In 2001, my mom and I visited Europe for the first time. We went to Amsterdam, and it was awesome. We went on to visit numerous countries in Europe over the next decade. We met cool people, saw amazing things, ate great food and had a good time.
One thing that we noted whenever we traveled was our blackness. I mean, Europe is pretty white, like really white. In all of our years of traveling, we only had one bad experience. It was in Dublin; some dude rolled up to us speaking Gaelic. He said “Something, something, something ‘nigger’ something, something.” Oh we heard it. You don’t mishear that. It was a record scratch moment. We side stepped him and headed into a pub. An hour or so later, walking back to our hotel another Irishman strolled up to us to apologize on behalf of Dublin for his countryman’s behavior. He witnessed the verbal attack and was disgusted. Frankly his apology was more stunning than the original attack. Back home, apologies just don’t happen. #realtalk
Wait, there’s a place where white folks actually apologize for racist behavior? #wheretheydothatat? #shocked #howifellinlovewithIreland
Up until last year, we hadn’t traveled for a long while. I went back to graduate school. Then Hope came along, and there just wasn’t time or opportunity. About two years ago a colleague helped me put together an abstract for an international meeting and the next thing you know, I was giving a short talk at a meeting in Helsinki. I took my mom.
Of all of our travels, Finland was the WHITEST place I’d ever been. It was so white that folks openly stared at us; a child actually walked into a closed door staring at us. We went for a day or so without seeing any other people of color. I remember posting on Facebook about seeing two African immigrants on the public tram and they nodded at us. #universalblackacknowledgement We were nearly giddy to see skinfolk!
Despite being black in an uber-white space, I never felt hated. Oh, I felt kinda weird, like a curiosity, but I never felt like I was psychically or physically in danger. I never felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I feel that at least a couple of times a week in America, my homeland. It didn’t feel bad. Odd, yes; bad, no. Socializing with folks from other countries naturally turned to the current state of political affairs and 45’s presence in the White House. Feelings around that ran from rampant curiosity to downright pity at the state of affairs.
Traveling as an American was different…it elicited different responses, sad responses. We simply aren’t the beacon of light on the hill anymore.
So, a year later, I got the idea to take both mom and Hope to Europe when I attended this year’s meeting. I arranged for us to spend some time in Paris before heading to Switzerland. I’ve already blogged about our vacation drama, but I want to share a few observations from my time abroad.
Paris feels radically different than it did when we first visited in the mid-2000s. The Champs Élysées feels a lot more lowbrow than it did years ago—I mean there’s a Five Guys burger place on the Champs! #ButWHY The city feels more crowded now, not necessarily in a bad way, just more populated. It’s a LOT more brown, like a lot. Like a lot a lot. The impact of immigration is very visible. It’s a different city, and it’s still beautiful.
One of the things I’ve always taken special note of when I was abroad is how easily recognizable black Americans are. My French is shaky, but thanks to many years of studying Latin, my reading and auditory comprehension is passable. People in shops and restaurants would murmur about us being Americans. We are easily distinguishable from African immigrants, our diasporic skinfolk. This identity put us in a special category—one that wasn’t necessarily good or bad, just different, certainly curious because most Americans in general don’t travel and frankly African Americans really don’t travel—if we do it’s often to the Caribbean. And yet, I still felt, safe, not unwelcome in Europe where folks find us curious.
And I kept thinking about how 45 (I really try not to utter his name) says don’t let happen to the US what happened to France. France, or least Paris, is a lot more brown. Things are really, really different there and the brown part seems to have a lot to do with the change. I’m guessing that 45 also sees that, and that’s what he’s signaling despite his love for fast food and no doubt delight at being able to go to Five Guys.
It’s not hard to make the leap in this language that brown equals bad. It’s certainly not hard to make the leap that our biggest immigration concerns in the US are centered around brown people, either to the south or east of us, but not the north or northeast of us. It’s not hard to see how other countries have adapted to increased brownness, no doubt with growing pains, but somehow grafting in these new dimensions of the country’s identity.
We also saw it in Switzerland. Certainly much more homogeneous than Paris, but still way more diverse than Finland. #lowbartho And you know what? It was fine. Folks of different hues going on about their daily lives.
We did hear about the waves of white nationalism that are moving across Europe, but interestingly the media doesn’t seem to feed the story. White nationalists are painted as fringe, illegitimate, a pall on society; they aren’t shown in “balanced” context that the US media has come to favor, offering hatred a platform for open promotion and even inviting social justice advocates the opportunity to debate purveyors of white supremacy. Of course, Europe, while still wildly imperfect and wrestling with many of its own demons, knows intimately the cost of legitimizing hatred.
I wish America did. I’m praying that we don’t stay on the path of learning the hard way.
Every trip I’m reminded just how privileged I am as an individual, but also as a black woman. I know that the desire and the ability to travel is special. I’m trying to teach Hope that as well. It’s hard though since she hasn’t situated how these experiences really reconcile with life before our family existed. Layer on issues around race and privilege and it’s just a lot. It’s a lot for me and given how my mom was one of 4 kids to integrate her school in the 60s, well over a decade after the Brown v. Board integration decision, it’s a lot for her too. For all of us, despite the new technicolor Europe we discovered on this trip, Europe is still hella white, and we still are hyper aware of it. And it still makes you feel…some kinda way.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on this year; here we are in the fourth quarter already. I realized that one of the things I’ve been unconsciously doing has been turning into the skids, the skids being those things that make me uncomfortable. Given how incredibly unsafe white spaces have felt in the US in recent years, I’ve found myself figuring out ways of leveraging the discomfort or the space to my benefit. I was a little more conscious of it this time, but after pondering our time in Paris and especially at the Louvre, I realized just how hard I worked to create a specific Black Faces in White Spaces experience for me, Hope and Grammy.
I made Hope and Grammy watch Beyonce’s and Jay-Z’s Apesh*t video, and then we deliberately went to see all the things in the video. We marveled at the beauty, but we also marveled at how crowded the exhibits were, how much access the Carter’s actually had in filming the video and how blackity-black that video is in such a crazy white pace. Then we thought about being there ourselves and how blackity black that felt in those spaces. That was some awesomely wild ish. I’m not a Beyhive member, but I am a fan and that video dropped at the right time for me and mine. Pulling that artistic thread gave us a little bit of an anchor during our trip. I don’t know if we needed it, but upon reflection it was really nice to have. It’s really nice to ruminate on it now as well.
Despite all the other drama around our trip, this part, the part about being both back and Black in Europe gave me a lot to ponder about politics, about identity (they are wrestling with what it means to be European all over the continent), race and color, and about privilege. Now that I’ve got some distance from the family drama and the fall of out the bug phobia, I can really appreciate the experience. I’m grateful and I’m grateful that I got to share it with my family.