On Solo Female Travel: Are You Black Or White?

As most of my blog readers know, I’ve spent significant time in the Caribbean over the past two years. And throughout my travels there, I’ve heard many funny comments and have been asked even funnier questions – especially in Jamaica.

Jamaicans are a witty, sharp people. Among other things, they love to hear of Africa, love talking about their culture, and some can even recite to you the entire history of the Rastafarian movement. So you’d think, given all that, that it would not be so baffling or unbelievable to them to come across a young African girl visiting their home.  Not an African-American – because that’s fairly common, visitors to the island mostly come from the US, Canada and Europe – but African; directly from the motherland – born there, both parents African, and raised in an African family and in a particular African culture.

A common question, then, is “where are you from?” My answer almost always leads to completely stunned and incredulous looks.  “Africa?! Noooooo!” They think I’m being philosophical. So  I get specific. Yes, really. Ethiopia. AFRICA. The motherland. Born there. Raised in West Africa. That continent far far away (according to whom I’m not sure) and that the Western world doesn’t talk about unless there’s some disaster,  some war, some famine, yuh know? So I get a second look, a third that goes from my hair to my toes – and yet another, followed by a wide smile.  “African ooman! Wow. Mi think maybe Indian… Bless! First time me meet ah African ooman, ah Ethiopian Empress. That the place mi waan see, Ethiopia.” And I get a handshake, often a hug. And the nickname “Empress” follows me the rest of my stay. (And you know I’m not complaining about that!)

But I’m always taken aback by the surprise. Is it that they have never met an Ethiopian, or is it that there are so few of us Africans who travel to the islands?  And that reaction has been identical in almost every other island of the Caribbean I’ve visited –  the British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Carriacou, St Lucia, Martinique and St. Vincent, to name a few. And even in Belize.

So I’ve decided to start a “funny travel questions” series because as a solo traveler, and especially as a female solo traveler, I’ve experienced quite a few of those.

The first one I’m going to tell you about, came a couple of weeks ago during my weekend in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was enjoying my Saturday morning on the beach, armed with my camera, walking along and capturing shots like I always do. Then, I spotted a couple of vendors in the water – selling crafts and jewelry from their kayaks. The image, the scene of these Jamaican men trading in the water, was not one I wanted to miss. So like I always do when I want portrait shots, I get familiar with my subject. I knew I had to go talk to them, get them to know me so they could relax and be themselves in front of my lens. I first smiled from a distance, and walked towards the water. One of the guys waved at me to come over to him and shop. His arms indicated it was safe for me and my camera to venture his way.

Bikini-clad, SLR around my neck, I entered the waist-deep waters carefully. We chatted, he showed me some handmade jewelry, I asked about his life as a vendor.  I asked him where in Jamaica he hailed from, since I know the island fairly well. His fellow vendors, parked parallel to him in the waters, looked on with curiosity.  The one I was talking to told me they were often chased away by water cops so they only come by in the early mornings, when the waters were calm, to sell to all-inclusive clients and quickly retreat. I try to imagine their life, kayaking all day and hanging out in the water for hours to get to the rich tourists and make some small change.

While we exchange life stories, one of the other vendors a few water-steps away, mumbled something. He was staring at me and I guessed he was talking about me. Something about white or black. I turn to him to find out.  He says a little louder, “Mi cyan’t decide if yuh black or white?”

I want to make sure I heard right, because surely…

“You don’t know if I’m black or white?” I repeat amused and stunned. I laughed out loud. Really loud.  “My skin nuh look black?” I added.

“Nuh but… yuh know, you look so soft. Mi never see ah black woman look soft like you. Maybe yuh mixed or something.'”

Wow, so black women look… hard? I was a tad speechless. All I could do was laugh again. And tell him I was African, from the motherland.  Not sure if he even believed me. And as I watched him swim away, I thought, what  a sad, sad comment and viewpoint. It’s one thing for other races who are prejudiced and lump all black people (and black women) in one pot as being rough, uneducated, or rude and loud and any other negative thing conjured up out of ignorance – but for another black person to say it, a man no less -and about a woman of his own race whom he is supposed to really value and respect – left a poor taste in my mouth. (Ah but male treatment of women in the Caribbean…is a whole other can of worms – let’s just get back to the topic at hand, ha!)  If, however, I had never traveled like him, and moreover not knowing the circumstances he grew up in, I might think the same, so I won’t judge.

But yes, indeed, black women come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all color shades and all education and upbringing… and all kinds of tones, vocabulary, softness, hardness, and more. It’s 2010 and still today, I have to explain that I am indeed African, born and raised, and that I am fully black and that yes, I travel. Many times solo, sometimes with friends. No my skin is not pitch dark like the night, and no I am not “mixed,” but yes, my hair is a little longer and a little “softer” and I do generally carry myself with class (just don’t give me any white rum!).  Still, I am 100% African.

