You may have already read one of the numerous articles I've written for DDS Magazine stressing the importance of black women travelling and living their best lives. Heck, I wrote one last week titled "Why I Think Every Black Woman Should Travel At Least Once". Yet, even being a vehement advocate for black women expanding our options and travelling, I can’t help but feel that we are often sold a dream when it comes to black travel.
And unfortunately, I have been a part of selling this untrue dream to black women. The narrative we so often hear—the one that is told in an effort to encourage black women to travel more— is that racism, colorism and all the other “isms” are unique to the United States. People love to pretend that travel is a way to escape micro-aggressions, police brutality and the all-around hardships of living in North America as a black woman.
However, Europe has a very dark past when it comes to its historical treatment of black people and black women, specifically. While we often point fingers at the United States and regions of South America for their heavy role in the transatlantic slave trade, we are all too willing to forget the fact that both Europe played a role in the slave trade in Spanish New World colonies and that Southern Europe especially (yes, I’m looking at you, Spain and Portugal) also had their own mini slave trade.
Thanks to the creation of the Asiento system (which functioned between 1543-1834), other countries were able to sell African people into slavery to the Spanish, which obviously led to an increase of blacks in the Iberian Peninsula. Antumi Toasijé wrote in the Journal of Black Studies, “African peoples have an ancient presence in the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Spanish identity especially has been forged on the frontlines of African and European interaction.”
I don’t want to turn this article into a history lesson, but the last historical fact that I’ll leave you with is the truth that as the transatlantic trade developed, ship captains and plantation owners periodically transported African people back to Northern Europe (think England, Scotland, etc) where many blacks were sold to work as domestic servants. Many black children were sold too.
We already know slavery was a thing. A terrible thing, yes, but it's also a thing of the past (so they say). What does any of this have to do with black women living in today's time?
Well, the history of sliding European racist sentiments under the rug is a tradition that continues to this day. With the exception of Northern Europeans, both Central and Southern Europeans are known for being quite blunt. As a result, we are often encouraged to excuse their racist or ignorant comments about our hair, features and body types because "they don't know any better" or because they don't have the same historical understanding of race relations nor the same concept of race as North America. This is untrue.
Europeans aren't any more or less color-blind than Americans--they see race just like everybody else on this planet. As I mentioned above, blacks have been existing all over Europe and there's simply no excuse for the continued ignorance that persists in Europe. Yet, there are an abundance of stories about black soccer players in Europe enduring mounds of verbal abuse and being compared to animals, simply for existing in a traditionally white sphere.
I'm not trying to discourage black women from travelling to Europe. By all means, go. If free health care, a higher standard of living or a lower cost of living are what you’re looking for, then of course, Europe is your place. But if you’re looking for a place where you won’t stand out from the crowd and where you’ll avoid racial aggressions like name-calling, police profiling and more, Europe is not your place. Nor, is Asia. And the list goes on for all the countries and continents where a black women may feel unwelcome. My eyes were opened to the harsh reality of life in Spain as a black woman, while reading the novel "Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love, and Spain", a memoir by black woman Lori Tharpes and her experience living abroad in Spain and marrying a Spaniard.
She described the experience of being chased by a group of white teenage boys taunting her with racist chants during her study abroad in the Spanish city Salamanca, as well as being stopped unfairly by the Spanish authorities. She also discusses the very racist Spanish candy or “Conguitos” which caricatures a Congolese black man with heavily exaggerated Bantu features. Although the author of the book is more lenient of Spanish culture, I don't afford the same level of understanding to Spanish society. There's absolutely no reason why we should have to be tolerant of such behaviours in the 21st century. But unfortunately, we do. Many parts and countries of Europe lack anti-racism or anti-discriminatory laws that allow blacks combat racism or seek justice in the case of evident mistreatment.
A part of me feels guilty for encouraging black women to step foot in a place where we have been historically undervalued and in places where we continue to be undervalued. While different countries in Europe vary in relation to their treatment of black people, one fact remains: Europe does not have clean hands in the historical mistreatment and enslavement of African peoples. Europe deserves to be called out just as harshly as the rest of the world, as it has also been cruelly involved in the enslavement and harm of black and African peoples globally.
I’ll actually be moving to Madrid, Spain later on this year. However, I intend to be vocal about my experiences in Spain and to call out any incidences that I experience, both to prepare other black women for what they may face abroad, and as a way of holding Spanish people accountable for the way they treat black people. The truth is, if black women want to dedicate ourselves to lives of travel and exploration (a decision for which which we each individually reserve the right to make), we ought to be knowledgeable about how to stay safe in Europe since we are forced to navigate it differently than other races of women.
As diverse as Europe is, it's no utopia. It has a race problem. The world has a race problem, and in order to actively overcome this oppressive systems, black women need to band together, voice our stories and experiences, and embrace our identities as fully and wholeheartedly as possible.
Grace is a freelance writer and blogger from Canada. Her work has been featured on HerCampus, 21Ninety, Read Unwritten. She is a voracious reader, a dog-lover and a self-professed pop culture junkie. Her other hobbies include watching sappy romantic comedies, consuming too many strawberry-filled doughnuts and people-watching. Grace currently attends university, where she is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Pre-Law.