It’s the start of August in 2008, and as me, my brother, mom, and dad were walking on the Great Wall of China, we couldn’t make it more than five minutes without someone stopping to take a picture of us or with us.
I would attempt to just keep it moving, accepting whatever bizarre interactions I was having. Meanwhile, my brother would cry and continuously grow frustrated at the fact that so many people were touching our hair, pulling us in one direction or another for a picture, and just staring in awe of us. We were objects of a foreign land in a place where we were never expected to be, emphasis on being expected.
As a seven-year-old, I recognized that I was in a place without many Black people. I knew that I looked different from everyone else visiting sights in China, including when compared to the other American tourists. As I would witness the white visitors continue to not get interrupted as we’d hop to different sights, I too like my brother began to resent and feel more exhausted by those interactions. I realized it wasn’t fair but I still attempted to just keep it moving. That was my way of just thinking that whatever I was experiencing would slow down or stop if I just kept being okay with it all.
Out of the many privileges, my brother and I were able to have growing up, traveling to so many parts of the world is the one part of my upbringing I always understood the value of. I knew and was conscious of my Blackness in a way I never felt like I could articulate precisely until recently. When we went to Beijing for the Olympics in 2008, that sense of “otherness” for which my parents tried to help guide us carefully through life was thrown out the window when we were confronted directly with people picking at our hair in a different continent.
The universal reality of anti-Blackness collides with the notion of “American exceptionalism” in a unique way for Black Americans.
As we would violently face this sort of sub-human, spectacle-like observations, we also simultaneously were graciously toured and shown neighborhoods and tour guides would act as though the working-class people were irrelevant and even disposable. I saw how my class and nationality lent me the privileges to be treated as better than local people, but no matter wherever I would go (in America or abroad), anti-Blackness would be right there to tag along.
These sorts of experiences would collide in moments when traveling through Europe. We’d be in a shop or at a restaurant waiting for service, and no person would bat an eye to offer any help until the second we spoke, and our California accents were detected. This was oftentimes far more similar to the types of experiences we’d have back at home. However, in this case, again, once it was clear I was American or someone in my family showed that in some way, attitudes of people wherever we traveled would change.
In many ways, I think about how being a Black American abroad almost perfectly encapsulates the practice of racial capitalism. It’s about both being complicit and a victim of a society that allows a certain select few have privileges (ie Black people who can attend places like UofC, get high paying jobs), while still subjecting the global south and Black people to exploitation at large. It’s a system whereby your Blackness results in you experiencing some aspects of that violence while also your Americanness results in you being the one who directly or indirectly inflicts violence upon others. Tourism and traveling under this current economic system will continue to make this duality a reality whenever I go to a new country. I am very clear and conscious of this reality. I know that I’m on the far more exploitative side. But that doesn’t stop me from working towards finding means to not just reduce that harm but seek solutions beyond such a system, a world where traveling can be about being in community with people everywhere.
What I admired and continue to admire so much about my brother is that he’s always been vocal about that discomfort. In the ways where I felt like I was being shy and non-confrontational, since being a toddler, he’s never had any filter about this reality. I’ve learned so much about his bold and sincere personality that I attempt to continue to carry with me every day. That attitude to just be me everywhere I go, coupled with a stronger consciousness and search to be less exploitative in visiting new places is something I hope to continue to take with me wherever I end up going next.
Hopefully, that’ll be soon.
Being Noah Tesfaye #152: Traveling while Black — An Object with no Place to Fit In
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