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Traveling While Black: Hold Your Fire

We often assume that certain reactions to “us” from people in other countries are based on racism, when it’s really about not knowing. Better to hold your fire until you’re sure.

As Black Americans contemplating venturing beyond North America for the first time, we fret a lot over how we’re going to be seen — and treated — by the rest of the world.

Once on the journey, we’re alert for even the most minor of slights, which we often take as being deliberate disrespect, motivated by racial prejudice. Reaction is almost a reflex.

At the very least, it can ruin a carefully planned and very expensive vacation. The worst-case possibilities, you don’t even want to contemplate.

A lot of this has its roots in an assumption that, since the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, the rest of the world is intimately familiar with what it means to be Black in the United States.

The assumption is wrong.

Does this mean there are no anti-black attitudes anywhere outside the US? Absolutely not. But every uncomfortable encounter is not necessarily what it seems.

A lot of our experienced Black travelers have understood that for a long time, and make allowances for it. As a result, they seldom run into problems when they’re trotting the globe.

Me? I had to go all the way to China to learn that.

Throughout my China trip, I saw more Chinese tourists than foreign ones. Many were from the vastness of rural China, undoubtedly seeing big cities for the first time in their lives.

For them, a city the size of Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong is a seemingly endless series of mysteries, not the least of which may be the sight of a dark-skinned foreign tourist.

I later learned that their relative lack of sophistication earns them contempt, and sometimes abuse, from their more urbanized countrymen. What’s more, the Chinese government for decades has imposed restrictions on their ability to move to the big cities for education, work, even health care.

It would be as if an Iowa high school graduate needed an internal passport to attend the University of California, Berkeley, or go to Arizona for specialized cancer treatment.

If they know so little about urban life in their own country, is it fair to expect them to know all about “us,” half a world away?

Probably not.

This is hardly limited to China. In many places, all they know of “us” is what they read in a magazine or see in a film or a video.

It’s not that other nationalities are inherently racist, or hostile to Black Americans. They just don’t know.

This is often true even among Africans, whose cultural conditioning puts them much closer to Europeans than to us.

All of this is compounded by the fact that, even thought our numbers are gradually growing, Black Americans travel relatively little outside the United States. So a lot of people in a lot of other places don’t see us, don’t meet us, and as a result, don’t know all that much about our culture or our lives in the States.

Should we automatically condemn folks for not knowing? Should people elsewhere automatically “down” you and me for the things about other cultures that we’re clueless about?

If so, we could be in line for a lot of grief. Presuming that the rest of the world knows more about “us” than it actually does can lead to misunderstandings when we travel.

The last thing you need 10,000 miles from home is a lot of unnecessary drama.

If you think about it, it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to expect the rest of the world to know everything about our country, even to the point of expecting everyone to speak English wherever we go.

Whether traveling ourselves or encountering other travelers at home, we all need to cut one another some slack. Let’s get to know the world, and give the world a chance to know us.

When in doubt, especially in someone else’s country and dealing with an unfamiliar culture, it’s better to keep calm and hold your fire until you’re sure.

And even then, it’s still probably better to just keep calm and travel on.

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