My name is Chantal – I am a traveller, a Canadian, and a woman of colour.
If you want to get specific, I’m biracial; born in Canada to a white Canadian mother and a black Jamaican father. Living and growing up in Canada, and specifically in Toronto (one of the most multicultural cities in the world) I’ve been aware of race since I was a kid.
But it wasn’t until I started to venture outside of my city bubble that I really started to embrace, celebrate and ‘own’ my racial identity, largely thanks to travel.
In Toronto, I was always just another component of a diverse mosaic of friends and classmates. When I moved out of Toronto into a smaller Canadian town for college, for the first time I really felt like I was an ‘other’. Some crappy micro-aggressions aside, my time in college was positive, and really taught me how much of an education it could be to do a bit of travelling – both for myself and for others as well.
Here are some key things I’ve learned from my 29 short years and about 30 countries of travelling as a woman of colour…
There will be assumptions
In terms of my racial identity I’ve been confusing people for years. The “what are you?” question has been thrown at me for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until I started travelling that I received fewer questions and more assumptions.
I’ve been automatically embraced as a local in many countries, and although it is nice to fly under the tourist radar a bit, it is also difficult to explain to a local who is speaking to me in another language at 1000 words per minute that I’m just an imposter.
Abroad I’ve been assumed to be Cuban, Egyptian, Moroccan, Indian, Native American, you name it. When travelling with my family I’ve had an especially hard time being identified in relation to them, but it’s amusing to hear people guess nonetheless.
When I do however get that “what are you?” question during my travels it’s in the form of, “where are you from?”, and I realized quickly that saying “I’m Canadian” is usually not a sufficient answer. I often have to explain my Jamaican side before people are satisfied with my response, and even then I get follow-up questions such as: “are there a lot of black people in Canada?”
I wear Toronto swag and a Canadian flag on me when I travel, because I’m a proud Canadian, but also just to challenge people’s preconceptions a little. Multiracial Canadians – educating the world one trip at a time.
Your minority status can be revoked
One of the neatest things I’ve experienced while travelling was being in northern Africa and realizing that I wasn’t a minority there.
I looked around and saw that most people were relatively similar shades of brown as me, and it was such an amazing feeling. I felt as close as I’d ever felt to Harry Potter in his invisibility cloak, and I’ll vouch for Harry, it was pretty liberating.
The unique ‘considerations’
Travelling as a woman of colour has also created a whole new level of considerations that I could definitely do without.
Every year I have this ritual where I create a short list of places that I want to go, and then being the indecisive person I am, I poll all of my friends, family and co-workers on where I should go that year.
I often get worried looks, before the, “I don’t know, I heard from my friend’s sister that they’re pretty racist in (insert location here)”. These opinions often lead me to paranoia and an intense day of googling, “are people in X racist?” and “do they hate black people in X?”. Understandable paranoia though, right?
I’d be lying if I said that some of these anecdotes didn’t steer me away from going to certain places, especially alone, but the longer I travel, the more I wish I’d never asked for opinions in the first place.
The truth is, I’ve been to a quite a few countries now, and never once did I feel unsafe or mistreated due to being a person of colour abroad. I am not trying to invalidate the experiences of, or speak for other women or men of colour, but my experiences around the world have been so positive. Have I received looks and even stares? Sure, but nothing more.
There is prejudice all around the globe, and I’ve learned not to live my life hiding from it. I may not ever travel alone to some places, but I plan on seeing most of this beautiful world in my lifetime, and I'm fine admitting that sometimes travelling in a group makes me much more comfortable.
My funniest moment
Being called “Nutella” in Rome.
I was leaving dinner in an open square with a few friends, when a local decided to give me that pet name. It didn’t really seem malicious or rude, but it was definitely something I’d never been called before and gave all of my travel buddies quite a laugh… It wouldn’t be my first choice of nickname, but I can think of many worse ones as well. I do very much enjoy eating Nutella though, so maybe he was just psychic.
Similarly, on my last trip in Fez I was travelling with a black American who was called “Obama” by locals, and he looked absolutely nothing like Obama. He smiled and we laughed and carried on with our day.
My most memorable moment
My time in Morocco was some of my favourite time spent on this earth, and one seemingly insignificant moment is something I’ll carry in my memory forever.
During some time in a market, being greeted and welcomed by locals, I went through my usual “Where are you from?” routine, and was gifted with the response of “Welcome home” from an elderly Moroccan man smiling up at me.
These two words almost brought me to tears, hijacked my entire brain and had me Spongebob-meme-spiralling in my shoes. I’d never been to my father’s home of Jamaica, never mind much of Africa, but I realized in that moment just how much I could see myself getting used to the hot sun and spices of this land.
I had spent my trip up to that point as a Canadian, and left feeling more connected to my racial identity and my roots than I ever had before.
Now I can’t wait to explore more of Africa, and hopefully spend some quality time in Jamaica and Asia, too.
What I’ve really learned is this
When travelling as a woman of colour, in some places you will blend in better than you ever have before. In some places you will stand out and garner curious looks.
Some countries are so homogenous that they may almost never see anyone that looks like me in real life. That’s why it’s so important to get out there; we can’t just trust the internet to teach people how amazing the diverse women of the world are, they need to meet us for themselves.
Above and beyond anything else, women of colour need to see the world. We can get so wrapped up in our local lives and daily battles, but seeing the world is such an education in not only the lives of others, but self-identity first and foremost.