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.