Being Black and traveling can be pretty interesting, especially when I travel to places that aren’t accustomed to seeing people with dark skin and curly hair. I have been stopped on numerous streets around the world and asked to take pictures with people and I quickly realized that people aren’t being rude, they are just really amazed to see someone like me in person because they have never seen a Black person before.

That concept may be a bit hard for some people to grasp because maybe where you live it is common to see someone whose skin has been permanently kissed by the sun, but for many people it is in fact, a once in a lifetime occurance. This happened to me several times while in Russia. I literally had people stopping and staring at me on the street, stopping me and asking me to take pictures with them, and Russian men openly ogling at me. In St. Petersburg, I did not see another Black woman for the 6 days I was there. Not one. In Moscow, I saw two African women, but we looked completely different and I think people can tell the difference between a Black American woman and an African woman.

My first morning in St. Petersburg I was walking around our neighborhood because my friend was still sleeping, it was early and I didn’t want to stay in the apartment. As I was walking over the canals, enjoying the view two Russian (well, I think they were Russian, they didn’t speak English and what they did speak sounded Russian to me) stopped me and started asking me questions. I was a bit apprehensive after what happened in Paris (I will talk about that later, but it was very traumatic so I haven’t been able to write about it) so I grabbed my purse a little bit tighter and had my guard completely up.

They pulled out their camera and one of the guys came over and stood next to me, and his friend took the picture. They were smiling and being very friendly, so I wasn’t upset at all, I knew what was going on because this has happened several times over the years. They kept smiling and looking back at me as they walked away and I kept in moving. Sometimes I wonder where these pictures end up, and the conversations they spark.

 

The first time this happened to me was about 20 years ago in Italy. A family from a Slavic country stopped me and started taking my picture. I didn’t know what to think and then one of them said, “Beautiful.” Ok, you can’t really get mad at someone when they call you beautiful. I remember talking to my mom about it and she let me know what was going on because she dealt with the same thing when she traveled. She actually had people following her down the street when she was in Russia. Not in a I-want-to-hurt-this-Black-woman way but a wow-you-are-amazingly-different-and-beautiful way.

She also told me about the time a little girl kept staring at her and my mom realized why, so she asked the little girl if she wanted to touch her skin. The little girl did then looked at her fingers. She thought the color would rub off! I know this may make some people angry, but think about it…If you had NEVER seen someone with dark skin, then you saw a Black person in front of you, don’t you think that would be something that would make you stare? The little girl smiled and was very nice, she was just curious. Nothing wrong with curiosity, if it is done respectfully.

Below are three of the pictures I took with people that stopped me. The boys were from Kazakhstan, the woman was from the Ukraine, and the other two were from Uzbekistan. These pics were all on the same day but it was almost daily when someone was asking to take my picture.

One time Carly and I were in the metro, waiting to take a picture of this wall covered in mosaics at the end of the quai and there were a bunch of Asian tourists that had gotten there before us. No biggie, we had no problem waiting. Well, as we were waiting one of the men started taking our picture. And not even trying to be subtle about it, he just started snapping our pic. Mind you, we must have looked very different to everyone because Carly is tall, blond and White from the other side of the world and I’m tall, Black and American. There were no friend combinations that were walking around St. Petersburg or Moscow that looked like us.

Anyway, I finally just started posing for him because I figured, if he’s bold enough to take our pic in such a blatant manner, why not smile for the camera? So we stood there for a while as he and subsequently, several of his friends, started taking our picture. Carly didn’t particularly like it, she had been with me when other people asked to take my picture and I think it made her uneasy. However, she was a good sport and we had a good laugh about it.

The group finally moved out of the way so we could then admire the mosaics up close. Well, as Carly and I are taking pics one of the Asian women comes over to me, grabs my arm and pulls me to her. She holds on real tight and tells me we are going to take a picture. Um…ok. Carly and I laughed and it became a joke between us because this woman was very nice, yet very brusque in her manner. The whole time we were taking pictures she wouldn’t let go of my arm which for me is a bit different, because when I take a picture with a stranger, the last thing I want to do is have my hand around their shoulder, it just seems a bit too personal, as you can see from the above pics. It was funny to me how people really wanted to be close to me, always trying to get me to put my hand around their shoulders or them wanting their arms linked through mine.

