Examining My Blackness Abroad

My “Summer Sixteen” has been very busy and I have been very blessed. I have been having the most insightful conversations with people since I’ve been abroad in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, and United Arab Emirates. These encounters enabled the cultural exchange of personal experiences that beneficially shape the perspectives of all involved.

One of my more memorable conversations was with two Nigerian British men in London. They found themselves in awe that I actively wanted to seek out the diverse neighborhoods in London. They were stunned as I became thrilled entering a beauty supply store filled with products that were targeted towards women of color, and they were amused that I was delighted to eat at a restaurant filled with beautiful melanated faces. They did not understand why Americans, like myself, were so color conscious.

It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” – Ralph Waldo Ellison, Invisible Man

And I’ll admit it, since I’ve been in abroad, I’ve felt somewhat less aware of my blackness.   As I walk by, far less people have grabbed their purses and no one has suddenly grabbed their child’s hand. Few have refused to sit next to me on a tube train, despite its being crowded. Additionally, I can count on one hand how often I’ve been followed around in a store and repeatedly asked if I need some help finding anything.

These type micro aggressions seem small and insignificant, however the accumulation of these experiences over time take a mental, emotional, and physical toll on the health and well being of people of color. These things happen so frequently in the States, but seem to be a rare occurrence for me here. Thus, I did not realize how bothersome and burdensome they really are until I did not have to constantly feel them as much. The feeling has been liberating to a great degree.

Black boys became criminalized. I was in constant dread for their lives, because they were targets everywhere. They still are.” – Toni Morrison

Take for instance what happened a few weekends ago. I don’t think my new acquaintances realized just how fast my heart was beating, when a pair of English cops pulled up to the Mercedes Benz full of our four black faces, blasting hip hop music at 3am. I am almost certain they didn’t understand the potential gravity of this situation, and the type of fear it evoked within me. Never mind that we were only guilty of DWB – Driving While Black. This fear has been passed down throughout the generations within African American communities. This fear can be paralyzing; it can be catastrophic. However, during this particular situation my fear was unwarranted . To my surprise, the officers asked us to roll down our window, and simply said, “fun night, huh?” smiled and then drove off. I literally had to take a moment to process what had just occurred. I recognized that I am not in America anymore and my blackness is not automatically criminal.

This notion was reaffirmed when one of my new colleagues began to describe his experience driving in the U.K., versus driving in the U.S. He’s an accomplished banker and tended to drive luxury cars, which in the States could render himself even more of a target of undue interaction with law enforcement. Yet, here in the United Kingdom, he said that he could freely question the officer once pulled over asking things like, “What’s the problem,” and “why did you pull me over?” However, as he recalled being stopped in California about a year ago, his sister, a California resident, begged him not to say anything to the cop out of fear. Saying anything, including something as simple as, “why did you pull me over,” can be received wrong and escalate into a life-threatening situation. In America, blacks have adopted and passed down certain behavioral practices of respect that are believed to provide protection against those, who may be potentially harmful, like law enforcement persons. These  politics of respectability are also thought to provide and assist with opportunities for advancement for people of color. However, I often honestly question how effective these behaviors are in protecting and advancing people of color.  Currently in the news, a South Florida police officer opened fire on behavioral therapist, Charles Kinsey, who was aiding an autistic patient.  Kinsey put his hands up, laid on the ground, and was calmly pleading with the officer. Yet, he was still shot, while helping a patient.

By contrast, my colleague argued strongly that as a black man in the United Kingdom, he felt fully assured that his rights protected him. As he said it, I wondered what that must feel like. Imagine how it must feel to fully bask in the rights and privileges that are supposed to be afforded to every citizen. Imagine how it feels to protected under the laws and truly feels included in the pledge’s words “with liberty and justice for all.” It’s just so hard for me to fully fathom what that feels like.

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.” – Nina Simone

At one point my friend commented to me saying something to the effect of “I see you Americans are always chanting Black Lives Matter.” Then later he commented that it seems LGBTQ messages are so “in your face” in America, and he just did not understand the reasons why. I had to explain the necessity of both efforts and movements in a nation that is full of individuals and groups that constantly discriminate, disrespect, and willfully impose “colorblind” tactics upon people who identify with these characteristics that results in unfair application of policies, leaves them unprotected, and their experiences unacknowledged. During this exchange, it became so clear to me how easy it is to misinterpret someone’s message or a purpose of a movement, like BLM, LGBTQ, or feminism/ womanist/ feminista movements, simply because they are not true to one’s own experience.

Ironically enough, during my time here in the U.K., a Stanford swimmer received a light sentence for raping an unconscious woman in California, a bloody massacre happened at a Latino gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and one morning, I woke up to find a shared video of a 18-year-old black female named Genelle Laird being apprehended with kicks, tasers, and a knee to the back, as she’s tackled to the ground with excessive and assaultive force by officers in Madison, Wisconsin. Each of these incidents disturb me in a manner that makes me fear for my life, the lives of my friends and loved ones, and my future children. Ultimately, I do wonder if my life matters, since heinous acts against Blacks, Latinos, women, LGBTQ, Muslim individuals, etc. can occur so frequently with minimal to no consequences.

My experience abroad thus far has been so enlightening. By placing my self in an external context of the U.S., I have been able to re-examine my experiences internally. This is why traveling is so beneficial to shaping one’s worldview. And traveling beyond the scope of a vacation, I am specifically referring to traveling with the aim of discovery. I am thrilled about the insightful things I’m learning thus far, and I hope to learn more, more things that will make me question,
What is life?” – Victoria Renee

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