In a recent article for The Washington Post Saul Williams discusses the freedom and privilege of being African American abroad. At one point he states, “hey, if you want to experience white privilege, hop on a plane and go anywhere with your American passport and you will experience American privilege and you’ll be able to understand exactly what it’s like to have certain doors opened for you and back rooms opened for you and privileges given to you just as a result of what happens when you open your mouth and people realize where you’re from.” Of course I have a ton to say about this, but I want to highlight the thoughts of my well traveled friends first, when asked if they agree:
Here in Chiangmai is the first time I’ve felt NO oppression! Like none. That’s a new feeling for me. In America, I’m black first, here in Thailand I’m “firang” (foreigner) first, and that means something. They treat me well here. I know that because I’m an American, they think I have money and that may add to the smiles and opened doors but I’m also not demonized here either. No clinched purses or walking on the other side of the street upon seeing me. THAT is enough to make a ninja not go back home. It’s actually somewhat of a sad truth to face but a truth none the less. I’ve befriended EVERY black person I’ve met overseas! We see each other and there’s always a moment of…YES…you made it too?! Embrace!!
Don’t get it twisted tho, racism is still alive and well over here. For instance, I know that dark skin is frowned upon here. Every lotion, every soap…hell even deodorant is whitening! It’s more a class issue here though. If you’re light (pale) you work inside and have a good job. If you’re dark, you work outside and therefore are lower class. I feel none of that though. I can get used to this passport freedom though. We need to find our freedom but America is feeling like a hopeless place for that search. I need to go back and grab my ninjas that don’t know about this life though. Get my James Baldwin on. Ha!
Coming to The Philippines has been my first experience leaving The United States, therefore, I had no expectations. I have been here for almost three months, and I will be living here for the next two years. I have been here living as more than a tourist, but a part of the communities that have graciously allowed me to join. I have witnessed the experience Saul Williams speaks about first hand. It is an almost indescribable feeling to express being a Black American leaving The States during the height of the #BlackLivesMatter Revolution. Coming to a place where even police and government officials tip their hats to me, so to speak, is something very unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable.
In Tagalog “po” is a term used as a sign of respect. During language class, we were told to use it towards people older than us and with government officials to be respectful. However, because I am an American volunteer I have elderly people using “po” when they speak to me simply because I am from The United States. I feel very unworthy of the polite gesture.
When I started my new job my work partners said that if I need anything I can just ask the mayor or barangay (village) captains and they will get it for me because I am an American or foreigner. Having this privilege is not always a bad thing, but it is still very unfamiliar.
My observation is that a good percentage of Filipinos, not all, of course, view Americans as rich, white men and women with blonde hair and blue eyes. They often speak of the “true American.” That is the description they are referring to.
My experience is that of a United States Peace Corps volunteer. Those two titles, American and Peace Corps volunteer, are what have opened the many doors for the privileges I’ve been afforded since moving to The Philippines. I cannot say for sure if any of my experiences are linked to either title exclusively or if my privilege has been a combination of the two.
There is a strong current of truth to this statement. My American status greatly privileges how I move through the world. Whenever I’m planning trips with friends with Venezuelan or Jamaican passports and they have to jump through visa and immunization hoops that aren’t even mentioned to me, my US citizenship’s ability to literally open global doors becomes incredibly obvious. And in general when I’m abroad, it makes things a lot easier, safer, and more pleasant for me. However, I am never without my Blackness. No matter where I am, it still greatly affects how I am treated. In Mongolia people frequently scowled and spat at me. In India, my family and I encountered a wide range of microaggressions. In Germany, there were certain stops on the U- Bahn that I knew never to go beyond because of their reputation for racial violence. These were experiences that my white American traveler counterparts did not have to deal with or seem to worry about.
However, it’s complicated. I have found that my Blackness (when it intersects with my Americanness) is also imbued with an incredible amount of social capital. I studied abroad in Berlin for six months, and unlike many of my white travel companions, I got into every house party and club that I wanted. As long as it was clear that I was a Black American, I was usually treated as if I was automatically ‘cool’. This would really trip me out when I would witness the same person who was treating a Black immigrant from Africa poorly would in the next minute try and enthusiastically talk to me about hip hop. I have had numerous experiences in Greece, France, Italy, and Spain where people (mainly men) have come up to take pictures with me (and we all know how they historically have treated their immigrants of color).The spectrum of these experiences illustrates the unique and often contradictory positionally that a Black American identity can place you when traveling abroad. So yes, your American passport can take you places, but you never leave home without your Black card.
I spent a life changing, life altering 28 days in Eguafo, Ghana, West Africa, about 20 minutes outside of Cape Coast in the Summer of 2012. I was a rising sophomore on a full ride scholarship to a private college in New York state, and this trip was my first big attempt at this thing called “life” that everyone kept telling me to enjoy now that I was an adult and on my own.