When I travel, it gives me a chance to see how other people live and how they do things. And I realize that for many of them, depending on where I go, I am the only Black person they have ever set eyes on. I know it’s 2012 and a bit difficult for some people to believe that there are people in the world that haven’t seen Black Americans in person but I guarantee you, it’s true.

What harm does it do if I let someone take my picture and smile? Doesn’t that leave the impression that Black Americans are lovely people? Or I could get an attitude, walk away and be angry. What would that do for the reputation of my people? Wouldn’t that perpetuate the myth that Black women are angry and hostile? So when I am confronted with these situations I simply smile and nod yes when asked to take a picture. Why not? I’ve made them happy and in turn have hopefully put a good thought in their heads regarding Black Americans, and I’m proud to do it.

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Some people travel. Roni IS travel. For over 20 years she has been traveling the world and now shares her unique insight with her worldwide audience on her blog, www.RoniTheTravelGuru.com. Whether you have never gotten on a plane or are a seasoned traveler, the expertise and insider knowledge she shares on her blog will help you make your travels an adventure. No where else can you find the uniquely helpful ins and out given to you by someone who has lived overseas for 4 years, speaks fluent English, French and Spanish, and works for a major airline. And guess what? She’s also a licensed elementary teacher and has an MBA.

47 COMMENTS

  1. Wow that is a Great way to think about it Ron. Maybe you did leave a good impression by playing along with them. I dont know it is hard to believe that they have never seen Black people, then who the heck is filling these stadiums when Beyonce, the late Micheal Jackson and all of the other A.A. performers comes to these countries?? Seems a little weird
    The picture with the guys could be interpreted as if they were making a joke… Look at him with his tongue out seems disrespectful or could be just him making a funny face I guess its how you look at it.

    • I can see what you mean Marley. But of the 6 guys in that photo, only one can be perceived of being an a-hole. If that was in fact his intention.

    • Ron, great story, I am thinking of going to Russia and expected a type of treatment and that is perfectly fine with me. So I am glad that your story affirms my optimism. One thing you said struck me though and it has really stuck with me from other blogs I have read. When you saw another black person, you said something like “big difference between African and African American”? I am looking at your picture and you would fit right in with my family. Size, complexion and everything. The reason I bring this up is because it is not the first time I read this sort of comment. I tried to make sense of it, but I keep letting it go. Yet I keep hearing, especially from African Americans say, “There is a big difference between Africans and African Americans”. There isn’t. I have been to the states copious times. I am Namibian by the way (South West of Africa). Take all the stars you have in America, like bow wow, 50 cent, tyrese and etc, we have someone that can resemble them in our various ethnic groups. Most importantly, though, yes all Africans don’t look similar, just the way all African Americans don’t all look alike. It depends from which part of the continent you are from, and your ancestry. You look very Namibian actually. So I just want to put that out there. Coz you might be meeting people from east or West Africa, who might look differently, but that’s not per say an ‘African look’, it varies. I am saying this with the slight worry it constantly feels like African Americans see themselves as a better than Africans. I hope that’s not the implied meaning of this phrase I keep reading. I hope it is not what you intuitively meant by that.

      • Hi! I in no way think I’m better than anyone. Not even a little bit. It’s hard to say an African look because Africa is filled with so many beautiful people but I have several friends from different parts of Africa and we have had several discussions about the differences between us. Our skin color is the same but culturally we are completely different and many times we look different. Not better, just different. When you see me and my friends from Zim and Nigeria, we look nothing alike and you can pick me out as the American, although I am told I look more East African the older I get (which I love). Thanks for commenting!

  2. It's different seeing a Black person on stage and seeing one walking next to you. I have traveled enough to know when I am being mocked and when I am being admired. And many Black performers don't go to a lot of countries. But I got the same reaction when I was in Egypt, and in Senegal. Being a Black American can bring lots of attention.

