I’ve always travelled, and for as long as I remember, I’ve always felt like the odd(looking) one out. My family moved to Canada when I was nine years old. I remember I was the only black girl in my elementary school and I remember that it made being “the new girl” ten times worse. I sounded different (thanks to my English accent), I looked different (hello hair extensions in single braids!) and I didn’t really understand this new Canadian culture. This was probably the most I’ve felt uncomfortable being black. All I wanted to do was go back to London, where I didn’t feel like an alien – where I saw people who looked like me, too.
Fast forward sixteen years and it’s 2014 and I’ve started my nomadic lifestyle by moving to Australia. I spent six months in Melbourne and six months in Sydney, with various trips around the rest of the country. By this time, I’m definitely more comfortable in my skin; I’m grown and being black is a huge part of my identity that I’m proud of. I would say, in Australia I was treated as some sort of oriental goddess (the actual words from many men I met). Men would constantly compare me (to the only black woman in media they knew) Beyonce or Rihanna. My white friends would always see this a compliment, but to me it wasn’t – it just was a guy trying to impress me by comparing me to the one black woman they knew. It just felt reductive and ignorant, especially so because they wouldn’t approach a white woman by saying that they look like Britney Spears. So, is this an advantage? Is it something I felt good about? No…but it’s certainly not a disadvantage. In fact, while I’ve been travelling I’ve never had a negative or explicitly bad experience due to racism from the local people.. Mostly, the locals are curious because they’ve simply never seen a black person (and because the media doesn’t showcase black people abroad) and so they genuinely want to know who I am, where I’m from, what I’m doing in their country, and (something I find so lovely) what I think of their country!
In this regard, I would say there is an advantage because more often than not, I have a more welcoming experience because I’m black. Literally there have been times when I was in Thailand, when a woman came up to me in the store I was in and said “your skin, so dark! So beautiful. Where are you from?” She then proceeded to tell me about her kids and offered to drive me home – something that literally only happened because of the colour of my skin. Blessed.
Travelling while black isn’t always compliments and free drives though. The biggest problem I’ve had when I’ve been travelling is down to my hair. How so? People often feel it’s OK to touch my hair, to ask me questions about my hair, ask to take pictures of my hair, laugh at my hair…so on and so forth. Ugh. As Solange sang, “don’t touch my hair.” Nowadays I don’t really care and I usually can laugh it off, but when I first started travelling I would never not wear a weave. I just didn’t want the extra attention. I already knew I was going to stick out like a sore thumb and I didn’t want to also have people questioning my hair. I can understand the curiosity and again – it’s rarely a rude experience (there’s been less than five times when I’ve seen someone laughing at my hair) but it just makes me feel like an animal in a cage, at a zoo. Not a nice feeling.
Hair is SUCH a huge issue/problem when I’m on the road. I legit have to think, before I book a flight “ok but how am I going to take care of my hair? Will I be able to get hair grease? Will there be places with a hairdryer? Should I buy more of product X before I leave?” As I mentioned before, I used to only wear weaves, but now I travel and alternate between Senegalese twists or box braids. I’m based around South East Asia for the next while and I somehow managed to find a bomb AF hairdresser in Bangkok (thank you Google!) So when I move between countries, I also stick a layover in Bangkok so I can drop by her place to get my hair did. I’m heading to Canada in April after South East Asia, and I have hairdressers I know there so I’m all set until I get back to Europe in the summer, haha (see what I mean by planning ahead!?) My hair also affects the type of things I do when I travel. I’m so not a beachy, sit on the sand for hours kinda girl. I mean, can I live? What am I tanning for? My ass is black! Nor do I really care for swimming either (much to my boyfriends disappointment). Fellow black women travelling: DO get a protective hairstyle, DO bring some extra hair extension hair to do any tidying up while you’re on the go, and DO bring hair grease and a GOOD leave in conditioner that you swear by.
Most of the negative experiences I’ve had travelling while black isn’t actually from people local to the country, but fellow (usually white) travellers. I’m a digital nomad – I freelance as a digital marketer and I’m also building Noir Nomads, a community for people of colour nomads, as a side project. Without a doubt, the most offensive things that have been said to me have been in interactions with fellow nomads. Two examples: during a conversation at a meetup, a white guy asked me what I do. I told him my experience and background, and he said “wow, you’ve done so much for a black person.” Additionally, in a Slack group for digital nomads, there was a discussion about black women and our “amply assets” and how to find a “black girl” and where “they usually hang out.” Given that I’m a black woman, I spoke up and said I didn’t appreciate nor find the current channel topic amusing. A white guy responded that “I was the only black person who’s said anything so you should stay being the minority.” In both of those situations, my response was not rise to their racist and offensive remarks. Not because I couldn’t, or didn’t want to – but because I am tired. It’s exhausting. Maybe by staying silent I let these guys ‘get away with it?’ Maybe. I wouldn’t interact with those people when I was living in one place, and I’m not about to start now. And I so believe that it’s not worth engaging with toxic people. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Being a digital nomad means I get to experience new things daily if I choose to, and visit far-flung places, all while working. I’m not going to let ignorant people or feeling uncomfortable stop me from travelling.
Follow Temila on:
Her personal Instagram: @Temilasade
Her business Instagram: @NoirNomads
Her website: www.temilasade.com