Travel Noire: Yes, I’m Black. No, You Can’t Take a Selfie with Me

16 Feb



Selfie Travel

There’s always that awkward moment during my travels, when someone asks for a photo. I respond, “sure” and reach for the camera or phone they’re holding. Then they pull it out of reach and explain that I misunderstood. Instead, they would like to take a photo with me.

This has happened on several occasions. Usually, the people who ask are from countries where they don’t see black people every day: Chile, Argentina and certain parts of Asia. Though there was one middle-age white woman in Long Beach who asked for a picture of my boyfriend and I because she liked the way we looked.

I always politely decline, but offer to take a photo of the people who ask.

My boyfriend, Ryan, on the other hand, finds it flattering. He jokes that he is on at least 50 Chinese family Christmas cards. He frequently travels to China and will sign autographs, let people touch his locs and take photos with anyone who asks. He doesn’t understand why I refuse to pose for the camera.

Some black travelers may not mind, but I do not like being treated as an “other.” Othering, treating someone as intrinsically different and sometimes, less human, is one of our nations favorite pass times. In the U.S., othering is dangerous. It is part of the reason our Americans protest at mosques, threaten to build walls at the Mexican border and allow the police to treat black neighborhoods like hunting grounds.

Traveling overseas, being othered means people may stare, touch my skin and ask weird questions, like, “Is your skin more durable and hard because it’s dark?” (Yes, a grown man asked me that).

I know these people with camera in-hand do not mean to be offensive, but I do not like the idea that they want a picture of me because I’m some rare specimen they’ve only ever seen on TV. I am human, just like they are – and I’d prefer to be treated how they treat people that they view as fully human.

Otherness can also be dangerous overseas, especially when blackness is fetishized. Ryan doesn’t mind people touching him and taking his photos, but he also has not had the scary traveling experience of a man following him back to his homestay, or being touched inappropriately by men who have a thing for black beauty. I have.

The majority of the time, the curious people who ask for pictures are relatively harmless. But I am a bit cautious around strange men. I’ve had curious men in Buenos Aires get too close and steal an unwanted kiss. I’ve also had black friends who’ve traveled to various destinations and experienced worse forms of sexual assault from men who found their blackness attractive.

Taking a photo with someone requires allowing that stranger into your personal space. Depending on how safe I feel in the moment, I’m not always comfortable doing that. Fetishism of black culture and people is real in our country and abroad, and it can escalate to tragic experiences.

On a less-serious note, I try to control my image as much as I can. I’m careful about what I post on social media. It may seem silly, but Instagram photos upload in a matter of seconds, and I’d rather not have my pictures posted on strangers’ timelines. In the best case scenario, they get a few comments from the strangers’ friends. In the worst case, they become a shady meme or a receive a lot of racist comments, like the photo of that man who took a picture with his coworkers black son, and his friends show their true feelings in all of their jokes about slavery. Either way, I’d just rather not be involved.

After I rejected a group of three box-braid wearing Asian tourists from taking my photo while we were visiting the Grand Canyon, Ryan suggested that next time someone asks, I should allow the photo so that I can strike up a conversation with them and make new friends abroad. That is one perk of allowing strangers to take their selfies with you. On my next trip, I took half of his advice.

A Spanish-speaking couple approached me asking for a photo while I was visiting the Belizean Island, Caye Caulker. I was a little surprised, considering black people aren’t rarities in Belize. I declined their photo, but I continued the conversation, asking where they were from and chatted for a few minutes. I got the chance to practice my Spanish with a nice Chilean couple without having to take any photos with them.

Besides, if I’m traveling with my boyfriend, I can always offer him up as an alternative black person to take a photo with. He never minds.

What do you think? How do you feel about taking photos with strangers abroad?

2 Responses to “Travel Noire: Yes, I’m Black. No, You Can’t Take a Selfie with Me”

  1. kelley February 16, 2016 at 8:58 PM #

    It’s a no from me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kushite Prince February 16, 2016 at 10:30 AM #

    Yeah I’m a little more like you. I don’t like random people wanting to take pics of me. It happened to me and my lady when we were in Oklahoma. This old white couple wanted a picture of us. I was like WTF?! I’m not cool with the fetishizing of blackness. I feel you on that. But you are a beautiful woman so I can see why some people might want a pic of I like that pic of you at the top of the page. That other girl is a cutie too. Who is that?


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