So I’m fairly confident all of us are familiar with “The Stare” we often get when we are traveling. Personally, I don’t care how some people might try to frame it, I do not see it as a compliment. No, I don’t look like that athlete, musician, or actor, and you know I am not. Regardless of the country, I simply can’t wrap my head around how so many are so fascinated to see a Black person in their land when they literally just finished watching their favorite soccer team when half their players are Black.
For starters, this is not intended to be a motivational piece encouraging you to not mind the stares we get when traveling. Some suggest you just ignore the stares and not let other people affect you. I ain’t like that. Sometimes it does bother me. It might not be you, but I am the type that will stare right back and tell them what time it is in their own language. Some might suggest not visiting these places at all. But, I am not going to disqualify myself from visiting these historical and fascinating cities that I have had the privilege to frequent. Instead, I have to try to find a happy medium where I can protect my peace and still get the cultural experience.
What some people (often White people) fail to realize is that we, particularly Black American people, are used to being around people who do not look like us. Either from work, a beloved PWI, or literally outside of our own door — we are used to being one of few. That’s not the problem. However, “The Stare” hits differently when we’re in a new city where we do not know the people, the culture, or maybe even the language, and have nowhere to escape to other than back to our rooms.
See, I am from San Francisco and Sacramento, but have lived in Duesseldorf, Germany for the past couple of years. From a geographical perspective, I am two hours from Amsterdam and Brussels, and only about four hours from Paris, Munich, and Berlin depending on which direction you decide to go by train. In regards to flying to other major cities in Western and Central Europe, a lot of flights are less than two hours. So yes this is central. This being the case, I often find myself in tourist Hotspots.
As a quick aside, I would like to give one quick example of an incident that really had me thinking about changing my approach to visiting some of these cities. Earlier this year, I decided to meet my wife at one of her work conferences in Amsterdam. The company pulled out all the Bells & Whistles, which included a nice hotel. One afternoon, I went to meet her at the rooftop for lunch, and all these people (looked White American, but we won’t too read too far into this) were staring at me as I made my way to the table. In my head, I am thinking, “Okay. You’re on vacation, and good for you. But how can you be so inconsiderate, to the point you would make someone feel so uncomfortable when they’re trying to have the same vacation as you!”
Then, it hit me and I had one of my smart-aleck thoughts of, “I actually live right up the road. I am a German Resident. You flew halfway across the world to be at this place. So who is more out of place?” But, of course, I didn’t say that. Partly because I was too late to come up with that and because it was a nice sunny afternoon on the rooftop and I wanted to enjoy myself. Plus, if I were to address each and every look that was given me I would exhaust myself- everywhere…not worth it.
I don’t know about you, but when I check out a new spot with my crew, we often do an inaugural “Aye! We Outchea!” chant. That’s cool and all, but the fact of the matter is, we have been out here. A lot of these major cities have a notable amount of Black people in their region and have encountered Black tourists before. They might not all be on the rooftop of the fancy hotel you booked, but they’re there. And some of these cities (and countries) have not only seen more people of color emerge into society, but they have welcomed and accepted Black people as a part of society, dare I say, better than a lot of regions in The U.S. Ask them the right questions, and they might pull out some history or geographical information about Africa that a lot of Americans (even Black) don’t even know.
I had to be honest with myself about the type of experiences I wanted on my travels, regardless of “The Stare”. I am not the type of person that wants to go to Paris and get a picture of Notre Dame Cathedral to post as my profile pic. Quite frankly, I’m the type of person that wants to go to the hookah lounge and doesn’t want any pictures taken out of fear an employer or relative might see it. Whether it’s the Grand Canyon, Coliseum, Eiffel Tour, or other famous landmarks, I normally just quickly get my pictures as a memento and proof to myself and others that I was there. After those 15 minutes, let’s get it and have a good time!