I remember sitting at a resort in Cape Coast eating steak, looking over the Atlantic Ocean, while discussing the weight of the American dollar with two Australian volunteers. I was 19, living a dream, but somehow was still so sad. What I remember most from my trip is the drastic difference in response I received from the natives than the rest of my group. I was the only African American volunteer for the majority of my time there, all the rest were white and hence easy to spot in a crowd. Most times, natives thought I was my group’s tour guide and would heckle me in Fati, a derivative of Twi the dominant dialect of Ghana that has English listed as their official language. Usually, these heckles were, for one thing, to try to convince me to convince them to buy something. These encounters were mostly harsh especially from the older matriarchal figures who thought I was ignoring them (a cardinal sin) not knowing that I just didn’t understand.
It wasn’t until I opened my mouth, and they heard that American accent, that croaky up melodic shift we do at the end of all our sentences, would their smiles unlock. “Black American” they’d say, the first time I had ever been called such. Black yes, African American yes, but never Black American. This title would instantly be coupled with an attempt to relate. One guy about 18 instantly pointed to his shirt that said YMCMB, another instantly started rapping Biggie Smalls lyrics. I was seen as royalty and all the kids wanted to talk to me or get close to me. It was an odd feeling and most the time made me uncomfortable because I didn’t understand the infatuation.
In my country, I can’t get someone to sit next to me on a train.
The Ghanaians saw themselves in me, saw what life could be. We were treated with so much dignity. Allowed to stay in restaurants after hours. Individuals literally arguing to be the one to give us directions or to be the one to take us to where we needed to go for discounted price. The taxis always stopped. The police never stopped us or asked for ID. People always smiled and were happy to see us. Because we were American.
I think sometimes about what they called me, Black American. How those two words sat together in a harmony for 4 weeks. It made me think about what I call myself An African American. How at home the space in-between those words seems further apart. Separating my heritage from where I am domicile. But while in Africa I was obsessed with being American. I wanted the perks. I began to say I was Black American as a part of my introduction to meeting new people because it wasn’t as apparent as it was for my white counterparts, wasn’t as readily assumed because of my skin. At first glance, I’m just, Black, African susceptible to being unnoticed. Until being Black American treated as some higher standard black. It wasn’t right, nor fair. But privilege can be addicting.
I think I both agree and disagree with this statement. If it’s possible to have an existence that is in between black and white abroad, I think that would be a picturesque example of what it is like to travel black American abroad. There are certain places that I visited such as Berlin or Bremen in Germany where I thought race still played a factor. Those happen to be European cities with a very turbulent and volatile past especially when it comes to race relations. So ultimately, I believe where you travel is the determining factor of your experience. In other places that I’ve traveled to such as Italy, Canada, or Mexico I would have to wholeheartedly agree with Saul Williams’ assessment of the benefit of being American abroad, especially if you’re a person of color who has been treated as a second-class citizen in your own country. You get the benefit of being treated first as a human being–almost without limits. It makes sense to the mind to presume that this is possibly how or what it must feel like to be white in your own home country. It definitely begins an interesting dialogue.
Most of the time when I inform people that I lived abroad in South Korea their immediate response is, “Wow, I’ve heard they’re really racist to African Americans there. Was that your experience?” Frequently these individuals are not of color, so it’s ironic that the assumption is that I would have to travel all the way to Asia to be treated poorly based on my race. However, I must admit that before going this was also an area of concern for me. Would natives treat me poorly because I am Black American? Would people stare and point at me all day? Would they want to touch my skin or hair all the time? Fortunately, that was the furthest truth from my experience.
While in graduate school I discussed some of my worries with a classmate/friend (white male) after reading different stories online about negative experiences that African Americans had in South Korea. His immediate response was, “beauty transcends race.” In other words, he was saying that no matter where I traveled in the world I would be fine because I am viewed as what is stereotypically identified as attractive. Oddly enough, he was right.
While traveling in Seoul, Pohang and Busan, South Korea I was two things before I was Black:
In a country driven highly by aesthetic beauty, my race wasn’t the first thing that came up in conversations, and I never felt that I was treated poorly because of it. In fact, I never really understood the symbolism of being American until I left America.
From the moment I arrived in the country people were willing to assist in whatever I needed at any given moment. From ordering my bus ticket to getting off a stop early and helping me carry my bags to my hotel–it was amazing! Overall, people were kind and even when they stared it always seemed to be from interest, not hate. It was a liberating feeling.
Now, there is always an exception. There was an older Korean man who actually stared at me vehemently, but it was an anomaly outside of the norm. The feeling can be intoxicating, everyone should experience that feeling. It should be the norm. Eventually, it will probably be the reason I leave.
-Ms. Malcolm Hughes