about the Sambo dolls and “darkie toothpaste,” racist comments made by certain Japanese politicians, and so on. We see Japanese kids getting into hip-hop (along with the rest of the planet), and then see Japanese entertainers resorting to modern-day blackface.


Only last week, I was reading on a black-oriented chat site about how Tokyo cabbies deliberately passed up black visitors trying to hail a cab. “Too, dark! Too dark!” they yelled as they sped by.

You may be thinking, “Why go all that way and pay all that money just to be subjected to racism? I can get that at home!” Truth is, it’s not all one-way over there. Talk to any 10 black folks who’ve spent any time in Japan and you likely will come away with five horror stories and five tales of joy.

Me? I experienced both.

More than once while walking around Tokyo back in the 1970s, my wife and I could feel people’s eyes on us, and sometimes caught them openly giggling and laughing. For awhile, we were wondering if one of us had grown a tail. One young woman was so into her own mocking moment that she stumbled and dropped the rather sizable fish she’d just bought.

Ever after, whenever someone made a complete fool of themselves in public, we’d laugh and say, “He dropped his fish!”

The next night, we’re in the Ginza district. It’s 10 o’clock. We’re expecting this sprawling temple of neon to be buzzing. No one told us that the Ginza basically rolled up by about eight. So here we are, wandering in unfamiliar and steadily darkening territory, miles from our hotel and not a taxi in sight. It’s getting scary.

All of a sudden, a group of Japanese youths approach us. In halting English, tell us about this jazz club they know, and lead us to this innocuous-looking little office building a couple of blocks away. The club’s inside, one floor up — and it’s jumpin’!

We spend the next few hours drinking Kirin beers out of a glass boot and listening to some of the best jazz I’ve ever heard, in a place we never would’ve found on our own. And when it was over, they helped us get a cab back to the hotel.

So which of these is the real Japan?

Probably both.

Many non-Japanese who’ve spent a lot of time in the country will tell you that you don’t have to be black to be the object of scorn in Japan. All you have to be is a gaijin. And who is a gaijin? Anyone who’s not Japanese.

The Japanese have their own label for our particular breed of gaijin…kokujin. And no, it is NOT the Japanese equivalent of the “N-word.”

They do have such a word, though. It’s “kurombo.” It’s considered an extreme insult, forbidden in polite society, and aimed straight at “us.”

And yet there are black Americans from all walks of life who thrive in Japan — young people who’ve gone there to study and fell in love with the place, ex-military who served in Japan and never left, musicians who’ve found receptive audiences, professionals who happily make their careers there. Some will even tell you they’ve managed to escape America’s racism by making Japan their home.

Among those black folks who’ve “made it” in Japan, there’s one common thread. They kept their minds open. They all took the time to learn the culture, even the language. One of the country’s most popular singers today is Jero, a young brother who sings enka, traditional Japanese music style…in Japanese!

The Japanese themselves are making some efforts to reach across the cultural gulf, in the form of groups like the Japan African-American Friendship Association.

You may not have time for all that, but that doesn’t mean you should automatically strike Japan off your to-visit list. You just need to put the place in some context.

Japan has had an insular culture for most of its existence, to the point that shipwrecked sailors who washed up on shore from other lands were often not allowed to leave — and even put to death. It was the United States that led a reluctant Japan to open itself to the world — and that was done at gunpoint. World War 2 has been over for more than half a century, but our military is still in Japan, which doesn’t really thrill all Japanese.

Meanwhile, our peeps are finding their own voice in Japan, through blogs like Black Tokyo and Sista in Tokyo, as well as organizations like JAMS, a union of black American musicians in Japan. They know far more about the racial realities over there, because they’re living them.

So before you make up your mind about Japan and the Japanese, check out those sites and get the 4-1-1 direct, instead of relying on the proverbial “Well, I heard…”

So what makes Japan worth all that money and all that jet lag?

Well, let’s see. Forested mountains. Ocean beaches of black volcanic sand. Hyper-modern cities built on the foundation of a culture centuries old. A glimpse of ways of life, both ancient and modern, different from our own. A chance to see the Next Big Thing in automobiles, architecture, electronics, public transit and urban planning, years or even decades before it reaches our shores.

Most of all, a chance to get about as far out of your cultural comfort zone as you can get, and still be able to find your way back.


Are there black folks there?

I wish I had a dollar for every time I started describing a recent trip of mine and got this question in response:

“Did you see any black folks there?”

After awhile, you almost start feeling like a guest on some sort of ethnocentric version of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom:

[NARRATOR, whispering]: “While Marlin waits upstream, Greg ventures out of his hotel in search of the rare and elusive Dark-Skinned North American Humanoid—”

This is fear, the dread that wells up in folks who’ve yet to venture outside their cultural comfort zones.

There are travel agencies, trip organizers and Internet travel groups who appeal to that very trait in the trips they organize for folks, getting them out and about while keeping them psychologically secure at the same time.

The roots of all that fear are understandable. When you’ve been conditioned by life to view the world in a certain way, it makes you wary of stepping outside the box, even if the air inside is sometimes dank with things like racism, intolerance, condescension.

There is something in us human beings that makes us cling to the familiar over the unknown, no matter how ugly the familiar may be.

It’s what leads folks so often to look upon explorers, adventurers and free thinkers as being at least mildly insane.

I may understand that fear and sympathize with those who have it, but I don’t share it. For me, seeing places and meeting people who don’t look, talk, think or act like me is one of the reasons I travel — and love travel — in the first place.

Nothing, including the human spirit, grows well inside a box. As my friend Shay Olivarria is fond of saying, “The world is bigger than your block!”

The reality is is simple: “We” are everywhere. Have been for a long time.

How long? Long enough for there to have been black mariachis in Mexico and black samurai in feudal Japan.

So when I travel, I’m not looking for touchstones from the “old country,” human or otherwise. If I wanted everything and everyone to be just like home, I’d stay home.

I mean, why would you shell out painful airfares and suffer the ravages of jet lag to fly halfway around the world, only to end up going to McDonald’s for lunch?

Wait a minute…I’ve done that. Never mind!

(Actually, it wasn’t a McDonald’s. It was a mini-market at a Shell gas station in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. It was close, I was hungry, and where else in the world will you find a gas station with quiche to die for?)

But as I said, for those new, hesitant would-be travelers out there, there are touring support systems available. I’ve listed a few of them below. A fuller search of the Web will yield many more. I’ve never used and don’t endorse any of them, but if you’re curious, check them out for yourself and see what you think.

If you’re inclined to actually use one, check them out thoroughly before you shell out any money — references, the Better Business Bureau, the works. Ask questions, lots of questions, and don’t commit yourself until you’re satisfied with the answers. This goes for any travel service you use, online or off, black-owned or not.

It’s your trip and your money.

Anyway, here’s the list:

Black Cruise Week
First came across this on AOL Black Voices. It’s actually part of a black travel newsletter that includes multiple categories of travel. We’ll talk more about cruises in a latter episode.

Black Refer.com
And it’s “refer,” NOT “reefer,” so don’t even go there! They have an extensive list of black travel sites, music and cultural festivals, and online travel guides oriented for the African-American traveler. One of those sites is—

Soul of America
An online guide for African-American travel inside and outside the United States, with information everything from beach trips and heritage tours to black towns.

Whether you go as an independent traveler as I would, or hook up with a group, the point is to go. It’s your world. Shouldn’t you have a look at it?

See you upstream.