Candid Discussions on Race and Travel in Salento

by Ekua on March 18, 2014 in race/culture/identity

There must have been consciousness floating around in Salento’s misty air and truthfulness emanating from the mountains. I’m not sure what it was, but something about that little town seemed to fuel incredibly honest and thoughtful conversation among travelers.

It started on the day I arrived in Salento. After my travel partner and I found a place to stay, we had dinner and exchanged stories of past adventures, narrowing in on the destinations we had in common.

When we started talking about India, she cautiously asked me how I liked it there. I could tell from her tone and her expression that she was specifically asking what it was like to travel in India as a black woman. I explained that overall, it was rough traveling solo in India. There were high points at the Indian wedding I attended and low points most other times except for when I was at very touristy places like the Taj Mahal. I told her that I often felt like I was looked down upon because of my dark skin in a country obsessed with light skin.

She told me that she had studied abroad in India and she loved her experience there. Then carefully, yet candidly, she admitted that a large part of the reason why she enjoyed India was because of the privilege she received as a white person there.

It was a bold admittance and something I’ve yet to hear someone say so openly. I didn’t feel angry about her confession. I felt relieved that someone finally said this. I appreciated her awareness of colorism in India and willingness to talk about it truthfully. She was saying things that had been at the back of mind during many conversations I’d had about India.

Almost always when I tell people that I didn’t enjoy India, I encounter a smug chorus of, “You either love India or you hate it.” This chorus is entirely comprised of women of European descent and these words almost always imply that if you didn’t like it, you were just not able to “get swept up in India” as they were able to do.

I know from other experiences in chaotic, messy “developing nations” that I’m capable of getting swept up in places that intensely bear down on all of your senses. But some places aren’t exactly willing to embrace you as you attempt to do so. When that’s the case, you feel it viscerally, despite the prodding and feel good stories of people who don’t understand your experience.

Over my next few days in Salento, I kept bumping into a Chinese-British traveler. We bonded quickly, both being part of ethnically underrepresented groups in the Colombia backpacker scene and travel-loving offspring of immigrants. After telling me about her unique experiences traveling in China and having her identity constantly questioned by both locals and fellow travelers, we got on the subject of Colombian friendliness.

“I don’t think Colombians are very friendly,” she proclaimed one evening.

I was surprised to hear her say this. While I did have negative experiences in Cartagena, and I do think racism (and the inability to admit to it) is a major issue in Colombia, my personal interactions with locals were typically somewhere between neutral and friendly.

She explained that on numerous occasions, locals had pulled at the corner of their eyes in an attempt to make their eyes look like hers and had talked to her in mocking jibberish that they believed mimicked the sounds of Chinese.

We talked about how the first response from many travelers about situations like this is often, “They just aren’t used to seeing people like you!” or “They don’t mean anything by it!”

Regardless of that, and regardless of the fact that a traveler has made the decision to go to a place where they know they could be subjected to ignorance that’s beyond their control, it’s simply not okay. No one should have to silently bear little transgressions daily just because they decided to go somewhere where people “aren’t used to them.” Whether or not you shock someone with your presence, you have the right to be treated as human and not as a caricature to be mocked. I say this knowing that inevitably, it will happen in certain places. But it’s simply not justifiable.

Later that night, over drinks with the Irishman who was at my hostel on my first night in Salento, we continued this conversation. While the negative experiences the Chinese-British woman and I have had don’t define our travels and clearly haven’t stopped us from traveling, the Irishman struggled with the way some of our stories had no silver lining. He wanted to believe that there had to be a positive ending when sometimes, there wasn’t. We just keep moving. As a person “of color” in the Western world, I suppose it’s deeply implanted in you from an early age to just keep moving, even when you’re not convinced there’s going to be a silver lining.

Another day, I had lunch with the Chinese-British woman and a Canadian traveler. It was early July, and I mentioned that the United States’ Independence Day was coming up. The Canadian started asking me questions about the holiday and I explained it to her.

She was shocked to find out that the holiday celebrates the colonies gaining independence from the British because she always thought it celebrated the end of slavery. She asked me if there were any holidays commemorating the end of slavery, and she was even more appalled when I told her there weren’t. Yes, every year in the United States, we commemorate our emancipation from the British in a year when a significant portion of the population was enslaved. This has definitely been brought up by activists in the past, but the hypocrisy that was originally embedded the holiday is not often addressed today in schools or elsewhere.

As an African-American, this has not gone unnoticed by me, but to see such a strong reaction from an outsider really drove this reality home. Someone from the country next door — one that we Americans often incorrectly view as an extension of our own country —  brought back the truth to something I’ve gotten used to not questioning.

It’s easy to be become complacent about your surroundings, kind of half seeing things until someone flips the switch and forces to you to look, simply by bringing a perspective that hasn’t been subjected to the same influences as yours. It’s equal parts disturbing and refreshing and 100 percent necessary for growth.

The topics that often worked their way into my Salento conversations aren’t fun, lighthearted things to talk about while gallivanting around the globe. They aren’t easy topics to write about when you get home. They are controversial. They may make people angry or uncomfortable. But they are important conversations to have, and the power of travel is that it can enliven and amplify the discussions with fresh perspectives garnered from new people and new places.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Herb Moore March 18, 2014 at 3:54 am

I always enjoy your insight. Thanks for sharing.

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Ekua March 19, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Thanks for taking the time to read this!

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Lesley Peterson March 18, 2014 at 7:31 pm

Great post, Ekua. Thanks for the insight and honesty. Truly it’s not a ‘post-racial’ world out there (and not here at home, either). As a Canadian living in the world’s most multicultural city, it’s hard to understand the attitudes of people who live in monocultural/monoracial places. My experience, though, is that strangers/tourists in general are just not welcome in certain places. With a whole wide world to choose from, xenophobic or misogynistic backwaters will be the last place I’ll invest my travel dollars.

