“Why the focus on black backpackers?”
This is a question I often get asked and it’s a great question.
The answer is that there are well-documented experiences of travellers who go to countries such as Asia and Africa and attract the attention of curious locals who have never seen white skin before.
Sometimes these experiences are positive, and people just want to take a picture with white travellers due to the fact that they were such a rarity in those countries.
However, I’ve also read about the negative experiences of white backpackers who are overcharged or harassed due to the light skin tone.
One backpacker from Sweden described what he called “the white tax” after he was overcharged repeatedly in Nepal.
That is until I pointed out that I get overcharged as a tourist too.
When I travelled to Jamaican market stalls I would always pay more than the locals – simply because I wasn’t from there.
And yes, I have black skin.
So while the experiences of white travellers are well-documented and interesting to read – what I don’t hear as much about are the experiences of black backpackers.
This is mainly due to the fact that a smaller number of black people actually go backpacking.
In the past, there were not as many black backpackers due to cultural and financial reasons.
For this reason, black backpackers simply weren’t featured in many travel magazines, volunteering sites and travel brochures.
Moreover, it was easier to depict white travellers in non-white countries, because they stood out more in those countries.
But how do you depict a black tourist in an African country with a simple picture?
Nowadays, the answer seems obvious. You see plenty of stock photos of tourists with their backpacks, cameras and maps. They stand out as tourists, regardless of the country they are in.
Yet despite this, there is one place black backpackers do not stand out – in travel publications.
Isn’t It Racist Just to Focus Exclusively On Black Backpackers?
Another common question I get asked is: “What about other backpackers? Isn’t it hypocritical to focus on black backpackers, when a blog about white backpackers would be considered racist?
That’s a great question.
In short, the answer is no.
Because in fact, you actually do find plenty of blogs specifically describing the experiences of white travellers, which make references to the fact that they are white.
Here is one of many examples.
Travel blogging is one of the few places where both black, white, Latino and Asian people speak very specifically about their racial experiences abroad.
This is because of the way people react to different races overseas.
Nobody considers it racist because people are simply describing their experiences in far-flung places with unique customs, traditions and etiquette.
The problem is that in the eyes of the powerhouse that is the mainstream media, the prevalence of black backpackers is a mere footnote.
You have to understand that the media and representation is part of what inspires new generations.
So if you don’t see yourself represented by role models, blogs and imagery, then it feeds into the perception that travel just isn’t meant for people like you.
And that’s a false perception.
The purpose of this blog and similar articles I have written is not to whine about racism or point the finger at backpackers of other races who have played a key role in inspiring people and highlighting the beauty of our world.
No. Rather, the purpose of this blog is to build upon the great work of existing travel bloggers and celebrate our uniqueness and our differences.
I also aim to inspire all of those who come from those very communities that believe that travel is just not for their people or that they will face discrimination abroad.
Well, I’m living testimony that race is no longer a reason to hold back from achieving your dreams.
Experiences of Black Backpackers
When I travelled across Asia, many white travellers would remark that they wish they had darker skin so they wouldn’t get so much attention from curious locals.
Oh if only! How wrong they were!
If anything, having darker skin made me more of a curiosity, not less. This was even the case in countries where people themselves had darker skin tones – such as India.
In fact – here’s an interesting little aside.
I went on a family trip to Jamaica in 2004. I was floored by how many perfect strangers would stare intently at me specifically – even though my family was Jamaican.
Again, it was a case of simple curiosity and interest – not hostility.
My mum, on the other hand, who had been to Jamaica many times in the past and studied there as a young person, attracted no such attention.
Apparently, I stood out as a foreigner, even if they couldn’t hear my accent and despite the fact that we all looked the same. Or did we?
But what about when you are backpacking around countries where black people are a rarity?
How Are Black Backpackers Likely To Be Perceived?
Well, firstly, no two black travellers will have the same experiences when travelling overseas – even if they travel together.
However, what you will find are common themes, depending on where you go.
For example, you are likely to get stared at when you visit countries that are not accustomed to seeing black people.
