Photo: Getty Images 

OPINION

It is exhausting, travelling abroad as a black woman

For people of colour in predominantly white countries, ignoring underhand comments in languages you may not be fluent in, but in tones you understand full well, is almost a guarantee, says Kuba Shand-Baptiste

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By Kuba Shand-Baptiste on

In spite of the general function of a budget European holiday in October – wallet-friendly relaxation, abandoning your work-email woes and sleep, so much sleep, to catch up on – a great deal of it is often filled with worry.

There are the usual trivial concerns: catching your flight back on time, whether or not the weather will hold out and gift you one last sunny day before your return, how you’ll cope with yet another night of inexplicably tough fish – was that even fish? – as part of your half-board arrangement.

But it all pales in comparison to mentally preparing yourself to withstand the hushed prejudices of the majority of the people you’ll be surrounded by when you get there. For people of colour in predominantly white countries, ignoring underhand comments in languages you may not be fluent in, but in tones you understand full well, is almost a guarantee; the unperturbed mask you put on, if or when you’re turned away from establishments with no explanation. It is not necessarily a new mask, but it is wildly uncomfortable nonetheless.

Personally, nothing gets under my skin more than the staring. The theatrically bemused expressions on the faces of locals and white Brits alike that read: “A black! What on earth is it doing here, in a European country of all places?” The whispers, all serving to remind you that you may well be a tourist, but, to these people, your black skin, your hair, your daring to be here, is an attraction in and of itself.

These are the looks I’ve had to withstand throughout my week-long stay in north Sardinia. When I walk into the breakfast room, out of my bedroom, around the pool, heads prop up and swivel, almost in unison, some of them sour, others unbearably inquisitive. To be clear, it’s more than innocent people-watching and it’s not a compliment. I know complimentary looks, and they were almost nowhere to be found, save for a few unfazed guests and staff members, some of whom were black themselves. This one, the one wide-eyed tourists delivered to me daily, is a gaze reserved for the things that some people deem odd in this world; impolite leering at something “freakish”, with no concern for how the object of their combative gawking feels.

Kuba on holiday last week in north Sardinia 
 

You could argue that I, we, should be used to this sort of thing by now. We know it’s likely, especially considering the rise of racism and hate crimes across European governments; Italy, in this case, being one of the most-plagued by violently anti-immigration policy and racist attacks against people of colour, thanks, in part, to Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini.

But the feeling of being unable to escape the weight of racism, which increasingly follows you around at home, when you’re supposed to be at your most relaxed abroad, is impossible to shake off. It’s exasperating, making you fight to meet each stare with your own steely, inaudible retorts – wide, daring eyes and a shaking head that says, “Can I help you?” just long enough to shame the oglers into returning to their activities.

On holiday, all I want – all anyone wants – is to let go of the burden of rage. That shouldn’t be too much to ask at all

This isn’t specific to Italy, at all. Nor is it specific to Italians, even Sardinians – although my dad’s side of my family have experienced even worse in Sardinia, including people holding their noses at them as they walked past, as if to suggest that black people smell. I suspect being accompanied by three white people broke the intensity of the racism slightly for me, this time around – even when a woman, staying in a villa on the complex we were holidaying in, thought it perfectly fine to aggressively stare us down for sitting in our rental car in – wait for it – a carpark. God, forbid.

What confuses me more is the equally hostile treatment I get from British hotel guests who, in an ideal world, should know better. They don’t.

Being on the defensive like that gets tiring after a while. I’m used to it in London, where everything, from slow-moving pedestrians to similarly passive acts of racism, makes me angry. On holiday, though? All I want – all anyone wants – is to let go of the burden of rage. That shouldn’t be too much to ask at all.

@kubared

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Photo: Getty Images 
Tagged in:
women of colour
Opinion
travel
Racism

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