Traveling as a Woman of Color

Everyone has different travel experiences, and your identity (i.e. race/ ethnicity, sexuality, gender etc) very very much influences that. One of the main reasons I wanted to start this blog is to help out women of color who want to travel. Sometimes before traveling to a country, I wonder what my experience abroad might be like as a woman of color, and, more specifically, as an East Asian woman (Chinese).

Yet I’ve found time and time again that it’s so frustratingly hard to find any travel blogs that go over race. This is probably due to the fact that there are so little people of color traveling, nevertheless travel blogs run by women of color. There have been various travel blogs out there who have helped prepare me for what I might experience while traveling as a woman abroad, but there isn’t much to prepare me for being a woman of color in particular. Because of that, I became determined to create this blog in order to add another voice to the small pool of travel blogs run by women of color. 

I really hope this page of general situations you may potentially face helps! Keep in mind though that if you really want to know what it’s like to be in x country as a woman of color, the best thing you can do is go out and see it for yourself. As a fellow woman of color, clearly intersecting race and gender relations have not stopped me from traveling- and I hope it doesn’t stop you either.


More Unwanted Attention

You may get more unwanted attention than your white peers, and especially by the local men (given your intersectionality as a woman too), depending on where you are in the world. Generally this happens in countries with populations that are more or less homogeneous, and that this homogeneous population is not of your own race and/or ethnicity. For instance, even though I am a woman of color, going to China or Japan is not going to make me stand out in the same way it would if I were going to Mexico or Nigeria. In my personal experience, this  was definitely the case in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Compared to my white girl friends, the sexual harassment was a lot more frequent and brutal. I don’t think I was even fully aware of it until one of my friends in Ecuador blatantly pointed it out to me one night. After politely denying a drink from two local men for the 4th time in a row, he commented on how it appears to be twice as hard for me to be left alone than it is for our white girl friends. My only guess as to why this may happen to us women of color is that, when there are travelers, they are generally white due to general race and class intersection within the US. Therefore, in certain countries, we’re not just rare but rather we’re super rare. The exotification and curiousness of us can be a lot bigger.


Less Attention

As much as you may receive more attention from your white peers, you might also receive less. This may be because you’re traveling among countries that are dominated by the same race and/or ethnicity as you. Or it may be because unfortunately you are deemed as inferior. Racism is everywhere, but the part of who gets oppressed all depends on the country’s history and current social, political, and economic structure. 


Higher Expectations

Sometimes receiving less attention is a curse. I’ve constantly heard of backpackers wishing they could blend in so that they can receive less unwanted attention, get a cheaper price on goods in the markets etc. But honestly, standing out (aka easily being recognized as a foreigner) is awesome in the sense that the locals expect you to make mistakes. They expect you to not be able to fluently (or at all) speak the local language and they are always willing to help you because they realize that this isn’t your country. Those advantages won’t exist as a person of color traveling to the country of their own ethnicity (like when I traveled to China as a Chinese American). You may be expected to know the cultural norms and you may be expected to know the language fluently.

If you are super connected to your roots, then that’s great! I’m personally jealous. It’s when you aren’t as well connected that it may become frustrating. You may feel ashamed that you can’t fulfill these expectations, upset that you’re carrying this extra burden that your fellow white travelers don’t have to deal with, sad that you’re as disconnected from this part of your identity as you are, and annoyed that no one is giving you the same patience that they are giving those that are not of your ethnicity. During these hard times, remember that self care is important and  know that your racial identity is valid whether you speak the language, know the culture etc or not. You are worthy.


You May Get Confused

It’s hard to tell when you should deem something as a cultural difference and when you should deem it as just down right racist. Something tells me though that these two things do not have to be mutually exclusive. Racism, or the systematic advancement of a race or ethnicity through the systematic oppression of another, is prevalent everywhere. Some cases are easier to define as racist than others. Macroaggression racism, or large scale overt racism, is always fairly easy to spot no matter the country. But what about microaggression racism? Those everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their race is a lot harder to tell. It happens below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. The people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm and perpetuating racism. In the United States, it’s a lot easier for me to know when I’m being microaggressed because I understand the racial relationship there. I understand that being told that I’m pretty “for an Asian girl” isn’t a compliment and that being asked “No, but where are you really from?” when I say Massachusetts is othering and low key racist. Yet when I’m traveling internationally, I find myself more confused and very hesitant to call what I would deem microaggressive back in the U.S. as something similar in this new country. Though I may feel uncomfortable by some of the encounters, I honestly don’t know how to process it because of my lack of holistically understanding the race relations in that said country- and I think that’s okay. To give the benefit of the doubt, to me, is to show patience and a willing to understand the country’s history and racial dynamics a bit more before I react and judge anyone. Also, countries that are more homogeneous tend to have people who may simply be curious more so than anything else. All those constant questions about my ethnicity, hardcore staring, and wanting to touch my hair was likely out of genuine fascination and trying to learn and understand. I’m not sure if giving a “pass” is always right or not though, and that’s just all a part of the confusion that you may feel also. As someone who’s really interested in racial and ethnic justice, I find myself asking the locals and googling the history of the country in order to get a better understanding of that country’s racial and ethnic dynamics. If you’re confused and you’re curious to learn more about the racial context you’re currently in, don’t be afraid to try and clarify it.

