As a Black American woman, I’ve gotten stares in Greece and pictures taken in Mexico and a million questions in Singapore and compliments in Denmark. It becomes more intense when I travel with my partner. Interracial travel draws a wide range of reactions from just walking down the street.
Although I’m familiar with all of this, it is a bit more intense here in India, and perhaps more surprising to me as well (seeing as that my skin color is so similar to many people initiating these interactions)!
But I now realize that you can stand out EVEN MORE when you’re holding hands with someone that does not look like you (say, a White & Asian man); because seeing someone of your race can be strange for people in your travel destination, but it can be even more strange seeing an interracial relationship.
This has made me further reflect and recognize that everything I once thought was attention regarding the color of my skin and perhaps sometimes my hair, isn’t necessarily just about skin and hair. It’s curiosity about the similarities and, more so, the variances between different backgrounds and cultures. People naturally want to view, interact with, ask about, and remember people who not only look different than them but likely have had a completely different life experience altogether.
Note: If you’re a traveler – especially a traveler that breaks away from the typical tourist spots and resort towns – you might know what it’s like to really stand out and have attention drawn towards you more than you ever would in your hometown or country. Some people, like myself, have lived all of their life as a minority, while others suddenly become one while they travel. This article may relevant for both types of people/couples as it is specifically addressing being a “standout” minority – one in which people around you are not used to seeing.
Why Your Response Matters
Whether you like it or not, if you’re one of the few (if not potentially the first) person with “x” feature that this person has interacted with, you may be playing a significant role in shaping this person’s image of the people who hold said x feature. UGH. I KNOW. It shouldn’t be that way. And you shouldn’t be worried about living your live as a role model, or be overly conscious of your behavior as a “de facto representative“ of millions of people who aren’t where you are. Because you really only truly represent yourself.
But I do think it’s a valuable and powerful opportunity to bridge a gap between people who don’t know much about you. And show that you can remain graceful, understanding, patient, and open, even when they might assume awful things about you, have high expectations of you, or just don’t know what to think about you at all.
So here are 7 common experiences you may experience during interracial travel abroad, and how I peacefully respond to them, ultimately making them less annoying, less uncomfortable, potentially humorous, and more positive overall:
1. When someone is staring at us…
This is the most basic “interaction” that most travelers have had to deal with at some point or another, especially when visiting places that aren’t as touristy, or don’t get as many tourists of a certain racial/ethnic group. If you’re in this situation, you likely aren’t being stared at just by one person – it will be a common occurrence in the place you are at, so the first best thing to do is try to get used to it. We either try to ignore it when we’re in a rush (or otherwise lack the wherewithal to be social) OR we respond with friendly smiles and waves!
It’s fun to watch people’s faces morph instantly from skeptical wonder to amicable joy when you give them a big smile and a jolly wave hello!👋🏾
2. When someone starts taking a picture/video of us *without asking*…
I am not particularly pleased when this happens, and I used to get very annoyed by this, thinking, “what am I, a zoo animal?!” No, I’m not, and you’re not either. But just like you’d take a picture of a lion cause you think they’re interesting and don’t see them often, the reality is simply the same for them towards you.
However, I do think people should ask, even if there’s a language barrier and the ask only entails pointing to their phone then pointing to you. So when someone starts taking a photo of me or John without permission, I just whip out my phone and start recording them back! This reciprocal approach is an easy way to get people to realize that what they’re doing is a little strange, as it’s now being done on them.
Do it with a smile, and the person will either put their phone away and feel a bit embarrassed, or find it hilarious and laugh along with you.
3. When someone *asks* to take a picture of or with you…
I love and respect people who are bold enough to simply go up and ask someone to take a picture with them. Like, sure, good for you! Ask for what you want! I feel much less like a zoo animal that way, as my boundaries are respected and I have a choice in the matter. I always say yes to this, as I want to encourage asking first (and let’s be honest – if I say no they’ll probably end up taking a picture of me while I’m not looking, and then I’ll probably look a lot worse in the pic 😂).
Quick side note…..If you are someone who has asked to take a picture with a stranger because of how they look, please please please tell me what you do with these photos! That’s what I’d love to know okay thanks moving on…
4. When someone touches your hair *without asking*…
Same response as #2, the no-ask-picture-taking. I know, this one is definitely weirder and more invasive and even more annoying than the picture one. So what do I do in response? Do I get angry and yell? No. Do I slap their hand right off my head? Nah.
I just immediately start touching their hair right back! They feel surprised, strange, and a little disgusted. Then they realize that they probably just made me feel that way too. Yes, ma’am, it IS weird to go up and touch a stranger – #SHOCKER.
I like this approach because you can do it in a friendly, tempered way, with a smile on your face, and still get your exact point across.
5. When someone *asks* to touch your hair…
For me personally, this is similar to #3. I know people feel differently about this, but if someone’s curiosity is just bubbling out of them so much that they can’t help but ask to touch a type or style of hair they’ve never encountered with their own hands, then so be it – I’ll let them. Thanks for asking. Whatever. I might make fun of you a little in my head (😜) but I get it, and I respect the curiosity.
6. When someone makes a hateful, mean-spirited face at you or your partner…
Another #SHOCKER – Racism and prejudice still exists, pretty much everywhere, although manifesting differently in different places. I maintain that the United States is the country I’ve felt the most unfounded prejudice, but colorism is a thing throughout the world, as well as hatred and negative assumptions based on religious expression, lack of religious expression, socioeconomic differences, etc. So, unfortunately, it’s not really surprising to see someone who just hates you being in the same vicinity as them, who glares at you intentionally with the meanest, most disgusted look they can express. *Sigh*
In response, I LOVE LOVE LOVE smiling at these people (hehehe).
But first, I try my best to look bewildered, in an attempt to convey that I’m not just going to assume that they hate me (hopefully then reinforcing that their blind hatred is completely nonsensical and arbitrary). I look behind me both ways to pretend like I’m trying to make sure they’re making that horrid face at me (…ME?!), sometimes going as far as to point to myself in disbelief (#theatre101) .
Then I give the warmest smile and be on my way 😊 . Kill them with kindness people ✌🏾
If it’s your partner who is getting the bulk of these negative responses, try to remain calm, even if you want to fight someone because they are treating your loved one with such disrespect. Ask your partner what they would like you to do in these types of situations.
7. When someone asks you a personal question (marriage status, nationality, haircare, skincare, religion, lifestyle, etc)…
This one, as mentioned, is personal, so it’s really up to the two of you.
Perhaps notice how the person is asking and get a sense of why they’re asking it – is it genuine curiosity, or an attempt to prove an assumption they already have about you?
You can share as little or as much informational as you feel comfortable with. Despite what I said about de facto representation, try not to feel too much of that pressure here, because again, in reality, you don’t represent everyone else; you can even mention as a part of your answer that you cannot answer for all of “x type of people” – you’re only answering for yourself.
I try to remember that most people are genuinely curious and that interracial travel is a way of breaking down stereotypes and societal norms/expectations. Take advantage of this in a way that you feel comfortable!
What did I miss? And do you agree with my responses? Let me know what you think in the comments!
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Loving the old; exploring the new,