Travel the world! It’s unlimited! But wait, is that really true? Am I limited by the color of my skin or where I come from when I travel? Or, in some cases, does it benefit me? Is this something I need to be cautious of when traveling?
Recently, I lived in Italy for two months while I interned with Performing Arts Abroad at a large well-known theater in Florence. It was a phenomenal experience and one of the best times of my life! The longer I stayed and the more ventured through Italy though, I began to become more aware of things about myself. It became a serious wake-up call in terms of identity, self-preservation, and confidence building.
Rather than posting a picture first, I want to describe one to you. Imagine a mix of a young woman: Black and Belizean, tall and slim, brown like caramel, big hair, with curls for days. That’s me, in a nutshell. Now, here’s a pic! Haha! Excited for my trip in Italy, I thought of the types of things I might encounter because of the way I look but I had no idea what the world had in store for me. From funny to heart-wrenching, the types of experiences I had because of the color of my skin ranged like I could have never imagined. So here’s what happened to me and a few things that I learned along the way:
FLOTUS visits Italy – I’m walking down the street and I get called out, not by my name, but the name of another wonderful Black woman. “Mee-shell Oh-bahhh-mah! Mee-shell Oh-bahhh-mah!” rang from the crowd and of course I looked around thinking she can’t be here, only to realize, this man was yelling at me! It was hilarious so I ran with it, nodded, waved ever so regally, and said “Si. Si.” I took him by surprise and he laughed so hard. What I learned: Have fun. Take being compared to the First Lady as a compliment. Of course, all black people don’t look alike and this could have been an awkward moment, but I decided to walk taller! Michelle Obama is probably one of the most famous and respectable African American women in the world. So, I’m pretty glad I could represent her in Italy.
Life is like a box of – Chocolate, in Italy! It’s quite the irresistible flavor, if I may say so myself, and I’m not talking about the gelato. What I learned: Yes, you will get hit on. I think has something to with the hair. The bigger I wore it, the more attention seemed to follow me. Italian men can be so polite and helpful sometimes to the point where it can get a bit overwhelming. So remember to keep yourself together, don’t get swept up in the Italian suaveness, and exit situations that don’t feel right, immediately! As long as you keep it moving, they will eventually give up.
Inside the looking glass – Are there black people in Italy? Yes, but most of them are from Africa and work on the street selling toys, purses, and knick-knacks to make ends meet and send money back to their families. Emotionally, I found myself feeling guilty. They were reflections of me and it saddened me to see how hard they worked for so little. What I learned: No matter what skin color you have, everyone is just trying to make it. They inspired me to continue to push forward no matter how many people say “no” to me. I am the only person that can hold me back. Skin color may be an attribute used to define me but I am truly the one who defines me. Travel with security in yourself.
Cinque Terrerized – My Facebook status update – from the day the wake-up call rang. “Today is a day that will be forever marked in my life. Today I experienced harassment and racism first-hand in Italy. This place is not entirely rainbows and butterflies as it may seem. On what started out as a wonderful trip to Cinque Terre ended in one of the worst moments I have ever had in my life. As my friends and I began to leave the beach a man who had been talking to us the entire time we were there started telling my other black friend and I to pick up our trash, which we had already done. After we didn’t pick up the trash that he claimed was ours, but wasn’t, he proceeded to (call us “disgusting black women”) throw his beer in our faces and all over our bodies. We stood in shock and then it hit me that I could not just stand there and just take that treatment. I stood up! I told him how disrespectful it was for him to do that to women! I fought back! Even through him grabbing my arms and manhandling me while everyone around literally just stood there and watched like it was a movie, I knew I need to speak out no matter what! As I feel proud that I did this, there is a part of me that feels broken and helpless. I want better for people like me and although this may not seem like much I hope I can continue to find my strength through the struggles of life.” What I learned: After over 70 likes and 50 comments of support and caring words from my friends, I had a moment of clarity. Everything happens for a reason. I may not have wanted something like this to have happened to me but the fact that it did still leaves me feeling proud. In that moment, I saw my strength and gained a deeper sense of self than will never be rattled. Despite experiencing such an intense moment of racism, I learned the importance of having a noble character, trusting your instincts, and protecting yourself.
I hope, in the slightest way; reading about my experiences abroad as a woman of color, helps you to travel with a better understanding of when to exercise caution, as a person of color, and when to remember to just have fun! Best wishes on your travels! And remember, living life in fear is just an excuse for your confidence not to thrive. Know yourself, love yourself, and let that person lead the way!
Written by Elena Muslar
Performing Arts Abroad Marketing Intern
To read more about Elena and her background, go here.