Being a black woman abroad

Being a black woman abroad

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“Three things traveling abroad has taught me about being a black woman," according to author, editor and award-winning blogger Carolyn Vines.

For over twenty years I’ve been traveling and living abroad. I’ve been all over the United States down to Mexico and the Caribbean and across the ocean to Europe. I’ve become acquainted with nearly one hundred cities in seventeen countries spread over three continents, each of which, through a slight gesture or a grandiose revelation, gave me insight into what it means to be a black woman in the world.

Firstly, my travels have taught me that America’s futile obsession with race does not define me even though it’s done it’s best to convince me that I’m not relationship material, that I’m loud and otherwise ignorant, i.e. socially inept, and that if I’m financially successful, I’m an anomaly.

In contrast, the people in each of the countries I visited were interested in me because I was a black woman. They listened when I spoke and wanted to know about black culture in America. Bit by bit, with each journey, I expelled all remnants of a racist ideology that, unwittingly, I had internalized.

By the time I moved to the Netherlands, eleven years ago, the slate had been wiped clean enough for me to inscribe my own definition of who I was. Dutch culture does not see blackness first and foremost, nor does it place a stigma on skin colour. Therefore, instead of focusing on how others perceive me because I’m a black woman, I feel empowered to focus on my creative potential as an author, mother and individual.

America’s obsession with race extends to the black community, where it is felt deepest in our negative body image. Nowhere is this felt with greater intensity than among black women and our hair. We’ve managed to politicize something as personal as hair care. Hair continues to divide us. Even now we’re in the middle of a polemic, one side of which tells us that if we chemically process our hair, we’re ashamed of our heritage and have a poor self-image, as though sporting natural locks could somehow obliterate all of our issues, past and present.

In the absence of Dudley products, I’ve been forced to ground my body image in other areas besides the physical. I started paying attention to the fact that people responded to my openness, were drawn to my genuine interest in their culture and were attracted to my growing self-confidence. That, in turn, empowered me to love the body the good Lord gave me – with a couple tweaks here and there! I’m a lovely shade of brown, my body is healthy and my hair is versatile. I’ll change my hairstyle at the toss of a coin depending on what part of my character I want to express that day. Being abroad has taught me that my brown body is just that: a brown body. I get to tell the world exactly what that brown body stands for, not vice versa.

In addition to learning that my hair and that America’s racist ideology do not define me, traveling abroad has taught me that I have a distinctive voice. As in writing, voice is not limited to the words I use but extends to how I get my message across. The fact that I travel speaks volumes to the multi-dimensional identity of black women in general. The way I dress, how I pass along the legacies of the black culture to my children, how I interact with my husband, down to how I try to dance on the cross trainer at my gym listening to Prince, George Clinton and the Doobie Brothers are all extensions of the voice I carry within.

When I turned to words – through blogging and writing my memoir – I connected with other sisters living abroad and tuned into that vibrant community. I learned that we could be, and were, an indispensable support for one another. We shared past hurts, present successes and future dreams. Their voices, expressed through their stories, resonated with and fused into mine, making it stronger, clearer and eloquent.


As I look back over the past twenty years of traveling abroad, I realize that my journeys haven’t been about stepping outside my country as much as venturing internally towards a definition of my black womanhood expressed in my own terms and on my own terms. Those journeys have empowered me to successfully live beyond the limitations of my comfort zone, beyond the limitations of my identity.

 

More about the author

Besides being an author, editor and award-winning blogger, Carolyn Vines is a full-time mother of two bicultural, bilingual daughters. She holds an MA in Latin American literature and has taught in universities in the Netherlands and in the US. She speaks Spanish and Dutch fluently and currently resides with her family in the Netherlands.

Her memoir, black and (A)broad: traveling beyond the limitations of identity is available online at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Barnes & Noble online

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17 Comments To This Article

  • sightseer posted:

    on 3rd June 2015, 04:33:09 - Reply

    I agree with the core message of the author. We should define black womanhood for ourselves and not let the world tell us who we are. If her experiences abroad helped her on that journey that's great. However, I also agree with some of the commenters that we shouldn't idealize Europe.

