World

Black solo female traveler in Europe? Brace yourself for labels your mama never gave you..

It’s early evening when I get to my apartment block. It appears to be on lockdown with heavily armed police crawling everywhere; red flashlights rotating from the top of their cars, sirens seemingly mute, and torches on a searching spree.

CREDIT ALEJANDRO MEJÍA GREENE/JUBILOHAKU / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

CREDIT ALEJANDRO MEJÍA GREENE/JUBILOHAKU / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

I bump into two police; one male, the other female.

The policewoman beckons for me to move closer and orders me to put my hands up and stand akimbo. I comply and she gives me a full pat down; my shoulders, chest, between my legs and feet. She waves me aside to pass, but not before mentioning that there had been a stabbing and they are searching everyone for weapons.

I nod and enter the lift to my apartment and on to other business. It’s humorous to me and then it’s not. Any violence is bad, but I never imagined going through a pat-down, something I only ever saw in movies.  As a new inhabitant of Bijlmermeer, I’m made aware that it’s not the new normal, rather it has always been the normal.

Bijlmer is considered the most dangerous part of Amsterdam.

It’s a place known for all manner of crimes; the occasional drug deal gone bad shoot-outs’, stabbings, fights, police busts and opportunistic robberies. It’s also a place that parties hard during summer; when the sun radiates a scorching heat, festivals abound, the music is deafening, barbecues are in plenty and people dress like they prefer to jump out of their clothes.

Being a toffee-coloured resident of the Bijlmer will have people confuse you for what you’re not; even being patted-down for weapons, though all your knives are neatly stacked in the kitchen and not in someone’s back on the streets.

Similarly, being black in Europe will have you walk around with labels your mama never gave you.

In fact, you’ll get things you never bargained for.

Not things in an ‘Oprah-favorite-things-I’m sharing-with-my-audience-this-Christmas’ kind of way, as she screams and points to her audience, “You’re getting a car, a car for you and a car for you, everyone is getting a car!!”…but things in reference to reactions, subtle prejudices and stereotypes handed to you just because of your melanin birth-suit.

The refugee tag; Coming to stay in the land? Expect to be treated like you are fleeing persecution.

The crazies will tell you to go back, they don’t give a hoot whether you’re escaping from bombs, bullets or brutal dictators..they will make it clear that you are not welcome to their country. They will be extremely cold and hostile, and will not appreciate any critiques and complaints about ‘traditions’ such as black face and Sinterklass.

The friendly ones will open wide their arms, give you warm embraces, and plant a few light kisses on your cheeks; until they establish that you’re not escaping anything, but have come to study, to work or as a partner/spouse. There may thereafter develop a chasm between you and them, as they withdraw from friendship or avoid you completely. Pay them no mind, don’t feed their complexes….you’ll meet new friends.

With fellow blacks, you may find it suitable to wait. Wait until you establish who they are and why they are here. Some may be in a procedure to stay in the land, and will likely not appreciate questions about their countries of origin or their desire to settle down in a new country. It is possible they have invented brand new names and identities, and perceive any chit chat as someone sent to spy; they are unwilling to let anything blow their chances to stay.

For others who don’t have migration challenges, there can be that diversity of culture and communication; the nuances that have made them not readily accepting of people outside their clique. Africa is not a country.

The shop-lifter tag; The one thing you’ll quickly grow accustomed to, is being followed around when you’re in stores. As if on cue, the random security guy will straighten his posture, like the presence of a darker skinned girl has somewhat jolted him awake from semi-slumber.  His eyes will follow your every move, and when you’ve walked out of sights, you will notice him popping up round the corner to ‘check up on you.’ It’s annoying and ridiculous, does he think that for a second if you’re not in his sights you’ll shoplift?

Apparently, he does.

The sales ladies are worse in that respect.  They will shimmy up so close, making it feel like they have perched themselves on your shoulders, as they chirp continuously, “Can, I help you? Are you looking for something in particular? Have you found what you’re looking for?”

Meep. Crickets. Can I be left alone to shop in peace?? You’ll wonder.

It’s best to turn back to say, “Thank you, I’m actually searching for….”

That will get them off your back.

There will be those instances you’ve picked a couple of pricey items and made a beeline for the check-out counter. You will notice a freezing of movement, a holding of the breath when you bring out  your card to make a purchase and then audible gasps, a heaving of shoulders and relieved exhaling when a loud beep signifies that money has been transferred, and a receipt is rolled out.

