For Black Women who Travel: Understanding Where Racism and Sexism Meet

My mother has always been my reminder that this world was for me to conquer. From Thailand to Italy, she has walked many streets with her head held high and her chubby baby girl strapped to her back. She has always inspired me to travel, and when I moved abroad for the first time in 2007, she helped me navigate the streets of Paris.  She taught me how to take the Parisian metro, how to set up a French bank account, and reminded me of the racism that I may encounter as a West African in Europe. She told me to always speak to people in English, because French people respected African-Americans more than Africans: “In stores, in the metro, with classmates, always speak English! French people will respect you more, they won’t see you as just another African immigrant.” She made sure to teach me about racism,  but she never explained to me how racism converges with sexism, and how the child of the two is the crippling fetishization of my skin and body.  

Black women are one of the most socially mobile groups in the world.  At rapid rates, we are getting educated, becoming entrepreneurs, and investing our hard earned money into seeing the world one city at time. We often prepare for our travels by asking: “Are there black people in Hamburg?” or “I wonder if locals are racist in Istanbul?” We then move to: “Will it be safe for a woman to walk around Cairo by herself?” or “Should I travel with a male tour guide through Dubai?” With two huge mountains on our backs, black women are the only people that must carry the burden of race AND sex with us across seas. I was reminded of these mountains during a recent trip to Saly, Senegal, a sleepy beach town that is also West Africa’s most popular tourist destination. In Saly, I was astounded by the sexual tourism that gripped the town and fueled the local economy. Older European men come to Saly every year for sex with African women, often minors. There is a culture of sexual deviance that permeates throughout the town, and negatively impacts the realities of many African women. In Saly, I was often approached by white men asking if I wanted to move with them to Belgium, or if I’d like to join them for “fun” that evening. My color, and my body, made me the usual target for sexual harassment. It wasn’t the topless French women who were being ogled; it was me, in my maxi dress and blazer, who became the target for unsolicited sexual advances and unwanted attention. That meeting point, where race and sex merge, is where our reputation as sexually insatiable women, is nurtured.  Historian Deborah Willis wrote extensively about the historical extreme sexualization of black women during times of slavery:

"One of the most prevailing images of black women in antebellum America was of a person governed almost entirely by libido, a Jezebel character...[who] was the counter image of the mid-nineteenth-century ideal of the Victorian lady. In 1898 when Ida B Wells began travelling aboard to publicize the horrors of American editor charged that she was not to be believed because it was a known fact that black women were inclined towards prostitution." (Source- Black Venus 2010: They Called Her "Hottentot")

An important thing to note about black women's reputations as uncontrollable nymphomaniacs during slavery times, is the fact that it was hard to also label them as victims of sexual exploitation. Based on skin, and bodies, black women were never the victims of rape, sexual abuse or harassment, but the instigators. With today’s media flashing images of black women with huge asses and volleyball breasts on our TV’s and computer’s, we have continued as the most popular fetish to conquer. During my own travels through Europe, I’ve found that my presence alone has given men, not used to seeing black women in their spaces, the green light to flick their tongues at me suggestively on air planes, or ask me what my favorite sexual position during a dinner with friends. My hips and thighs have often eclipsed my personhood, giving me little room to move as freely as I would like in certain social environments. Black women are weighed down by reputations that most of us did not partake in creating. We have become sex objects in magazines and music videos, and our bodies have become the visual representation of the animalistic, antithesis to our white counter parts. Our bodies, our lips, our hair, it has all been commoditized for the consumption of racist and sexist men all over the world. But even with all of these converging and interlocking obstacles, black women still rise. We leave our comfort zones and explore the world to enrich our lives, and invest in our growth. The resilience of black women in the face of our sexual objectification is inspirational as we continue to blaze ahead all over the world as leaders and intellectuals. It is important to not let sexism and racism stifle our movement.