Traveling While Racially Ambiguous

My entire life, people have been trying to guess what race I am.

It’s usually one of the first questions anyone asks me, from doctors to handymen to new coworkers to new friends. I’ve gotten used to people assuming I’m whatever non-white race they’re most familiar with – Hispanic people tend to assume I’m Hispanic, Filipinos tend to assume I’m a Filipina, etc. I’ve even had an elderly Chinese man give me a lollipop in a liquor store because he thought I was half Chinese.

Fellow tourists asked for directions when I was in Hawaii.

My racial ambiguity can be both a blessing and a curse when I’m traveling by myself. It’s a positive thing in that it gives me the ability to blend in to most places where people aren’t majority white, which makes me less of a target for thieves, but it can also cause problems when people assume I’m fluent in whatever the language is in that place.

Sometimes people get upset when they think I don’t speak my “native” language. (I’m American, my father is American, and my mother is a Caribbean Islander. Both of my parents speak English, and the dominant language in both of those countries is English.)

That awkward look as you try to explain you’re American.

They can also get upset when they think I should understand when I don’t: Once, a Frenchman got very annoyed with me because I had never heard the word for “score” in French. I speak passable French, but I had never talked about sports in that language before. He was asking about the World Cup game as he was passing on the street, and I couldn’t understand. “ImbĂ©cile” may have been muttered in my general direction as he stalked away.

If I don’t happen to be blending in, or if people assume my race is a race they’re unfriendly toward, things can get unpleasant. I’ve had people rant at me on the street and call me names; they were assuming that because I’m brown, I must be of Arab descent, or a Muslim. (This racism and profiling is wrong in and of itself, but it’s also an inaccurate assessment of my background.)

Walking away from racists.

I recently re-encountered this issue while exploring the possibility of traveling to eastern and central Europe by myself. I heard rumors that racism toward POCs in that part of the world is a common problem, so I was looking for insight into how true that might be and if it was an issue, guidance on how I could navigate it.

When I posted on various solo travel forums looking for advice, I encountered some guidance specifically for Black people who were considering traveling to those areas, and a lot of sarcastic, “You’ll be fine, it isn’t like it’s Russia” responses. (I can only assume the people who posted things like that aren’t POCs.)

When you’re unimpressed with someone’s casual dismissal of your legitimate concerns.

This was frustrating for me on multiple levels. There aren’t a ton of resources for people of color in the travel blogging or travel resource worlds, especially if you’re a minority within a minority, because the travel writing and blogging industry is dominated by white voices. (There will be another post about this later.) This is an issue that could affect my personal, physical safety while traveling solo, and I couldn’t find anyone to talk about it with who would be able to speak to my experience.

That’s part of the reason I started this blog. I want this to be a place where people of color from all backgrounds can talk about struggles they encounter, give each other advice and guidance, and feel that it’s a safe place where they won’t be judged for being concerned about the unique issues they might face while traveling as POCs.

Are you a POC? Have you encountered racism abroad? How do you feel your race influences your travel experiences? Tell me in the comments!

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