If anything, this is part of why I’m thankful I’m able to travel – because I get to see how others live and what they believe, and it makes me more understanding. In turn, wherever I go, those I meet will remember and know that African women are just as beautiful inside and out and just as “soft” looking (whatever that means) as other women on this planet. And oh yes, we travel too.

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Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is an award-winning, Ethiopian-American travel writer, photographer and author of several Caribbean guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides, including Moon Belize, Moon Belize Cayes, and Moon Dominican Republic (October 2016). Her work focuses on Caribbean culture and adventure, and has been published in AFAR, CNN Travel, BBC, Delta Sky, The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, and Every Day With Rachael Ray, among many others. Lily is also the 2016 recipient of the Marcia Vickery Wallace Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for her Caribbean coverage, from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Lily calls herself a “culture-holic”–she speaks four languages fluently and has lived in Cote d’Ivoire, England, Jamaica, Belize, the Dominican Republic and traveled to some 30+ countries around the world. Last but not least, she is a former corporate attorney who ditched her Washington DC office for the road in 2009 to pursue her dream of becoming a storyteller.
Lily holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Spanish (summa cum laude) from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law.

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8 Comments

  1. Chyrissej 30 September, 2010 at 3:17 PM #

    Love it! Too funny but I think it is familiar. I haver gotten that question, but many times during travel I have had people of all races, etc ask me what I am? I always smile and ask what they think I am? I guess I have an international look!

  2. RastaMermaid 30 September, 2010 at 4:11 PM #

    Hey Lily,as always loving your blog lady.

    I’ve been traveling to JA over 14 years now before my son was born I partied alot with the locals. They use to have me play this game where I didn’t speak,just listen. Atfirst when I spoke and stated St.Louis they always replied Ahh St.Lucia cool. Finally at a local hangout I stated No St.Louis MO in the US this older Jamaican said you are not a yankee,gurl ask your people! Look at your skin and your tan,you’re reddish you have west indies in you,I can tell!

    Same with the guy that owned the boat I would also rent and just sail out drop anchor in a cove and just chill for hours. He told the captain to give me his card and to call him. When I did he was surprised I was American,said he’d never seen an American black woman love and handle the ocean as I do,and he named me RastaMermaid.

    Now the hard comment I get also,been told I’m not like most of the black women that come to vacation,they say my vibe it truly ‘Irie & Crisp”.

    Makes you wonder what kind of black women have they met?

    Stay Blessed!

  3. lilyg 1 October, 2010 at 3:00 PM #

    Yes you do Chyrisse!! 🙂 Am always curious to hear what they would guess as well.

    RM, that is funny! Love how you got the nickname. And yes, it does make you wonder who they’ve met in the past… or not met. 😉

  4. The Tall One 2 October, 2010 at 6:29 AM #

    When I first left the United States, for the first time and moved to Sweden, I got this question:”No, where are you from originally?” People could hardly believe that I was American. I wanted to say that yes, Black Americans do exist but since I strive to be a good ambassador for my kin and country I keep calm and smile and say “I’m an American, born and raised, as are my parents, grandparents, etc. It was the first time that someone had ever questioned me about my heritage, nationality, etc. I’m an American, born and raised and am proud of it. I embrace the good and the bad within my borders as well as outside of them. I love sharing my culture with other people as well as learning about others. Isn’t this what’s life all about?

  5. Jamaica My Way 6 September, 2011 at 11:25 AM #

    LOL this is really funny for me to read because I’ve been asked if I’m Jamaican before and I’m white as snow!! Sometimes it’s because my hair is curly, and sometimes it’s because of my attitude, and MOST times its after I dance that they ask!

    I’m the solo female traveler too and I’m gonna love reading your funny travel questions. I’m sure I’ve heard lots of them. 🙂

  6. Heidi Curry 14 November, 2011 at 1:33 AM #

    Great post, Lily. I’m glad this got a new life with your 7 links list.

  7. Lebawit Lily Girma 14 November, 2011 at 10:01 AM #

    Thanks, Heidi!

  8. Alex Evans 14 November, 2011 at 3:01 PM #

    It is quite sad how Black people view other Black People… Some of the things I’ve heard…

    But when I went to school in the US, I also loved making people play the guessing game… It quickly became no secret that I’m Belizean (more people knew me as “Belize” than as “Alex”… ) Even knowing my nationality, I would still have them guess my ethnicity…

    I got Black, Hispanic, and even Indian on occasion… I always found it curious that hardly anyone ever guessed “mixed” … Do they find it inconceivable that Hispanics and Blacks could mix?

    Idk… but race always plays a huge role in traveling, whether we choose to see it or not…

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