This happens to white travellers as well, but especially to black backpackers.
When I took a group tour to Tibet, the majority of locals ignored most of the white people in the group, apart from a tall, blonde lady from Germany.
Both myself, and the German lady (I can’t remember her name) were constantly asked for photos. This did not bother me – in fact, it was something of a novelty.
Sometimes the other lady was ignored completely, and people would instead take a photo of just me.
In Tibet, mainstream China and Vietnam people would audibly gasp when I walked past them, or even yelp! Most of the Caucasian backpackers I was out and about with received no such reaction, apart from the odd picture request.
Although people with blonde hair or freckles also received their share of curious stares and photo snaps – the attention that I got was off the charts!
I didn’t mind, to be honest. I’m one of those super-annoying attention-seekers, so travelling to countries where people constantly try to take pictures, point, look or react in some way is like paradise on earth for me.
Yeah, sad, I know.
The other reason I didn’t mind is that the vast majority of people would react out of friendly curiosity. You can always tell when someone is reacting to you out of hostility or simple curiosity and it was always the latter.
Unfortunately, not all black backpackers share my positive experiences, and some have received more negative reactions.
However, unless you go to a country that has very prominent and widespread racist gangs or governments, then the most common reaction you’ll get will be overwhelmingly positive.
Where Are All The Black Backpackers?
You may read many blogs that state that black people just don’t travel very often.
This is not true.
In the 1950s, thousands of Afro-Caribbean people travelled to England and other countries in Europe to get a better life. In 1955, the first black travel agency sprung up in America.
Henderson Travel Service helped scores of African-Americans to travel to Africa. In 1937, the Negro Motorist Green Book was published by visionary Victor H. Green, who sought to make travel easier for African-Americans.
He relied on his own experiences and on recommendations from black members of his postal service union which listed a directory of hotels, restaurants, and other services which were welcoming towards black travellers in segregated America.
The book also listed private residences (similar to Airbnb) where black travellers could stay safely.
Then in 1966, the Green Book final edition was published and filled 99 pages. It covered the entire nation of America and even some international cities. The guide pointed black travellers to places including hotels, restaurants, beauty parlours, nightclubs, golf courses and state parks where they could go safely.
So travelling is nothing new to black people.
What does appear to be a fairly recent trend is that black travel has become a movement. A new generation of black backpackers are documenting their journeys to places that have not traditionally been frequented by people who look like them.
This is why you’re now hearing about the weird and wonderful experiences of black travellers getting such intense reactions from people in parts of the world that are not accustomed to seeing people of colour.
Why So Few Black Backpackers?
As previously mentioned, the idea of travelling is not foreign to any race.
But it is also true that backpacking as a rite of passage has not been practised in the same way within the black community as it has in other communities.
Of course, there are always the exceptions that prove the rule, but there was a time when you just didn’t hear about black people taking an expedition to India for 3 months.
It was virtually unheard of for young, black students to go backpacking in Cambodia for a year, or to take some time out in Australia or across Europe.
Now that is changing.
Money is not as big an issue as it once was, and new technology, combined with the popularity of travel documentaries and TV shows are transforming the traditional face of travel.
Stereotypes About Black People
Nowadays, stereotypes exist about almost everything.
One of the most prevalent stereotypes is that all black people are poor.
While there are indeed many people of colour that do live in poverty, this does not describe the story of an entire race. No generalisation does.
Unfortunately, there are other stereotypes of black people being criminally minded, lazy and even dangerous. You can thank Hollywood gangster movies and biased news documentaries for that.
It’s hard for people to appreciate the falsity of these stereotypes if they do not interact with people of colour.
So while there are still people that ask weird questions or make odd statements to black backpackers abroad, such as “but there are no black people in England”, the only way to overcome these misconceptions is for people to interact with people from a range of different backgrounds.
Is Typecasting An Issue For Black travellers?
First of all, what do I mean by Typecasting?
By this, I am referring to the idea that there are some places where black people just don’t go and others where we are almost expected to go.
For example, it has never been unusual for black people to travel to Africa or the Caribbean. If I had told my relatives that I was heading off to Jamaica or Barbados, they would not have batted an eyelid.