  3. Absolutely beautiful! I love your positive attitude that you express not only in your photos and outlook but also in the words of your last paragraph.

  4. Good positive feedback. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging your uniqueness is a foreign country where the people are not used to seeing many of us. When I was in the Navy and would travel abroad me and my black shipmates would experience the same thing. Truth be told, we were treated with royalty in most ports. I was just in Mexico this summer and while there are many tourist towns in Mexico, Guadalajara is not one of them and while I was there I received a lot of stares and smiles. Most assumed that I was African-American and probably didn’t speak Spanish, but once I would greet them in Spanish there was even more warmth and kindness as most of the Mexican people are. I now have life-long friends in Guadalajara that are more than eager to stay in touch and extend invitations to stay at their place on my next visit.

      • Hi Roni,

        I am a black English girl of Jamaican decent. I have travelled to 15 countries, mainly European and experienced exactly the same thing! It’s usually eastern European men asking to take pictures, it has happened so many times that I don’t even find it weird any more. I do the same as you, accept and smile for the pic with them- Great fun! You meet some really interesting people travelling. Thanks for sharing 🙂

        • Ok, now I really think my assumption could be right lol. I’m Rwandan and mostly black and somehow Eastern European guys are intersted in my type. Haven’t been in many countries of Eastern Europe but it happened to me in Croatia and in Vienna (by slovac women) that people wanted to take pics with me.

  5. OMG now I understand why these people wanted to take pictures with me 😀 it happened to me in Croatia when I was 13 and later in Vienna. I was in a club, somebody tapped on my shoulder I turned around and suddenly a woman stood next to me and another woman took a picture. I was like what? They are from Slovakia. And I didn’t know but I have the impression Eastern European men like the look of African women, glad that someone made the same observation.
    The kids in my neighborhood (village region in Bavaria, Germany) also thought my skin is just painted. You really have to go far here to meet Black people.

  6. «I saw two African women, but we looked completely different and I think people can tell the difference between a Black American woman and an African woman.» NO people can’t. That’s a really weird thing to say considering how vast and diverse Africa is. By the way you look like a Peul from Guinea.

    • I don’t think that she meant to be offensive, but I have to say that as a Black American man you absolutely can tell the difference between a Black American and Black African.

  7. I’m Russian. Once upon a time I went by bus from Moscow to my town with two black people (students from Africa – a man and a girl). At some bus station I came to them and asked to take a picture with them, but they refused me. After that I began to perceive black people as very “self-minded” community (I don’t know if “self-minded” is a correct phrase – my English is not perfect). After that I never disturbed black people. But I’d like to tell another story. In 2004 I came to Moscow to my friends and was waiting for opening of metro, it was about 4:45 a.m. and it was still dark. Suddenly I saw a black man in the darkness. Hi was high and huge. And he was looking at me untill the metro opend. As I almost had never seen black people before him I prayed to God wile I was waiting. Now I understand that he was watching my reaction at him because blacks don’t know what to wait from Russians:-)

    • I think most of the time people are leary of each other because they don’t know what to expect. But at our core most people are very nice and mean no harm 🙂

      • I know it because in Russia there are some famous African Russians which are very simple people and there is no difference between them and native Russians except the skin color.

      • By the way, all the cars from pictures of Havana are made in USSR. Even in poor Ethiopia people use more contemporary types of Russian cars. I don’t know why but Cubans love these models:-)

        • Hey! True, there are many Russian cars in Cuba and also many American cars. The old cars add to the charm of the city. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Plan to fly to Uzbekistan with my 1 Yr old and slightly worried, just wanted to know if you experienced any racism or any difficulty.

    Any general advice welcome too 🙂

  9. Hello there,

    I have my Russian visa and travel weekend all picked out for March but I’m a bit terrified to go. I’m black and American and every time I mention to someone that I’m going to Russia, all the reactions I get are negative. Out of 30+ countries I’ve been to, this is the only one that’s making me scared and second guess. I’m glad to read that your experience was good. I’m just worried (but don’t want to waste the visa!). You went a few years ago. Have you heard of anyone’s experience that has gone more recently?