 


Race Relations are Different in Each Country

Race is a social construct. Not to say the affects of race are not real, but rather that this very concept of race is made up by humans rather than being biological. There are biological differences between races, yes, but they are very small differences and has more to do with how the environment has shaped our biology depending on where our ancestors lived. In reality, my cells are no different than the cells of my white parents. All of us races and ethnicities look different from each other because of the way the environment has shaped our biology over generations. Take skin for instance. The reason some people have darker skin than others is because of the environment in which their ancestors grew up in. Those closest to the equator have darker skin while those closest to the poles have light skin. This is of course due to the location of the rays of the sun. Dark skin is a product of skin cells trying to protect itself, not a product of biology itself per say. Or, consider the almond eyes many Asians have, which are the eyes that I have. That physical trait resulted from my ancestors being in the cold. The extra fat on the eyes that creates a mono eyelid rather than a double eyelid was there to keep them warm from the harsh storms. Why am I telling you this? Because in order to understand what I am going to say next, you must understand the concept of race being a social construct. Race relations are different in every country. It is not, I repeat not, a set biological rule of some sorts. What you may identify as and what others identity you as at home, may not be what you are identified as in the country you are visiting. Be prepared for that! Also keep in mind that how you may be perceived in this country may come as a privilege rather than as a disadvantage. Back in the U.S., for example, you may be seen as a person of color, but in this new country you may be seen as white. Furthermore, colorism is definitely a thing in most societies due to colonization and globalization. Therefore, keep in mind that the lighter skinned you are, the more privileges you are bound to have. It’s always important to recognize that, while you can be oppressed in certain aspects, you can also be privileged in others.


“I’m from the U.S.” (or from any Western society)

This answer may not be good enough. You may be asked to explain in depth that yes you are indeed from that said country. They may keep imploring for a more satisfying answer, asking where your parents came from, where you were born, or what your ethnicity is. In the racial context of the U.S., I would see this as a racial microaggression. However, like I mentioned above, it’s important to remember that race relations differ everywhere and so generally I don’t take offense to it when the locals keep imploring. Honestly, if you really think about it, it does unfortunately make sense. In the system of the United States especially, our government and media do not reflect our population. Most of our politicians are white, most of our celebrities are white, and most of our models in ad campaigns are white. The list goes on. So it is really that shocking for people outside of the U.S. to believe that America equals white? And to regard people of color living in the U.S. as all being immigrants and guests to the country because we are not the deemed “authentic” Americans (aka white)? I mean really, even people who live in the United States regard “true” Americans as white and only white (and no surprise here but generally the kind of people who actually believe in that are white people themselves).  If I got paid for every time I was otherized somehow by a white American out of ignorance and racism, I’d be rich by now. It is what it is.

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3 thoughts on “Traveling as a Woman of Color

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I am Cambodian-American and much of the time I experience a vast array of social interactions with people here and abroad. I’ve been trying to find blogs where women of color, specifically Asian or Southeast Asian women share their experiences. And so I’m traveling abroad for 6months out of the US, which is the longest amount of time I have ever been away. My white family doesn’t seem to understand the concept of how race defines everyday realities for me and other Asians, so they have the luxury of saying “Oh you’ll be fine.” But in the back of my head I still worry about everything you talked about in this article, or I overthink race, and how I may compare to people.. when I know I shouldn’t.

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    • Coming from a white family too, I can imagine the frustration and I’m sorry about that. It’s important to be aware of how your identities will play a role while traveling but it’s as equally important to take a step back and just breathe for a moment. Don’t lose confidence in yourself! Plenty of women of color have been abroad for an extended period of time and have had the time of their life, including myself! Please feel free to reach out to me if there’s anything I could potentially help with.

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    • I am Cambodian-American as well, and for the times that I have traveled to Europe and Jamaica, people are usually very nice to me. But I definitely feel very insecure about looking different from everyone else (and it doesn’t help that my husband is a white man who “fits in” more with the usual American tourists that these countries see)!
      It was at first frustrating for me when a Jamaican waiter kept asking “Where are you really from?” like 5 times in a row when I kept saying “California!” But I just politely told him, “Well..my PARENTS are from Cambodia.” LOL. But I know he may not have meant any disrespect, because I was definitely the only Cambodian-American on the island!

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