    Recently, I traveled all around Croatia. It is stunningly beautiful but the reception I received in some of the towns was not beautiful. In Dubrovnik where there is a lot more diversity of tourists everything was great. But up north and on Krk island they were clearly not used to seeing black people. I got a lot of hostile staring particularly from groups of men. I also heard monkey sounds and heard someone calling me gorilla on two separate occasions. Needless to say, I didn't always feel welcome. The interesting thing was that my travel companions were both white Americans and they were stunned. It was the first time that they were witnesses (and in a way on the receiving end because they were with me) to overt racism and got a taste of how unsettling and scary that kind of hostility it can be.

    We didn't let it ruin our trip though. We toured a lot of beautiful towns and sights, had some great meals and wine and also met a couple of really great people. It wouldn't be fair to judge the entire country of Croatia based on those instances of overt racism. But I also think we shouldn't expect to encounter only enlightened evolved human beings abroad.

  • Bajwita posted:

    on 14th August 2014, 02:42:29 - Reply

    Hey great article. Black people can come to Europe and not feel like victims of racism. I live in Spain, and trust me (speaking as an ethnic minority), you will never feel overt racism. And trust me, they have a bad reputation for being racist towards anything other than European Spanish.

    Often (speaking for Spain), it's just little ignorant comments "OMG YOU LOOK SO MUCH LIKE MICHELLE OBAMA." And in reality I am Indian and I feel like saying "whaaat, say what foool?" But it's never hard core racism in your face.

    The Spanish definitely have issues with colourism. I find in places like Madrid, being light skinned or fair is often considered a more desirable trait in a partner than being "morena/o."

    You also see a lot of babies adopted from Asia (in Spain) but heaven forbid a Spaniard adopt a black baby (from next door).

    Grandparents in Spain are so doting and would NEVER physically reprimand or hit their precious "nieto." Well, one day I saw this grandfather just being abusive *physically and mentally, with his adopted grandson. It was heartbreaking, you could see this old man was absolutely disgusted by his grandson.

    But again, these are the little "yet huuuuuge" things that maybe you would never encounter, but you hear or see on the TV. On a day to day basis no black person is in danger of being physically attacked for the colour of his skin in Spain. It's a safe country ;)

    I can't speak for the Eastern European countries, or Russia. I hear a lot of horror stories, but once again, maybe they are just stories?
  • Thiago posted:

    on 14th May 2014, 11:20:36 - Reply

    I find this really interesting! Im a black guy living in Europe and I grew up here. I feel the opposit. Then I was in America I feelt like I could see myself in the society for the first time. People looked like me, people that looked like me was in the history books, on the tv, they have movies with people that was all like me, for the first time I feelt like...Damn I can bee proud to bee black. I guess americans dont get it but if you go to scandinavia and other parts of europe you will not find much black people that is in power and the beaty standard is white, I guess the grass is always greener on the other side, and dont forget many people is very intressted in american culture so only that make you better then the "standard" black guy or women. We see you as exotic. I loved the black girls I meet in Los Angeles and find them much more interesting than the black girls in my country. Back to the subject. If you really wanna know how it is for black people and not "european" looking people take a look where this people live, wich is the poorest, who owns the company, who is in power. In europe we know that In the ghetto in france is most black and arabic people, and the same for Denmark,Sweden, Norwey, Finland and Germany. The only countrys that have a BLACK MEDIUM CLASS in EUROPE is UK and FRANCE.
  • oceanspray posted:

    on 11th May 2014, 23:04:56 - Reply

    As an African American who has lived overseas, I can attest to the fact that it is less racist in different nations than the States. People don't stereotype me as ignorant and ghetto without even knowing me like they do all the time in America. They don't consider me immediately inferior. I start with a blank slate, not negative stereotypes. Thus I feel free to truly be myself. That's the freedom the author is talking about. Also men consider me attractive and will actually date and marry me, unlike in America. My beauty is not in spite of being black, which is how people think in America. In Europe they don't even think, "you're pretty for a black girl" They say, "You are so beautiful." End of story. It is so refreshing. All black American women should experience this.
  • miss marilyn ford posted:

    on 1st April 2014, 04:46:51 - Reply

    I had the opportanity to work with the USO in the seventies and i traveled everywhere. MY favorite place to be was haiwaii USA. Luv usa
  • Angie posted:

    on 18th March 2014, 17:23:17 - Reply

    I lived on the South Island of New Zealand for a year and although you state that la black woman's hair should not define us which is true but you have to admit that black woman are not even taken into consideration when it comes to hair care abroad. My hair is natural so I don't have to worry about getting a relaxer and such but I did not even have the option to go to the salon and get my hair done if I wanted to. Why don't European hairdressers learn how to work with all hair textures and not just their own. Not only, could I not go to the salon, I did not even have access to hair products so that I can do my own hair. It's frustrating because when I go abroad I have to give up basic luxuries that no other race has to when it comes to hair care.
  • Lyn7721 posted:

    on 26th October 2013, 18:55:55 - Reply

    I too find this entire debate interesting. I personally will have to agree with the writer of this blog. I lived in Germany for nearly 6 years and was a teenager there. I found Europe to be much less racist than the US-and I have lived all over the US. I think part of this discussion could be helped by breaking a few things down. First of all NO where on earth is completely without racism period. I don't just mean racism from light skinned people towards dark skinned people. And I'm sorry but I think thinking of racism in those terms (as something against darker people) is part of the US making black people internalize their hatred of us. I am no fan of defending bigots but I find myself doing that when I hear people acting like having an immigration problem is an American thing. Sorry but every country has a problem with any group of people that immigrate to their country at high rates.

    I also find myself having to make the point that cities are cities everywhere and small towns are small towns everywhere. In large cities in Europe I've seen crime and graffiti -something we never hear exists in Europe. But I also find that cities everywhere tend to have people who are more educated and open-minded than small towns. I have friends from all over and whenever I ask about race relations in their countries they almost always answer that it depends on if you go to the more rural areas -race relations tend to be worse there. Also racism obviously tends to be worse among people who are less educated or don't know much about cultures other than there own.

    I noticed drsmiley doesn't say where in Europe he supposedly has been studying. Europe is a continent and therefore talking about racism means nothing unless you say where exactly you are. It's like an African visiting Mississippi and then going back home and saying how racist North America is! After 6 years traveling all over Europe I have never heard anything like monkey sounds being made-though I won't call anyone a liar I am very VERY skeptical about this.

    I did however experience a bit of racism in the cities of Spain. It really was NOT Europeans that started our issues with race in America as someone else stated-it was specifically the Spaniards-so to me this made sense! Also decades of blacks can't be wrong-sorry. Among the black American entertainers of the past there has always been a consensus that racism was much less (not that it didn't exist at all -people taking it there are just being dumb) in Europe than in America.

    I suppose it also has to do with what exactly you're looking at as far as race relations. In Germany they have a serious problem with Turkish people because it's there largest immigrant group. When I tell Americans how much they disliked the Turks I always hear back well then they must have really hated you! That's part of American culture thinking blacks are lower than everyone else. The thought is how can they hate anyone and NOT hate black people? Is hating Turks Germans being racist. Yes indeed but they actually liked me more because I was black!

    I have always been considered an attractive woman by different ethnic groups but in America the fact is I'm still black. It doesn't matter how pretty you are here the fact that you're black makes you less pretty than the pretty girls if that makes sense. When I went to Europe the men were all over me. I got told I was gorgeous, stunning etc. When I walked into places I was immediately noticed. My very pretty Puerto Rican friend voiced her dislike of the fact that the men there only liked me better because I was black -where American men hands down showed her more attention. Some black women try to say this is negative but I disagree.

    I think of blacks in Europe the way I think of Asians in America. Yes there is obviously racism against Asians in the US but that doesn't negate the fact that they prefer them to other ethnic groups in general. Also the way white american men obsess over Asian women can be seen as negative too and in many ways it is. But the fact that they marry them and consider them attractive has made them be able to have a place in American society that blacks have never had. If this blog was an Asian woman saying how much American men loved Asian women the responses could be exactly the same. No America is absolutely not some Utopia where there is zero racism against Asians but speaking in general it's good to be an Asian woman in the US. Just as it was good to be a black woman in Europe!
  • misse posted:

    on 1st October 2013, 21:52:49 - Reply

    Wow, it is very interesting to see so many of the skeptical comments toward the original post. I traveled to several countries in the both Eastern and Western Europe during study abroad and have found that Europeans in general have a different way of interacting as people as a whole than Americans. I disagree with the above post stating that blacks should exclude European culture and only embrace African culture...why can't people enjoy both cultures? It sounds like you are a bit bitter about something... I really have a hard time believing the things you stated you experienced because not once did I experience any of those things, and I think it is a little bit close minded to generalize that everyone will have the exact same experience as you. Many other black women I know that have traveled to Europe absolutely loved it, and love the sense of freedom, being carefree, and not feeling as though the focus was only on their race. I personally believe that racism is experienced at it's worst for blacks in the United States. I live down in the South, and the tension, negative treatment, and exclusion I have received from whites here is horrific.I have experienced the same in other parts of the U.S., but not as badly as in the South. I found Europeans to be much more accepting and inclusive. I am not saying that Europe is a perfect, racist free society, but I do believe the US is much worse in terms of race relations and tries harder to suppress and oppress blacks psychologically. I would recommend any black woman to travel to Europe as I believe it will change their perspective on life for the better, and they will realize how much they have internalized the institutionalized objectification and racism here in the U.S....
  • drsmiley posted:

    on 22nd August 2013, 11:15:22 - Reply

    It gets tiring hearing about the whole romanticism of European culture. As an African American personally who has been studying in Europe for over two years, it has been a very racist experience. Yes, you may find a few people who appreciate you, however, please be aware where this racism started from: Europe. Many black ppl (including myself) have experienced horrible name calling, stares, monkey gestures, mistreatment, etc.. I have traveled all around the world and have not been a stranger to traveling. European societiesgenerally do not view blacks as their equal so please don't mislead other blacks to think these countries embrace black ppl with open arms. I personally can't wait to finish my studies to go back to America...although there is also racism there, I can at least live in a society where I utilize my rights as a citizen and speak out loud against it and use legislation if I must. I think black ppl need to embrace African culture more and talk about the beauty of black countries (in Africa and all around the world) and stop giving Euro all this hype and romance about the language, food, men, etc. Also, generally speaking, Europeans are very unhappy despite the wealth of their continent...too many frowning faces and not enough happiness and general positive energy. Foreigners have also learned to adapt to this behavior. Please keep it real.
  • Clint posted:

    on 2nd January 2013, 06:02:50 - Reply

    After all these years I thought there would be a directory of all the Black hair salons in Europe. But a Black person still had to look for one. I'm a Black male who traveled in Europe some years back I hope there are Black businesspeople who can fill that need in the future.
  • Florence posted:

    on 22nd August 2012, 00:53:42 - Reply

    It seems like an interesting, "the grass is greener" situation. Doing a similar thing I have noticed that as a black female in Europe you are not viewed as on the same level as other in general. For readers, don’t think that Europe as a whole is arms wide open to “blackness”. I do agree that in a few odd places you can be more carefree with how you want to present yourself and still be somewhat respected. So if that means carrying an afro or what not. But in many other places it is not like that, it makes more sense for Europeans to favour the features that are more European, straight hair, fair skin… Of course in large cities you usually find more internationals because of work opportunities and business, so the native inhabitants tend to be more accustomed to foreigners. Therefore more open. The Dutch are more extroverted and outgoing people in general and Amsterdam plays its self-off as the most liberal country in Europe. Even there you have your encounters as a resident. London where I am from is barely and English city, it's more a global town. Although even here you get a social divide, and discrimination when it comes to employment. [edited] But saying that it like maybe a few other cities gives you the opportunity to develop your character as an individual. In Hamburg it was a lot more relaxed than in Berlin as it's one of the biggest international cities in western Germany [edited]. And Norwegians are much more relaxed and friendly in general more so than other Scandinavians and Nordics in my opinion. You cannot say Europe as a whole. Because in Spain, parts of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy... France [edited] You will face racism as a resident [edited] So that means you a have a few big cities in Western Europe to choose from. Remember Europe has its own standard of beauty based on the white standard for obvious reasons. And even though in some countries they may tend not to bother you about your differences, they don't really want to associate with you. You will get stereotyped as some kind of prostitute here and there. That’s unavoidable at times. The racism differs from the US because it’s not so deep rooted into people. I noticed that some white Americans tend to be uneasy around black people and that African Americans tend to be more critical of their blackness within themselves. And so you get two forms of racism. So maybe going to a few more open societies in Europe allowed you to let your hair down, literally. In Belgium at the moment which isn’t bad. And my hair is in natural twists, people ask questions, and enquire but it’s usually out of curiosity. Whites in Europe have been subject to a sort of invasion of their land and culture. As well as being influenced by very nationalistic movements in politics throughout history or even presently. I'm glad you feel Europe has opened you up. [Edited by moderator] But it is certainly no racism free environment.
  • Louisa posted:

    on 14th November 2011, 14:23:20 - Reply

    [Edited by moderator] I think that Carolyn makes some valid points that have been overlooked by the responders on this blog. I read with interest that, through travel, Carol discovered that racist ideology did not necessarily have to define her. She obviously found the European environment refreshing and open. Maybe, it was open in a way that will remain closed in the American environment for many years to come. When I travelled to Norway, I uncovered this open-ness. I traveled there alone but found so many people willing to show me around that I did not feel alone. If I were viewed as a "sexual fantasy" I would not have known it. Why? Because people were engaging with me in an intellectual way--I was able to sit in a cafe and talk about books, politics, poetry with relative strangers, who found me engaging. Black women and people of color, in general, are very 'body-objectified.' Too often, people view only coloring and bodily features of people of color, refusing to note intellectualism or high creativity. I appreciate the fact that Carol Vines mentioned the 'hair' issue among Black women. She herself mentioned that she would change her hair on a whim. And that is her right (or any person's right) to do. People can do whatever they want with their hair--straighten, wear natural, go gray, color, relax, perm, etc. Often women with naturally straight hair will attempt to waylay nature by using an ammonium thioglycolate formula to 'burn' curls into their hair. Yet, one often hears the word 'perm' tossed abut casually, especially by Caucasians. They feel they have a right to perm their hair. I keep seeing people with dreadlocks in the beauty shop, getting their beautiful locks trimmed and brushed up a little. Obviously, even people with dreads feel the need to beautify or alter nature a bit. I think that Black people get caught up in these types of debates (straight -vs- natural)because they are so very 'body-objectified' by society. As a result, Blacks are forced to be concerned with issues related to authenticity. So much so, that divisiveness is a result, instead of the much hoped for identity revolution.
  • Sun Shine State posted:

    on 8th September 2011, 18:44:39 - Reply

    Ingrid, I agree with your statement. I have lived all over the world and your so right in this comment. "Please do not generalize your experience to everyone else. I don't think America is so bad. There are limitations, glass ceilings and stereotypes everywhere. If you are loud and ignorant in America, you are exotic and a sexual fantasy in Europe." Thank you!
  • Happy posted:

    on 14th March 2011, 12:57:38 - Reply

    Hi Carolyn,


    I just read your article on being a 'black woman abroad'. I did find it quite interesting because I could relate to some of the points you mentioned.
    I am actually African British (born and bred Londoner) I have lived in Norway, Netherlands and Belgium.
    I went to all 3 countries alone and not knowing anyone.

    The reception I got was quite mixed. In Norway people in general were very kind and friendly.
    In the Netherlands although people were nice in general I found the whole tradition a black peter difficult to understand.

    My friend from the Caribbean explained that St Nicholas had slaves and the black Peter characters are a caricature of those slaves.
    How could a country so insensitive to the feelings of another race not be racist.
    'Blacking up' is never funny to black people. Whether done in jest or to insult, the result is always the same: it offends.

    The reception in Belgium would be a mixture of that of the Netherlands and Norway. Although the people are kind there is a strained relationship between the Belgians and foreigners. I actually get treated with more respect because I am British than the nonwhite Belgians do. It seems that most Belgians do not consider the non white Belgians to be Belgian. They don't mix very much with the large Muslim population.
  • Ingrid posted:

    on 9th March 2011, 14:02:27 - Reply

    Sorry, I disagree. When I lived in Europe, I was greeted with loud monkey noises, stares and pointing. I lived in Berlin in a very homogeneous neighborhood and spent time as well in Rostock and no one was interested in my identity other than to mock it.

    Of course, I did not attribute those actions to all Berliners or Europeans,
    but I think it's trite to lead others to believe that Europe is completely open to other ethnic populations. I was part of an article for a magazine on the 2006 'No Go' areas for the World Cup and the findings were not pleasant. I was asked to travel to those areas as a black woman to test their safety and at the first stop the police told me 'Best to leave now because after dark people around here use people like you as a punching bag.'

    Please do not generalize your experience to everyone else. I don't think America is so bad. There are limitations, glass ceilings and stereotypes everywhere. If you are loud and ignorant in America, you are exotic and a sexual fantasy in Europe.

    Neither is utopia.
  • Daniel Gaskins posted:

    on 9th March 2011, 13:01:58 - Reply

    Being a African-American (whatever that means) I couldn't have said it better myself. I have been here since 1994 and I have to say you hit the nail on the head. America has a way of instilling some very negative s elf hate images on the black (whatever that means) community.
  • rbragar posted:

    on 9th March 2011, 12:26:15 - Reply

    This article is excellent! A true and intelligent view of travel, self, and cultures.

    Bob, Amsterdam