Pay them no mind, clearly they thought you couldn’t afford the merchandise.

The Black Girl magic tag; You may be fetishized. There are guys out there who are quick to objectify everything about a black woman’s body.

Yes, you won’t believe it, but that talk about thighs, legs and breasts is not chicken, it is you being reduced to body parts.

What is worse than the descriptions is the actual groping, the light grazing of breasts, the grasping of butt cheeks, the inappropriate flirting.

As you walk through streets in many parts of Europe, as a dark skinned girl, you may have people stop their cars at the sidewalks to hoot at you, make lewd comments and gestures as you pass by. The intercity trains may not provide places of rest and refuge, as you may be continually harassed..drunken men may grab your hand and plant slobbery kisses the length of it including the back of your palm, as they coo, “My sweet chocolate..”

You will meet guys who will immediately let you know that they love your lips, like that is meant to be a compliment.

That’s just the start however..if you stretch your feet to parts of the continent where blacks are rarely seen in the flesh, and mostly viewed behind TV screens in music-videos, half-naked…the approach may be totally whack, outrageous and frightening to say the least.

The feral tag

Coming from Africa?

Brace yourself for the dumbest of questions.

You’ll meet those absolutely befuddled by what means you used to arrive at their continent, as if planes cannot possibly land or take off from your country.

“Did you trek through the desert or take long treks with your camel?” they will ask..”Did you swim across the ocean? It must have been tiring fighting off sharks and other marine animals.”
They will hardly give you space to answer, because they have other questions. They will innocently ask what animals you live with..and where is it you live anyway…”Is it on the trees with monkeys and chimpanzees?” or “Do you run on the streets with lions, giraffes and zebras?” Surely, you should be able then to understand, ‘animal-speak?’
There can be no suitable response to such questions,  so show them videos of African countries, like this:

Have you experienced such reactions while traveling through Europe as a black woman? Do share some of your nerve-wracking or hilarious stories.

16 replies »

  1. This is really funny in a sad way. But I have to say that I have these experiences everyday and I live in Canada. I immigrated here from the uk and I’m originally from The African subcontinent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah Courtney, it always happens..how we’d react as opposed to how we’d really react. When I saw that I was followed around in stores, it really infuriated me, you look up and see someone’s eye gazing at you! Oh my! I think I will start addressing it with the stores management and I hear what they say..it’s too much.

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  2. I’m not black but I had similar behaviours at me when I lived in Germany as a Greek woman. So I laughed most of your post reminds me exactly what I went through. And the local’s terror that I am actually staying over and not a tourist for 3 days, hahaha….. You can see it in their eyes. TERROR. SHE IS STAYING? People in NOrway asking me if i have a ticket back to Greece (!?!?!?). And the funny thing was that I was a rich tourist then (my family had paid for a luxury trip to Norway). How come I pay for good hotels and services but still I am considered an cunning Greek trying to stay for ever to Norway?!?

    NOw, about sexism combined with racism, German men think all Greek girls, due to the much advertised financial crisis, are cheap paid columbines who ought to behave like harem women to a sultan…. (see the irony here? TUrkish Sultans had harems, now German men think women from abroad can be their harem).

    In no other country in north-west EUrope, except Germany ,did this happen before. In two occasions, men I was not even flirting with, just chatting with, asked me if my name (Anna) is a fake one, so that I am liked by the locals in Germany. They asked me ”what is your real Greek name then?”. This infuriated me cause my grandmothers name is actually Anna and on my police ID it says Anna. I felt like I have to prove myself for the very basics in Germany…. Their prejucide against foreigner women (especially foreign SOLO women) is not just annoying but almost blatantly racist on the open.

    Now to avoid any German commenting against me, I will add that we Greeks as ‘whites’ aren’t always fond of darker people.

    I’m pale white by my own brother is more like Hindi in skin colour. OUr grandfather is from a Greek colony in Asia, so from my grandfather side some of us are very dark, and from my mother side very white.

    So once I was out with my own brother, 10 years older, just for lunch when some Greek people in Athens asked me why I am out with a Gypsie, or why is this gypsie out with a ”white girl” or if they should call police cause they see a white girl abducted by a gypsie !?

    SHowing our ID to people proving we are brother and sister made them say ”aha….yes,,, the nose and lips are the same…yess you are family”.

