Dan and I recently returned from a trip to Brazil and Argentina. On our flight back, we finished reading the masterpiece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Americanah”. It was the combination of the two (the trip and the book) that inspired this post.
In the book, Adichie’s protagonist, Ifemelu writes a post for her race blog about “travelling while recognisably black”. It resonated so deeply, I had to do the same … but with an interracial couple twist!
The first time Dan and I travelled to a foreign country together, we went to Germany (the Black Forest, to be precise) and Switzerland. What were we thinking? To be honest, we weren’t thinking! We were in the heady early days of our relationship and, only four months into being “serious”, we hadn’t been together long enough to know that this would be throwing our quite new relationship into the proverbial deep end.
Well, it didn’t take us long to find out that this was a big deal. First, I was recognisably black in a part of the world where they obviously didn’t see many black folk – judging from the many “rudely” direct stares I got. Second, I was there openly in a relationship with an unquestionably (and, though I was at times desperate to conjure up ways of doing so, undeniably) white guy. Third, we hadn’t prepared for what we would do in such an eventuality as that in which we now found ourselves … a rookie mistake.
Some people’s stares reflected shock – I wasn’t quite sure at which element, exactly: seeing a black person or an interracial couple representing the poles of black- and whiteness as we did. I assumed both. Some people’s stares suggested they were puzzled but not offended. Some showed deep concern or even clear disapproval: the furrowed brows, shaking of heads and near-grunts were what I went on in making the latter judgment.
But, as though being the only black person – and, yes, I do mean ONLY black person we saw of, say, 500 people! – on Grindelwald (the ski mountain in the Swiss Alps) weren’t enough, when I could no longer stay silent about this staring phenomenon, I received the greatest shock of all: Dan had not noticed a thing!
How could that be?! There were people staring daggers into us – which, in admittedly irrational moments of panic, I read to suggest that interracial relationships were still illegal in their country and they were about to lynch us – and he hadn’t noticed even one!
The fact that our relationship survived that realisation on my part has got to be a sign that I loved him enough to spend the rest of my life putting up with any craziness he threw my way. If you’d asked me in advance, I might have said I wouldn’t tolerate such social unawareness, racial obliviousness or lack of peripheral vision. After all, what did this portend for the lengthy periods of time we might spend visiting family in the lily white New Hampshire from which he hailed?!
Now, travelling to a totally foreign country together five years and four months later, my husband made me proud.
In Brazil, we got some looks mostly from old people. It was Dan who made the observation even before I had noticed.
I’m convinced I got some intense looks from the black folk (ranging between blue black and tan, as they did). But I think that may have been because I was the only woman I saw in our three weeks there who had dreadlocks, as well as only one of three who had anything other than straightened hair. (And, yes, I kept count. Incidentally, I only saw three black guys who had locs.) Another reason for the black-on-black stares may have often been that, when Dan and I spoke up in public, they could tell that we weren’t speaking Portuguese – thus, we were clearly foreign.
Sao Paulo may be an interracial couple haven. We saw an interracial couple (of varying age and complexion mix) maybe every hour or two, and we didn’t notice anyone staring at us there. In fact, Dan liked the place enough that we might have to make it the place to which we repeatedly retire from being stared at everywhere else we go together.
By contrast, in Buenos Aires, it is possible that there were exactly five black people – of any complexion – in the whole city. And two of them (Haitians) spoke to me when they spotted me in a bookstore, only to tell me that I was the second black woman they had seen. (Yes, they were that eager for commiseration. It may have therefore been cruel of me not to tell them that they were the second and third we’d encountered, and thus that I was keenly keeping track, just as they.)
As a consequence, virtually everybody stared: from small children right through to old people. Again, it was my now-alert husband who brought many of these instances to my attention – and only after he had taken to attempting to draw people’s attention to it by staring back at those who stared at me with a bemused smile. I’m quite a bit more timid than he so I feebly greeted people who stared at me, in hopes that that would persuade them that I was a normal person. I feared that they worried that I was an alien. (It reminded me of being in India, except that, there, Dan and I were both aliens and people were more willing to talk to us – at least to ask if they could take a photograph with one or other or both of us, or touch my hair.)
As an indubitably black-white couple (of whom one member is recognisably black and hence rarely seen in far-flung corners of the earth, on transnational television or in international magazines) that initially failed to anticipate the upshot of travelling to foreign and/or remote places together, we hope that sharing our experiences might prepare others who are venturing into this exciting realm of relationship and travel.
We would welcome hearing about other people’s experiences too so feel free to share in the comments.