But when I told them I would be heading to Asia, they told me how dangerous it would be. They told me I would not be accepted.
The simple lack of familiarity and knowledge is what creates that perception.
Some people have had worse experiences.
There are black backpackers have described receiving strong criticism or even hateful comments from other black people online, for promoting trips outside of Africa and Asia.
This is in part due to the impact of decades of discrimination.
But the whole point of travelling is to experience new worlds. It is to deep-dive into unfamiliar territory and immerse yourself in the unknown.
If you only travel to familiar places and cultures, your ability to learn about the world will be severely limited.
I often say that travel broadens our horizons.
But it can only do that if we let it.
Volunteering Overseas a Black Backpacker
The vast majority of images that depict overseas volunteers look like this:
The truth is that black people volunteering overseas is nothing new. It just isn’t represented anywhere near as often – except on forums that were either started by black backpackers or by organisations trying to highlight the diversity of their members.
It is true that in certain parts of the world, there just isn’t an abundance of black volunteers.
But in many African countries, you do see a significant number of black volunteers. Just not in the mainstream media.
There are many different types of volunteering programs you can participate in.
These range from teaching English (like I did), volunteering at an animal sanctuary, working at an orphanage or joining the Peace Corps. This is just a selection of the kind of things you can get involved in.
However, it is important to ensure that any volunteering programme you do participate in reflects a genuine need in the communities you are helping. For example, there have been reports of local teachers in parts of Africa and Asia being fired because it is cheaper for schools to use overseas volunteers who work for free.
So if you are volunteering with an organisation, be sure that they are a reputable organisation with the best interests of the local community in mind.
But in cases where there is a genuine need, there is no reason why you can’t get involved.
So once again, why the focus on black backpackers?
In a nutshell, it is because we are under-represented by the mainstream and even grassroots media.
Even with all the black millennials that are helping to change the face of the travel industry, we just aren’t on the radar.
The only way to change that is for black travellers like me and many others to represent ourselves.
This is not about dismissing or devaluing the experiences of other backpackers. Instead, is about highlighting the true diversity of backpacking and travel experiences.
But that is not the only reason why I focus on the experiences of black backpackers.
The other reason is that many of the black people I have spoken to hesitate to travel because of how they think they will be treated overseas.
To some extent, this fear is shared by people of all races.
But it is even more accentuated within the black community where racial discrimination and the denial of racism has been an ongoing problem.
Although I would be lying if I said that black backpackers will never face racism overseas, my own experiences indicate that violent racism or overt hostility is no more prevalent overseas than it is in the West.
Of course, this depends on where you go.
But for the most part, your interactions with people overseas is likely to be overwhelmingly positive.
You’ll meet unfriendly weirdos everywhere – including in your own country.
It would just be a shame if you let a tiny minority of misfits destroy your ability to see the world you inhabit.
Instead, what you’ll find is that the more travellers of all races and descriptions get out there into the world and face the unknown, the less significant medieval concepts such as racism and bigotry will be.
If I can play a role in inspiring people to take on the world, regardless of their challenges, then I would consider this a job well done.
[adinserter name=”Travel Talk Deep Link”] This blog is designed to inspire you and build an online community where you can get all the resources you need to travel. The Backpackers Travel Hub was created to make travelling accessible to everyone - not just the posh people! So drop by and visit the Facebook Group Backpackers Travel Hub. The group contains exclusive tips, and content designed to inspire, motivate and empower you. No sales or annoying gimmicks - just good, solid content. You can also take a peek at the JaninesJourneys Facebook page here. Happy travels!
This blog is designed to inspire you and build an online community where you can get all the resources you need to travel. The Backpackers Travel Hub was created to make travelling accessible to everyone - not just the posh people! So drop by and visit the Facebook Group Backpackers Travel Hub. The group contains exclusive tips, and content designed to inspire, motivate and empower you. No sales or annoying gimmicks - just good, solid content. You can also take a peek at the JaninesJourneys Facebook page here. Happy travels!