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Ekua March 19, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Thanks! I think travel experiences can vary depending upon the traveler. So many things factor into why a place does or doesn’t welcome you and I’ve yet to find a place that’s completely unwelcoming to strangers. On the flip side of experiencing racist or colorist cultures, I’ve also been in places where the way I look gives me access to a culture that other travelers may not have. These are places that have been screwed over by a long line of foreigners of European descent, and as a black woman, I don’t have the same connotations as other travelers who are mainly white. Both this and the racist behavior I sometimes encounter are often deeply rooted in colonialism, the outcome is just different from place to place.

I know what you mean by not wanting to go to certain places for those reasons… there are a few places I have no desire to go back to because of how I was treated, and I’d rather steer clear of places with government instituted discrimination/inequality. But everyday prejudice is hard to predict when deciding where to go. As a black traveler, there isn’t a plethora of stories to draw from to ascertain how places may be for you. Even if you do hear stories, if you’re really interested in place, you may still want see what is there for yourself despite the fact that you may encounter ignorant people.

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Britney McSweeney March 19, 2014 at 1:15 am

Thank you for sharing your experiences, I know it isn’t easy to move beyond negative travel experiences, and talking about them candidly is even harder.

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Ekua March 19, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Thanks for reading. I don’t think you move beyond the negative experience, they are simply the experience you had, unless you go back and things are different the second time around. It certainly isn’t popular to discuss experiences like this on travel blogs, but I always feel compelled to share the whole story, not just the fun parts!

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Christine March 20, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for sharing this, it was such a great read, really honest and thoughtful. I never knew that India was an uncomfortable place for dark skinned people, it’s made me a little less obsessed with my upcoming trip there to be honest.

It is also pretty sickening that America doesn’t celebrate the end of slavery, especially as they are so obsessed with ‘freedom!’

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Ekua March 22, 2014 at 11:40 am

Thanks, Christine. I think in India, colorism has a lot to do with ideas imposed by invaders/colonizers and the caste system that have stuck over time. The people you see on the streets and working the lowest wage jobs are always the darkest people. If you ever watch TV while you’re there, keep an eye out for skin lightening commercials. I couldn’t believe how many I saw and how obnoxious they were. The basic message was always: you won’t succeed at any aspect of life with darker skin, but if you lighten your skin, you’ll get everything you want. What regions will you be visiting? I was in northern India, but I’ve heard other parts of the country don’t have the same hangups.

Yup, America has quite a history of being extremely hypocritical when using the word freedom.

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immigratingwithapurpose April 28, 2014 at 2:10 am

My friend recommended your blog. I enjoyed reading this post. It is important to have these conversations and for them to be acknowledged. I am glad you were able to do so while traveling.

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Ekua April 28, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Thanks! I’m finding that more and more people are open to discussing such issues on the road… at least the people I choose to interact with. Having these conversations can make travel so much more purposeful and enlightening.

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Kelly Rogers May 5, 2014 at 7:42 pm

It’s always good to be able to talk freely about your concerns. And it’s a good thing that the people you talked with had something to say, not just platitudes.

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Fly Girl May 31, 2014 at 6:08 am

Very well expressed. It’s so hard to get into discussions about race and prejudice in other cultures. It’s definitely something that depends on the circumstances of your travel and the perceptions that your appearance inspire. Because I have locs, I get a whole lot of interesting responses when I travel and most assume that I’m Jamaican. Colorisim affects every culture that’s been colonized and I’m never surprised by the reflections of it. This country can barely acknowledge the wide-ranging effects of over 200 years of slavery, let alone celebrate and commemorate the end of it. Juneteeth, which is an African American celebration of emancipation mostly in Texas and a few other states, is the only tradition that celebrates this that I’m aware of.

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Ekua June 7, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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alvaro October 3, 2015 at 5:31 pm

As a colombian whose family been mingling with a black colombian family for over a hundred years and visitng the black barrios in the Cauca valley and seeing first hand I would like to say that when it comes to social issues colombia is classist first and racist second. I’ve noticed on your posts on what your beliefs are (as everyone is entitled to have them) you are still an outsider viewing with a foreigners perspective. I frequently talk to people from withing the country (heck I’m form there) and expats and the majority pretty much agrees on the same things. You seem to miss on the fact that colombians are ultra-nationalistic whose feelings can get easily rubbed on the international scale but not to the point where being in denial, for the most part. You could try to reword your blogs. From a Colombian’s perspective your post about Cartagena seems very arrogant and dismissive ,giving credit to the ugly American stereotype. Saying how much you loved Salvador and Cubas black community and talking about dissapointment seems very boldly arrogant. As if we are supposed to have a certain level of blackness to meet your standards. There’s no reason we should bend over backwards or change our way of life to please you. I haven’t been to cuba or salvador yet being in my bucket list, and yes I am being biased, but I really doubt their communities would be anymore black than ours (if such as thing as being black enough is anyways)

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Ekua November 8, 2015 at 9:52 pm

Hi, Alvaro. I think you missed the point of my posts. I do not want any country to have a certain level of “blackness.” My concern is mainly for the black people who live in a country that demonstrates a lot of denial that it has a large population of people of African descent, denial of its slave history, and denial that racism currently exists. If people are offended, it’s probably because I struck a nerve. Maybe a more productive move would be to look inward rather than getting upset and making assumptions about me. Also, I have definitely seen more and more publications reporting on recent racial tensions in Colombia… racism certainly does exist there.

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