For the past few weeks I have been backpacking through India. As always I will be posting a vlog of the entire trip when I get back and over the next few days I will be sharing a bunch of travel diaries of my time in each city. But first, I have to tackle something that’s been on mind which is the inspiration for a new series which I will be launching today.
I always used to laugh at people on “gap yahs” trying to “find themselves”. I used think it was so pretentious but I’ve honestly already learnt so much in just a few weeks. Traveling through India has made me acutely aware of my blackness and how the experiences I have and the relationships I form are largely shaped by the colour of my skin.
Today, as I embarked upon a hot and sweaty journey from Goa airport to the hotel I’m staying at, I truly realised how far this issue spreads and it provoked me start this new series called “Melanated Thoughts”. Melanated thoughts will be a platform to discuss my black experience. And this post will be all about my experience traveling as a black person. Melanated thoughts will go a step further than my previous “Big Issues” series such as The Everyday Racist, I am not your maid, Check your privilege and Don’t close that door which briefly touched on the subject.
A lot of people I’ve met in India so far stop, stare and ask for pictures. Whilst wandering through the markets, a few women have even asked hold their babies! Many have never met a black person before and they are so fascinated by my braids. On our first day in Agra whilst visiting the Taj Mahal, we had to leave early purely due to the crowds of people that were crowding around my sister and I. Whilst, I am always patient and pose for their pictures, I actually just realised that as a black person my own experience of visiting one of the seven wonders of the world was diminished by being black. To them, I was a tourist attraction.
I never really mind pure curiosity but at times, it was the sense of entitlement and the over familiarity many people had that marred the experience. Many felt it was okay to touch my skin and hair without permission and wandering through the markets, men actually licked their lips at me and one full on grabbed my sister’s face.
Whilst travelling as a black person, you need to get the balance right. It’s important to be friendly as many of these people may never meet a black person again and I want their experience to be a positive one. For example, historically in Bollywood movies, villains have always been portrayed as black therefore a lot of older people can have negative ideas about what black people will be like. Therefore, I want to present the truth….black people are no different to anyone else.
Yet, safety is also imperative. There’s a fine line between a man referring to me as “black beauty” and them fetishising my skin and making me feel uncomfortable. For example, at the Taj Mahal, one of the security guards had to intervene in a situation where a group of men wanted pictures with my sister and I. The security guard informed us that some of these guys actually digitally alter the pictures and could photoshop us into sexually compromising situations.
But whilst this can be annoying, the most eye opening experiences I’ve had is not actually from the locals but from other travellers. It’s interesting to note how preconceived ideas of blackness can actually affect forming relationships. For example, I remember playing a game of charades on a sleeper train from Udaipur to Ahmembad, and “twerking” came up as the thing that needed to be described. Immediately everyone turned to me. In the moment, I did not take offence at all and I took it at face value but this seemingly minute incident is indicative of wider societal issues.
It’s not just popular culture’s interpretation of what it is to be black i.e. twerking, but more the deeply ingrained ideas people may have of me without actually knowing me. I presume the rationale was…Dammy is black therefore Dammy must twerk. And this is harmful because people don’t really get to know you. Or when they do, they only get to know you through a limited periscope of what you they think you should be rather than what you are.
As a black traveller you will inevitably meet people from different countries and from different backgrounds. Equip yourself with a good sense of humor, equip yourself with patience and most of all equip yourself with a confidence in who you are regardless of the failure of others to see what that may be.
It’s just me, Dammy, the melanated traveller