    I somehow was more insulted than my brother, he has maybe learnt to ignore morrons more than me:)

    I guess it gets even harder when your chracteristic that makes you different is not your linguistic competense but your skin colour. You can go by for weeks convincing locals you are one of them when you are white in EUrope, but you cannot do that when you are any dark or black. In this case you are doomed to be labeled the ”cheap foreign woman” from the first minute. Men will slur at you horrible words in street harassment situations. WOmen will think you are trying to snatch their husbands and stay for ever in their country. Everyone is afraid of you.

    But I want to stress here, if you are a group of black girls travelling together, I doubt anyone will throw slurs are you or try to grab you in the bus or anything insulting.

    I find with experience its more to do with me being a solo traveller than me being from south europe, that makes north/western european men (and women) go awry on me.

    I will add here another example of skin colour racism. I was with a Greek friend studying in England. SHe is darker Greek (like gypsie dark) and I am white. I went to the bank to open a bank account. Everything went smooth. I went back home and told my friend. She said ”ok now I will also go open a bank account in the same bank”. She went there but they threw her out shouting ”we dont open accounts to turks!”. She came home, asked me to escort her back to the bank, and showing our IDs (both Greek) she demanded that they open a bank account. THey did so immedately and offered an official apologize for their own employee racist behaviour 10 minutes earlier.

    Yes skin colour is a problem I have seen it, and I admit sometimes my white colour helps me a lot, but not for a long time. At one point I have to speak and then from my accent you can tell I am from ”the balkans” and nobody in europe likes people ”from the balkans”. They I get slurs and harassments on the same level with the people who are merely dark.

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  3. Hi, I am not a black woman, so I apologize if my comment is not at the right spot here but harassment on the street is a weekly if not a daily thing for many women. I also get cars stopping, guys following me and in the trains you get even worse experiences so I am not sure it is really targeted at you as at a black woman, I think it is just a woman they are objectifying. I have long blonde hair so I get all sorts of comments about me being blond and stupid.
    The stereotypical thinking is a part of my everyday life too. I come from a Northern Eastern European country and I keep on hearing questions about the polar bears and if I wear a fur coat and drink strong alcohol and what not.
    Oh, I was tagged as a gold digger, prostitute, mail-order-bride. I once went on a date with a guy and he asked me if I am a daughter of an oligarch and have criminal connections because he thought that average people from my country cannot afford living in Germany. Then he asked me if I was aiming at marrying him for a visa and finally he told me that all the Eastern European girls are known to be gold diggers so he has to be careful not to pay too much for me. He thought that would be a very funny joke. He was very confused why I had left after this.

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    • Sorry for your experience Maria..that sounds really awful! I agree that harassment of women cuts across every race and that even in this continent where women’s rights are upheld women are still being assaulted. It is great that you left the date, such guys should know that, this treatment and talk is not okay.

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    • Hi Maria, maybe you could consider changing your style and wardrobe a wee bit. You know, if you dress like a hooker, you look like one. just my 2c

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      • This is the Stone Age thinking I was referring to. You haven’t met this lady but assume she was dressing as a hooker. In Europe as a foreign woman, you do get some attention regardless of your dressing.

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  4. I’m not even black, I’m Native American/Pacific Islander, and I get that too. The “go back where you came from! We don’t want your kind teaching our kids Maths!” crap and that was from the UK and not just East London, that happened in Central and West London too. And in Surrey. I’m an Irish citizen and I shudder to think what Dublin will be like; at the moment I’m in Mexico running out of money and having an impossible time getting an English teaching job here because if people find out I even SPEAK English I get called an “American” and get ROBBED. I can’t afford that to happen again; the last time the police found my purse but then they confiscated it for “evidence” and I’m probably not going to see it again, along with my one working PHONE that actually WORKS in this Godforsaken country. I’ve put in for a replacement IRISH passport – for some reason people think I’m a damned “American” even when I WRITE these days – even from my @aol.co.uk email address, so the world is hell-bent and obsessed about “black” must be from “America” and all that goes with THAT. It’s why I couldn’t ever get a Maths teaching job in the UK after 2 years of trying, and why I’m having a hard time getting an English teaching job now; I resorted to downgrading my certification to English and letting the Maths and physics ones expire, and STILL. I get so much “you’re an American! You speak English so well” Which is it, damn it? If they think I’m an ‘American’ then they should bloody well KNOW that America speaks English!! As I’m IRISH, I get that the world’s stupid idiot population, which for some reason I encounter more than I think someone who graduated from M.I.T and Yale SHOULD, thinks that Ireland doesn’t speak English! That’s thanks to the UK spreading that rubbish around the world. If I carried a UK passport around I bet the world would think I was “African” and then would still do that. Be surprised I could SPEAK English, let alone teach it or Maths or Physics. But because I’m Irish people think I’m an American and that leads to massive bad treatment. In Juarez a guy in the house I was staying in just walked in to my room one night while I was half-asleep (that’s why I knew it was happening) and started taking things out of my purse!! And in Tijuana some creep took my purse off my shoulder entirely on a busy street in broad daylight and NO ONE stopped to help me, I had to chase him down the street yelling, in Spanish which of course made them think “American!”

