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I never thought I’d ever make a post about a city I hated, because quite frankly, I’m an easy pleaser
that’s what she said, and it really doesn’t take much to make me happy (take note, future hubby!). But I’ve been asked this question before, and I never truly had an answer until now.
I’ve had my qualms with British and French authority, but for the most part, it takes a lot for me to flat out say, “I HATE THIS CITY”.
And maybe, this is partially my fault, as one of the Cardinal Rules of traveling is to try not to set your expectations of a place too high based on other people’s experiences. That way you’re always pleasantly surprised. But the stream of comments about how Prague was everyone’s “favorite city“ flooded my notifications, and resist, I could not. The anticipation was real.
Now first off, Prague is BEAUTIFUL. It’s warm, charming, and absolutely breath-taking in some squares. Some streets don’t even look real because they’re so picturesque. This is what I expected, and my aesthetic needs were graciously met.
But here’s where things took a turn.
I did my usual wandering, in my usual aimless manner. When traveling in general, I make an effort to blend in when I can, but usually adhere to my typical gypsy attire – blouse, scarf, fedora, and bracelets.
Nothing about what I was wearing or how I looked should’ve drawn the attention that I got. The attention I’m referring to is something every Black American abroad has experienced in some manner, somewhere.
The lack of multiculturalism caused me to be a walking exhibit straight out of a museum.
And here’s what I mean.
As a black person, there are four types of stares I’ve come to terms with while traveling. And before you say that “you don’t see color” please for one second realize that I’m not talking about you. These people, locals, who some may have never seen a black person before in their life, indeed SEE color. This is not an opinion, this is a fact. And my year of living in Spain corroborated that by the amount of times I was catcalled with the ever-so-endearing words of “hey, black girl!” in Spanish. Here are the four variations of stares you get as a Black American abroad.
1. THE LOOK OF CURIOSITY
This face is quite harmless, because there’s a very good chance that they may have never seen a black person up close and in person before. So you being their first encounter has sparked all kinds of questions and innermost thoughts translating into their current gaze of wonder. They might genuinely ask if you’re related to the Obamas, and once they mentally convince themselves otherwise, you kindly tell them you’re only second cousins with the President and that it’s been a couple years since you’ve last been able to meet at a family reunion.
2. THE LOOK OF APPROVAL
This face is the most inviting of them all. They clearly look at you and take a few seconds to glance over your black features (wide nose, big lips, hair texture) and coming to the acknowledgement that you’re exactly how they imagined “your kind” to be, they give a big smile, they ask you intruding questions, and they overall show their pleasure to welcome you to their city. For the record, there was not a single look of approval I received in Prague. These stares I’ve however gotten in different parts of Spain, France, Greece, Ireland, Scotland, and Italy.
3. THE LOOK OF DISGUST
This face hurts. Not so much the action of them making the face, but moreso the lack of concern to try and hide or disguise this face to begin with. It’s like they’re saying they’re not okay with my presence, but instead of keeping that pleasant thought to themselves, they want to make sure I’m aware of it too. These stares were plentiful in Prague. It was disheartening, because I had such high hopes.
In all honesty, this almost always comes from the older generations. People who were kids when the Wright Brothers made it possible to sit in a chair in the sky and teleport yourself to foreign territory. So the concept of multiculturalism and leisure travel is something their generation was never engulfed in like this one.
4. THE LOOK OF OBJECTIFICATION/SEXUALIZATION
This face is one I know female travelers experience everywhere and I’m not comparing our struggle in this department, but I know that black women specifically get objectifying stares in certain regions much more than anyone else. This is due to the increasing amount of African migrant women who turn to prostitution when it’s the only work they can find outside of their native country. The local culture then accepts this as the norm and they associate anyone resembling a woman of African descent to follow suit.
And before anyone tries to tell me to “appreciate the stares while they’re still coming” let me kindly tell you “NO.” Here’s why.
There’s this thing called mutual respect, and as long as you don’t give me a reason to treat you like the chauvinistic masochist that you come off as, then you will get the kind and chipper Glo.
Staring is not a compliment. It’s rude. Whether it’s a look of fascination or disgust, the act is so uncomfortable for the person on the receiving end, and even while making it very apparent that I, too, have these thing called eyes that allow me to stare back, they continue in their glare.
The worst part of all of this was walking on the sidewalk and having car after car, slow down, honk, or the strangest, put a hand up and point towards the end of the street, either signaling to meet them at the corner, or God knows what else. I felt so out of my element. I couldn’t be my normal, happy-go-lucky self.
To top my day off, I was at a stoplight with a girl who would be considered gorgeous by today’s societal standards: brunette, long hair, toned legs, and wearing a mini dress.
Now, I don’t go around sticking prostitute labels on pretty people like some locals do when they see foreigners, but between the two of us, if one of us were more dressed for the job, 1,2,3 — NOT IT!
Regardless, guess who got the harassment as a car with two men in the front pulled up to the crosswalk. She was invisible. They looked right at me, muttered some words, smirked, and I felt them practically undressing me with their eyes. It was disgusting and I felt so violated.
I’m fully aware there will be creeps, jerks, and losers in every city or country regardless of where you are. But to feel like I got a taste of each collectively in just the two days I was in Prague didn’t sit well with me.
I’m not defeated enough to never visit again, I just know that I will do my best whenever I travel to use every experience, both good and bad, to humble myself. They don’t see my degree. They don’t see my self-made business. They don’t see the world of knowledge I have to offer on the surface.
Leaving town, the last person that stared at me (in disgust), I made sure I smiled back. Because whatever preconceived notions western media and culture had convinced them into thinking I’m not deserving of any reciprocation of the smiles and kindness I give first, then I’ll make sure that if I’m the only black person they ever encounter, that their experience is a pleasant one.
And maybe if they stopped gaping at me like I escaped a museum and used their words to engage in the cultural exchanges I’ve grown to love about traveling, we could slowly chip away at the stereotypes we hold of cultures we’ve never met in person. This is why I travel. And this is why you should too.