If this type of tourism seems in line with yours, I have some suggestions for traveling to some of these well-known cities. Plan ahead of your trip and know where the locations you’d like to see are on your map. You don’t need to plan a full itinerary because, if you’re like me, you don’t want your vacation feeling overwhelmed with a To-Do List. However, you want to know how far these landmarks are from your hotel, where you want to eat, and where you want to do your social activities. However, if all you want to do is take pictures in tourist trap areas, just know if it’s only going to take an hour, two hours, or however long before you want to leave.
When trying to do things outside of traditional tourist activities, it’s important to keep in mind that your events should stray away from your comfort zone, but should be things you enjoy doing. Sometimes it can be good to get a little “mental reset” but that doesn’t mean going back to the room if we feel certain places are a bit uncomfortable. Find something you’re familiar with. I have done this by looking up international concerts of music artists that I enjoy from back in The States. Doing a simple search for concerts in the city before you book your trip might be a simple way to accomplish this goal. Even if it’s not one of your favorite artists, it might help you see that artist and city in a different light, given that you’re wrapping it into a new cultural experience. If you’re really ambitious, you might be privy to an idea that was shared with me by a guy sitting next to me on a flight to Stockholm. He actually decided to get tickets to multiple cities in Europe to watch the same artist. Of course, he didn’t mind seeing the same set performed, but he was able to check out new cities, while also knowing that the city was going to be flooded with people who shared his same interests. Personally, I enjoy seeing how other cultures vibe to songs and artists which we take for granted in The States. Quite frankly, in all, we know the concert-goers are going to be so fixated on enjoying the event that they would care less about staring at us.
If something lowkey is more your vibe, other enjoyable activities will divert people’s attention from Black people-watching. One of my favorite recent experiences was about a year ago in Barcelona. While at the hotel, I saw on the map that I wasn’t too far from the Picasso Museum and his former home. Now, I’m not an art enthusiast, but getting to see actual Picasso pieces and his home in such a unique setting was something I felt I would be kicking myself if I didn’t do. It hit me later that the majority of the people in the art gallery are lowkey preoccupied and that meant receiving fewer stares. They are encouraged to keep quiet and move from room to room interpreting the art or, like myself, acting like they understand the art’s meaning.
Similar experiences can be had when it comes to architecture tours. Aside from many cities having their own unique style and creativity, a good thing about these architecture tours is that you keep it moving. Sometimes the tour guide will start off the tour by asking everyone to give a quick introduction of where you’re from. Other than that, the attention placed on yourself might be minimalized. To onlookers, you are just a part of another tour group in their popular city. The tour group actually might be giving you priority access to places that otherwise we might feel nervous to go into by ourselves, out of fear of feeling tokenized.
Outside of this, spend a few minutes looking up places in surrounding neighborhoods where the locals live and the culture isn’t tainted by tourist elitism. Personally, I wouldn’t suggest Yelp and TripAdvisor because the people I’m trying to avoid probably did the same thing. Instead, maybe Google Afrobeats club/lounge in (City Name). If you get a few names, check out their IG or Facebook and follow the tags. This will lead you to the neighborhood. More often than not, somebody is going to come up to you and/or ask you where you’re from. Feel out the conversation, and there’s nothing wrong with asking them where they like to go. Heck, they might even ask you to tag along because they want to show an American (particularly a Black American), or “foreigner” what their city is actually like. In my opinion, this is where the culture is, not on the tour bus.
All-in-all, try to put yourself in the position as if you just moved to the city. If you moved to Paris, I’m pretty sure on a Friday evening you wouldn’t be looking up where to find the Eiffel Tower. Use your findings to set the focal point of your trip and pivot from there. Quite frankly, if you spent days in Paris and missed the Eiffel Tower, I can’t help you. Seeking out the culture seldom disappoints. Personally, I think we run the risk of having a forever-salty taste in our mouths about the culture if we focus on landmarks that often invite people who are bound by ethnocentricity. With this in mind, may your trip be filled with more “Ayes”, and less stares, and if you see me in these streets, holla at me.
Nationality/Home Country: USA