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Travelling angst for women of colour

27 Apr 2017

The modern world is the most accessible it has ever been. There is not one corner of the world we are unable to reach. With the click of a finger we’re on a train, a flight, a coach, whatever. “The world is your oyster” they say.

The expectation of how much of a great time I’m going to have on a trip keeps me up at night. As does the tiniest potential obstacle. So, let’s review things for those of you like me. I am a woman. I am a woman of colour. I am poor (not poverty stricken but you know, a student with a council-housing-single-parent-and-three-younger-siblings-background kind of poor.)

Let’s get one thing straight, I love being a black woman from the “edgier” parts of north London. I respect my mother, and I admire her strength. And I am not here lamenting about how shit my life is. Given the context of my background, I recognise that actually I am doing pretty well. There are battles to be fought and won.

But take, for example, the current year abroad I am on with my uni. While most of my peers were considering the most beautiful remote towns, glorious cities and vast countrysides when picking what would be best suited to them; I had to choose in terms of where society would be less racist and sexist. I wanted to lessen my exposure to such negativity. I mean, I would be living there for a significant amount of time so taking my emotional well being into account was only sensible.

“Yet, one night in late November, I ended up being slowly pursued and loudly accosted with foul racial slurs, deep down in the dark, dark metro”

In the end, I chose Paris. It was big, modern and beautiful. A multi-cultural city, thriving with individuals from all over the world. A place with no limits. Yet, one night in late November, I ended up being slowly pursued and loudly accosted with foul racial slurs, deep down in the dark, dark metro. With no-one to protect me and a tongue shy of complaining let alone abusing others, I was completely vulnerable. I couldn’t defend myself.

I arrived home from “lush” Paris a week and half after this incident. I was unable to enjoy the company of friends, to sleep, to concentrate, to go a day without panic attacks and a strange fear of leaving the house. I later learned from my family doctor, after an uncomfortable time over the winter period, that I was suffering from PTSD. I had to let my university know that I couldn’t return and that I would need some to time to recover, before being able to take on assignments and administrative tasks again.

Some of my professor’s couldn’t (or didn’t) want to cut me much slack, and reminded me of all the repercussions my actions had. Yet, some really helped me fight my corner. Whilst they may not have been able to empathise with the trauma of being racially heckled as a young woman alone in a strange town, they really sympathised and stood by me patiently whilst I worked on my recovery under treatment (shout out to man like Debs, you’re a real one).

Eventually I progressed enough to want a fresh start on the second half of my year abroad, so I headed to the renowned international student city of Salamanca, Spain. I needed me some sun. Within two weeks of getting there and adjusting to the quaint town, I ran into a group of students in fancy dress. Two of them wore Rasta t-shirts and hats with fake dreadlocks, holding a huge well-painted paper-mâché joint. To top off this costume, brown paint covered their visible skin.

“A context where people were not used to people like me, a modern thinking, outspoken, woman of colour”

Pre-woke me wouldn’t have understood why travelling alone made me so nervous. Or, why it seemingly felt better to plan trips with my white friends, or my white ex-partner. But now I know it was because I am being taken out of my context and brought into a new one. A context where people were not used to people like me, a modern thinking, outspoken, woman of colour. Suddenly my wonderful, unique qualities put me in a very vulnerable position. But, by acknowledging these issues and learning about them, hopefully you will not be caught off-guard should something nasty comes your way.

It can be heartbreaking that when planning trips across the world these things about ourselves put us off wanting to venture outside of our comfort zone. But it is important to educate yourself on the internal conflict, ignorance and small mindedness you may ironically encounter whilst trying to broaden your own horizons.