    • No but even if I did I wouldn’t let it stop me. Everyone has completely different experiences and you can’t let someone’s bad time dictate whether you go or not. I was robbed at gunpoint in Rio and a bunch of my friends just got back and had a fab time. Every experience is different.

      • Thanks. And true. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t walking into a known dangerous situation. There are some definite parts of the world that are a no-go right now. Too dangerous.

  10. Excuse me but just how tall are you..? I’m just curious because I might wear heels seeing as I’m small and people think im 14. So wararibg heels might show them I’m not a child I’m an adult. I’d really love go on a trip to russa because I just love the language.

  11. When i was in Russia I did notice people from Kazakstan asked to take pictures with me on at least 3-4 different occasions, and when i was getting food they were giggling and waving and in the park another guy when i was just minding my own business taking pictures really wanted to speak to me but his english was minimal and so is my russian. All in all i really enjoyed my stay there and hope to visit again

  12. This is probably the best thing I’ve read about Russia. I am an African and I have been planning to study in Russia this year. I’ve made a lot of research but all I’ve got are negative comments,hardly any positive feedback. So I’ve been scared and unwilling to go ahead with studying in Russia but after reading this post I’m definitely eager and rethinking my decision.:)

  13. I’ve been areophobic for as long as I can remember. And with all the recent terrorist attacks across the globe over the past, I would say 5 years, has increased my fear of flying to where I thought it was impossible that I’ll never travel again. I’m an African American woman, and I’ve seen so many negative experiences shared by other black women and not really uplifting and appreciative ones like yours. Miss Roni, this blog is the only one that has made me feel that I can actually go and travel around the world without fear ,and also feel that your blog has left a great impression that I will have more of a positive experience traveling in other parts of the world. I am eternally grateful to you for writing this. I wish I could give you 2 million bucks for curing me of my aerophobia and fear when my therapists and friends could not.
    Thanks again!

    • What a lovely thing to say! Thank you so much! You can ABSOLUTELY travel the world with our fear. If I can then you can!

  14. I am an African female student studying in Moscow. ..and I can testify that I said no to someone who asked for my picture. ..people need to understand as a foreigner or African, you have to be weary of the folks you meet. I don’t mean to be negative but it’s a fact..black people haven’t necessarily been the world’s favourite race and I think it’s a little disrespectful because I am not a spectacle .we don’t have many white people where I come from but my country mates never ask to take photos with them or touch their hair or skin…and even if they do it out of curiosity *God bless them * it’s not my obligation to always say yes…so I hope this who were rejected a picture did not have hard feelings.

  15. I’m American (of Ukrainian descent). Obviously I’ve seen lots of black people, but even I’d be tempted to take your picture. You’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen 🙂

  16. I’m a black man from america going to russia soon. to go touring in the mountains. I know those ppl haven’t seen a black person before. I didn’t really know what to expect. I do now thanks to your blog. thanks!

  17. I am a sudanese girl , i am planning to study university next year in russia but i am quite afraid of all the negative feedbacks and all the advice i got from people telling its hard being a black girl in russia and even if i lived there i wouldn’t enjoy because i will be asked to walk in groups and not leave at evening and only live in Moscow and not leave it . I would like to know from you since you are already went and experienced it ☺

  18. […] Travelling to places where people don’t look like me, and encouraging others to do the same, may be small, but it is part of something bigger. We need the large-scale, militant movements and I am grateful they exist. But there is also room for small acts of change — and I mean doing more than sharing an article on Facebook with people who already think like you. It means making our presence known; it is dealing with the challenges and the other challenges; and most importantly, it is sharing triumphs and blowing minds. […]

  19. […] Traveling to places where people don’t look like me, and encouraging others to do the same, may be small, but it is part of something bigger. We need the large-scale, militant movements and I am grateful they exist. But there is also room for small acts of change — and I mean doing more than sharing an article on Facebook with people who already think like you. It means making our presence known; it is dealing with the challenges and the other challenges; and most importantly, it is sharing triumphs and blowing minds. […]

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