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

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

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

Dear Nicholas,

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.

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Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


10 Comments for Should My Black Friend and I Worry About Race While Traveling Overseas?

chuck 03.30.09 | 5:18 PM ET

I don’t think you and your friend shouldn’t worry. When I was in England riding up to Scotland I met a stewardess from the Caribbean on the train. And race didn’t matter for us. Why? since she worked on the train she made my trip more interesting. But pay attention to countries and norms where race may play a factor.

Fly Brother 04.01.09 | 4:59 AM ET

In my travels throughout Latin America, the infamous n-word has popped up on more than one occasion, mostly from young hip-hop fans who hear the word in music and movies and have no idea of its cultural context and history and think its use is appropriate in general conversation.  My initial reaction was typical, US-style indignation, but now, I use each opportunity as an educational moment which usually ends up with heart-felt apologies on their part and “don’t worry about it"s on mine, as I’ve learned that no harm was intended.  Yes, discrimination exists in Latin America as it does everywhere in some form or another, but that shouldn’t interfere with an amazing journey that will include major cultural identification for your friend, especially when you guys hit Brazil.  People are going to go out of their way to make sure both of you enjoy their countries.

ivona 04.01.09 | 7:50 AM ET

I don’t think you and your friend shouldn’t worry,too.
For someone who is traveling to Balkans there are a lot of things to be mentioned as a guide to a grate travel experience. First of all, I think that the politics of the region is something to be left out of the experience, as it is so difficult to understand where the truth lies and not offend someone along the way. If traveling through Balkans, you will notice that different nationalities living in neighboring countries are not so different at all. They share so much history and their looks, customs, food and other are very similar. It is important to be open minded when going to places like Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia etc, as there are so many ways to enjoy your stay just by avoiding prejudice. People are welcoming, food is grate, nightlife vivid, and culture very colorful and rich. If you would like to read a travel journal written by Iranian American that spent three months in the Balkans, and learn about people that live there, current political and economic situation in the Balkans and the world, you should look up The Age of Nepotism, a book by Vahid Razavi. There is also a site http://www.theageofnepotism.com

JD 04.01.09 | 4:37 PM ET

Chucks comment above

” pay attention to countries and norms where race may play a factor.”
Where is that?

JP 04.04.09 | 9:56 PM ET

JD,

Case in point would be a place like Cuba, where races don’t always mix as well as the communist propaganda would like. In 2005 my best friend (father from Liberia,  mother from Guiana, grew up in Brooklyn) and myself (German/Irish white dude from Manhattan) spent two weeks in January there.  The first four days we spent in Havana where awful. My friend was stopped every time we went into our hotel (the Presidente and the Hotel Nacional) by ‘security’ (as Cubans can’t go into hotel rooms with tourists). Walking the streets, we were stopped 27 times (yes, we counted) by the police asking for passports, etc (as they assumed he was a hinatero (‘hustler’)). At first we were very accommodating, speaking to them in Spanish (both of us are fluent), etc. After the 6th or so time we just said ‘what’s up?’, speaking English only, and some would instantly go away. It got so comical that we started taking pictures of ourselves with the various officers so we could show them the rouges gallery of their comrades. What a demeaning waste of time that really impregnated our view of the city. My friend (rightfully so) was totally indignant at the situation. Once we got out of Havana, the situation changed for the better and our trip in Cuba remains one of our favorite vacations together.

My point is that like Rabin said, it’s going to happen (even in places where you might not expect it), and you need to be aware of how your friend is going to feel.

Rhymba 04.05.09 | 12:01 PM ET

@JP: could it be that your best friend was dressed in a way or had an attitude that provoked a reaction? It doesn’t have to be all about skin color always.

misa 04.06.09 | 12:21 AM ET

lol! how are you gonna ask a white person about what it’s like to travel while black anywhere???? sorry but there are things that happen to black people, especially if you’re darker-skinned, that would never happen to anyone else. and, a lot of white people are not even aware of it, unless they actually travel with a black person and see with their own eyes what types of things happen.

Nashieqa 04.06.09 | 10:35 PM ET

@misa

LOL - Well at least Rolf had the good sense to consult a person of color.

@ Rhymba

Well duh! Of course it was his “hip hop” gangbanger clothing and chip on the shoulder attitude developed after years of defensive posturing.

Yourblackfriend.com 04.06.09 | 10:36 PM ET

By the way Rolf, good answer.

Belize Guy 04.30.09 | 5:13 PM ET

I can tell you that in Belize, a country of many races and ethnicities, that you should not encounter any difficulties at all.  The people are very diverse, and you will find people of Mayan, Caribe, African, Latin ad British ancestry.  One of the things I like so much about Belize is it’s diversity and friendly peoples.  In fact, I like it so much that I just bought a home there at Sapphire Beach!  Come and visit… you will be welcomed and I bet you will fall in love with it, too!

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