Let’s Break This Down:
In one of the many travel circles I’m apart of, a discussion broke out about Black people being stared and pointed at, photographed or even touched without permission while they are traveling. People were sharing their experiences, thoughts and the different ways they handle it when it happens to them. Then, and I am paraphrasing, this comment enters the discussion:
“It tends to be uncultured Black Americans who are always complaining but have never been anywhere. Why don’t you just stay home and leave the traveling to people who actually enjoy and appreciate it.”
Now, this comment bothered me for many reasons. It bothered me for all the reasons actually, which is why I was moved to write a post about it. It’s really disturbing to see black people (actually Black Americans) insulted, dismissed and told to stay home because they aren’t comfortable being touched and photographed without permission. So here are my thoughts on this.
The title of this post gets to the heart of the matter: treating people like they are tourist attractions. I spoke about this briefly in What Not To Do In Australia but I’m going to delve deeper. So within the context of travel, in my view, treating others as a tourist attraction includes:
- Touching someone’s hair and/or body because of their ethnicity.
- Stopping to stare and point because of a person’s ethnicity.
- Snapping pictures (especially without permission) of a person because of their ethnicity.
Why It’s A Problem
I could give you a whole list of reasons that delve into racism, stereotyping, discourtesy and all-around creepiness, but to me, this is the one reason that truly sums them all up. It’s a problem because people do not like it. Whether it’s tourists doing this to locals or locals doing it to tourists, people don’t want to be treated like a zoo exhibit or an oddity. Amazingly, they want to be treated like people.
People aren’t included in your tour package. They aren’t here for your amusement or to satisfy your curiosity and it’s really not cool to pretend otherwise or make people feel like it’s them with the problem when they protest.
These are some of the excuses I hear for why I shouldn’t be bothered about people acting like I’m on display:
Different cultures have different ideas about this. They may not view personal space in the same way. They may not see certain practices or actions as a problem. It’s just a cultural thing.
Guests Don’t Make The Rules
You’re a guest in the country and if you don’t like being poked and prodded and featured on a stranger’s Facebook page then LEAVE! And never return! Guests don’t make the rules and they have no right to complain about being mistreated.
You’re The First
Don’t worry about it. They have just never seen a black person before. I mean, yeah we got televisions and smartphones, international travel and that fancy schmancy internet thing, but still, some people have “never seen” a black person. So naturally, they must point and stare and grope. Wouldn’t you?
No Offense Intended
They don’t mean anything by it. They didn’t know it would bother you. People, in general, have good intentions. So stop “complaining” and just “appreciate” it.
This is actually a point I can work with. It’s very true that cultural differences can play a role and I can give you a real-life example.
In South Korea, the personal space bubble and physical touching are viewed a bit differently than it is in the U.S. Things like holding hands, standing close together and sitting on laps aren’t just reserved for couples.
I’ve had people I barely know grab my hand or get close, I mean really, really close while having conversations with me. I completely understand that this is just a cultural difference and even though it makes me uncomfortable, in cases like these, you won’t see me slapping hands away or pulling out the pepper spray. I just take a step back and brush it off. Why?
Because in these situations I know it’s truly a cultural thing. I know that they would do this to everyone, Korean or foreigner, because it’s their culture. Not because I am Black. That’s the very important difference that must be pointed out. It’s culture when it’s everyone. It’s discrimination when it’s not.
Are the people pointing, staring and getting handsy with you doing this to everything? Are people of all shades people subjected to this? If not, then I don’t see how culture comes into play.
Guests Don’t Make The Rules
So it seems to be human nature to take things to extremes. I absolutely agree that we should educate ourselves and be aware of the culture and cultural practices of the countries we visit. We should also make every effort to adhere to those practices out of respect. If the practice is the take your shoes off before going inside, I’m going to take my shoes off. Cover my head in the temple. Sure. Don’t take pictures of the Buddha. I’m putting my phone away. These are simple requests to respect their culture and their boundaries.
But let’s not get crazy. Despite what some may think, you are also entitled to your own boundaries and you should not suffer in silence and let people treat you any which way just because you’ve changed locations. Your body is still your body and if you don’t want the unwashed hands of strangers in your hair then that’s it. If you don’t want to pose for pictures with random people, then don’t.
Don’t let people convince that you’re ‘uncultured’ or ‘unappreciative’ because you want people to respect your boundaries in the same way you respect theirs.
You’re The First
I don’t know everyone’s life but I’m having some serious trouble believing that in every situation where this has happened it’s because ‘”have never seen a black person” before. I don’t even believe it’s the case most or even half of the time. I’m sorry, but no, because that certainly wasn’t the reason people were trying to put their hands in my head while I was growing up in the US.
No Offense Intended
This is another excuse I struggle with. Now, I don’t believe that people who do these things are twirling their mustaches and villain laughing. I don’t think they plot and hunt for Black people to treat them as tourists attractions. But I also don’t buy that they have absolutely no clue that what they’re doing might not be well received, especially if it was turned on them.
Real-Life Example: A woman visiting Amish Country was pulling out of a parking lot while someone in a horse-drawn carriage was also trying to leave. This woman stopped her car directly in front of them, blocking their way out so that she could pull out her camera and get a picture of them.
Now come on, if that was you, would you by her ‘I didn’t mean anything by it’ excuse? If the situations were flipped would she have bought that excuse?
Can the people trying to put their hands on you, photograph you and point at you, honestly say that they would have no problem with a complete stranger doing this to them? Can I run up to you on the street and put my fingers in your hair? Or does the thought of that make you cringe?
What Should You Do If It Happens To You?
Option 1: Nothing
Maybe having people photograph and stare at you doesn’t bother you at all. That’s totally fine. We all have different views on this issue and how to handle it and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve heard people say that they love posing for pictures because it makes them feel like a celebrity and that they see the fascination with us as a compliment. As I said before, we all have different boundaries and if you don’t feel like yours are being violated then that’s great.
Option 2: Teach
I think that traveling gives us the opportunity to learn from each other. To share our cultures and, hopefully, build a friendlier and much more accepting world. When people mistake you for a tourist attraction, then that could be a chance for you to educate. Whether it’s by addressing the person and calling out their behavior, or by writing an overly long blog post!
Option 3: Not Sure What You Call This One
But this has been my method. If I see them coming for my hair, I duck those hands so fast you would have thought I was dodging projectile vomit. Then, I’ll practically run out of arm’s reach. They usually get the hint by then. I don’t, and will never, pose for pictures with strangers. As for pointing and staring, I’ve found that my natural RBF has been very helpful in preventing this.
The Point Is…
This isn’t something that every traveling Woman of Color has or will deal with but it has been an issue for many. I love traveling and I recommend all women travel, especially solo. But I won’t pretend like there aren’t issues that crop up. Local or tourist, we should never treat people like an attraction or a curiosity.
There are plenty of excuses floating around for why Black people should stop “complaining” about it but, to be frank, they are all terrible. Because there never has and never will be a good reason to treat someone differently because of their ethnicity.
What Do You Think?
I’d love to know your thoughts on this issue. Have you gone through something like this? How do you or would you handle it?