Should My Black Friend and I Worry About Race While Traveling Overseas?
Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world
03.30.09 | 10:14 AM ET
I am white and my friend is black. We are going to travel from Mexico to Brazil. What are the racial attitudes in Latin America, and how can we best promote our safety?
—Nicholas, Atlanta, GA
I can’t foresee there being a problem in the fact that you are white and your travel partner is black. Granted, racism can be a problem in Latin America just as it can be a problem in the United States—but, as in the U.S., this racism is usually directed at minorities inside the country, not at visitors.
Since my experience is limited, however, I decided to query Rabin Nickens, who has written about African-American travel issues for Transitions Abroad. This is what she tells me:
It’s worth noting that Latin America is quite diverse. You will find people with varying degrees of African, European, and Indigenous/Native American ancestry depending on which country (or even town) you happen to be in at the moment. This does not necessarily mean that the people are exceptionally tolerant. However, many Latin American countries and cultures don’t define race the way that we do: they tend to identify with those who are part of the culture, united by their common Spanish language, regardless of color or “race.” Consequently you may see friendships or couplings between a dark-skinned person and European-looking person that would be considered “interracial” and odd in the U.S., but isn’t considered so in parts of Latin America.
Trust me, I’ve drawn more attention walking down the street with white friends in Manhattan than doing the same thing in Antigua, Guatemala. In fact, there are times when I’ve been mistaken for actually being Latin American and folks walk right up to me to strike up a conversation in Spanish as if I’m their neighbor from down the block! This is more likely to happen in parts of Honduras and Belize (where there are “Garinfuna” communities, which have both African and Indigenous influences in their culture and language), as well as Costa Rica and Panama, where a darker-skinned person could blend right in.
Something else to consider is how to be supportive of your black friend if and when awkward situations arise. Chances are that no matter where you go, there will be things that your friend experiences that you may not—such as stares or comments directed at him specifically. This is because, depending on how remote or “touristy” the place is, people in some parts of Latin America rarely meet African-American people, and thus they are the cause of much curiosity and excitement. As a white friend, the worst thing would be for you to be totally dismissive about this attention or say something like “What’s the big deal?” It might not seem to be a big deal to you, but your black friend might feel like a fish being observed in an aquarium. One approach is to help your friend see that attention isn’t always a negative thing.
In New York, where I grew up, staring (and worse yet, direct eye contact) might be considered an act of aggression. Yet I can’t count the number of times in my journeys abroad when what began as someone’s seemingly “reckless eyeballing” turned into someone’s invitation to dinner, a request to pose for a photograph, or humble offer to be pen pals. If and when you get stares, just try something revolutionary—like looking right back at the person, smiling and saying “Buenos dias! Como estas?” and see what happens.
To Rabin’s advice I might add that, on the outside chance that race should attract negative attention for you in Latin America, remember to remain nonconfrontational; just diplomatically extricate yourself from the situation. Better to suffer a bit of injustice on the road than to create a potentially dangerous situation.