Beacons of Beauty: Black Women Who Travel

Packaged Earth

I’m friends with a lot of black women who travel or live internationally, so I’m not surprised that a Yahoo! Travel article, titled, “In Spain, I’m a Prostitute – Challenging the Perception of Black Women Who Travel” has been on heavy rotation on my Facebook page.

In light of Monday’s “Is the grass greener across the pond?” post, I thought some of you might be interested in what the author had to say.

The basic premise is this: attention, comments and questions that can be perceived as hyper-sexual and, even rude, are unfortunately part of the travel experience for many black women. “Experience has proven that without provocation on our part, we’re more frequently perceived in a sexual way,” Stephens writes. Expect attention, especially when you travel to an area of the world where women who look like you are in the minority. These men (and oftentimes women) will fixate on your skin, hair, shape, confidence and attitude. I liken it to how many American women – myself included – coo over men with accents. (Ummm, hello, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Hemsworth?)

Even in places I’ve lived where black people are the majority, the men I encountered honed in on features that were perceived as “different”. In one African nation, I was surrounded by some of the most beautiful, graceful women I’d ever seen, and the men there (of various races) fixated on my hair, which happened to be long and relaxed at the time. It was literally a beacon that drew all kinds of unwanted attention.

The idea that men in other countries are more open, welcoming and proactive about pursuing black women gets tossed around quite a bit whenever travel is brought up on BB&W. Stephens notes that while this can be true, the attention oftentimes comes with “speed bumps”. It’s unfortunate, but while most of us pride ourselves on being individuals worth knowing on our own merit, there’s a decent likelihood that we’ll be lumped into the warped image that’s been built up in the minds of some foreign (and, as we have daily proof, some domestic) men. The picture isn’t always the most edifying – as was the case with the author’s Croatian bar owner who divulged that she reminded him of his favorite porn star.

“Cross-country hyper-sexualization of black women has a long history,” Stephens writes. She cites Saartjie Baartman as an early example of how the “exotic” beauty of black women has been exploited internationally. Now, the American media generously plays a hand in continuing the trend.

Case in point – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with people who thought I couldn’t possibly be American. It’s just not possible, since Beyonce, Jay-Z and 50 Cent are the only black people in America. On top of this, I don’t act, dress or look like the few African American women they see on TV.

Just as many Americans depend on images from the news or the internet to form their opinions about people in other parts of the world, those who live abroad use the images and stories we export to form their opinions of us. If we don’t teach them that the odd sampling they’ve seen isn’t the full picture, how will they learn? In some cases, I really believe the same goes for the men we encounter abroad.

I’ve had what I call “paparazzi” moments in Florence, Rio and Cartagena. It’s when individuals or groups of men walk up and, if they’re polite, will ask to take a photo with you, all the while gushing about how much the love black women. Sometimes, all you see is the camera flash and a smile or wave in your direction.

These are moments when I just say, “Thank you,” wave, and walk away. They’re not generally an opportunity to engage, learn or teach.

Then, there are times when you have to seize the opportunity in front of you to change the narrative. While vacationing in Italy a few years back, I was baffled by the amount of attention that came my way. I was standing in the Vatican Square, clothed in jeans, boots and a heavy overcoat (because it was winter there), with a huge camera with a telephoto lens in my hand, shooting pictures of the architecture when I was approached by not one, not two, but three groups of men who propositioned me. With each approach, I got more and more agitated. I finally said to one, “Look, I’m on vacation with my family. I’m not here to fulfill your music video chic fantasy.” He put his hands up in gesture of surrender and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend.” I asked how I was not supposed to find his “offer” offensive. Fail.

The sad part is, I think this approach does work for some men, which is why they use it. I personally know more than a few women – black, white and other – who would’ve taken these gents up on their offers to wine and dine them in exchange for a brief fling.

Here’s the bottom line: simply by nature of being the beautiful women we are, we’re going to draw attention from the opposite sex when we travel abroad. Don’t let the stereotypes and sexualized approaches of some men keep you from exploring – the nations and your options for love. Regardless of where on the planet we may be, we should always use discernment in our interactions with men. Change the not-so-positive aspects of the narrative when you can. Walk away when you can’t.

I also love that  Stephens writes, “… if you are on a romantic mission, don’t choose a mate who fetishizes you.”

Ladies, we know we’re fascinating, multifaceted beings. Our race and culture are only a fraction of who we are. If someone isn’t able to see and value all of us – not just our skin tone, sexuality, accent or ability to stand out in a crowd – it’s best to leave them be. We deserve this level of respect and consideration from the men we choose to engage with – regardless of whether they’re foreign or domestic.

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