    I know Dublin is racist; the Irish Embassy in London didn’t tell me NOT to go back to Dublin but this time they won’t tell me not to go back either because it’s about safety. At least there I can get in to a womens’ hostel. Abroad, I run out of money and people immediately start calling me an “American” and “go to the American Embassy” and sometimes I wonder where the hell they’re GETTING that?! Well, we’ll see, maybe I can land in Belfast or Cork, we’ll see. They say the I.T. industry is like the only thing hiring in Ireland these days….we’ll see if my degree from M.I.T was “too long ago” to get a job in tech-support there.

    They say that black people in Europe are OK if they’re actually American because being American will “carry them” and it’s the Africans and Caribbeans who have trouble, also the Middle Easterners, as that “refugee here to drain the welfare system” image indicates. Bullshit, as an Irish person (my father was redheaded freckle-faced born-in-Dublin Irish and my mother was French Polynesian) treated like “American” that’s rubbish. If you’re in the Maths, Sciences, I.T, law, computer fields then they actually seem to think that actual Africans are MORE likely to be qualified than anything they think comes out of the United States, even if “it” went to M.I.T and Yale. Or Cornell or Brown or Stanford or Cal Tech or Carnegie Mellon or Johns Hopkins, you get the idea. I have read accounts by black Americans in Europe that say that being “American” saved them from the “refugee” treatment but I’m thinking, how is the way the world treats American blacks, BETTER?? Being treated like a walking body part with no brain, especially not enough to be qualified in maths or physics, how is that BETTER than the way the refugees get treated, which, by the way, is the SAME?? Some parts of Europe – hell, some parts of AMERIKKKA, see brown skin of any ethnicity and no maths, physics or I.T. job will have you, period.

    Besides, Europe isn’t all one country any more than South America is. France is different than, like, Poland or Russia. France has an empire, most of which is in places where people’s skin is brown – Guyana, Africa, the South Pacific, South Asia. France is full of non-white people; they treat us like “colonials” but we’re THERE and we’ve been there for hundreds of years. Of course it’s going to be vastly different in places where no one has ever seen anyone darker than a paper bag, in-person, anyway. Even Germany had a colony in Africa. I can’t believe I just said “even Germany.” I met a black girl in the German Club at Yale, spoke German like a native; I didn’t even think twice about it. But then, I’ve been to London, East London in particular, where all the black people speak the Queen’s English probably better than the Queen. But then there’s something else about my situation; the world also doesn’t seem to realise that Yale University is in a heavily non-white part of New Haven. Like, 2/3 non-white. 1/3 Latino and 1/3 black. The Latinos in New Haven tend to be more likely to be affiliated with Yale than the blacks in the area. Connecticut is weird that way. Another thing weird about Connecticut, New Haven and Yale and being a minority Yalie is that around New Haven if you are a minority and go to Yale it is ASSUMED that you are NOT an American as Yale recruits predominantly foreigners and in the years since I graduated it’s gotten more and more so. Yale is about 100% more minority now than when I went there in the 90’s. If you’re a Yalie and nonwhite you “must NOT be an American” by now and yet, it’s assumed I must be an American because I went to Yale. What rubbish. Most of the world is STUPID. And it’s all because people think I’m “black.” Half-Irish, half-Polynesian and I’m here in Mexico and half of THEM are DARKER THAN ME. That’s, the world being STUPID.

    And yet. Most of Europe is SAFER for a woman than Mexico, hands-down (the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the Home Office don’t have travel warnings against coming back to Ireland or the UK!).

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