(By Maurice Mcleod)
“I realise that in trying to avoid being the victim of racism, a mass generalisation, I am generalising myself. Of course there are wonderful people in every corner of the globe; if there weren’t I wouldn’t travel. My calculation is on the likelihood of bumping into those who have an axe to grind. This calculation isn’t reserved for overseas travel. Some of the most extreme reactions I have faced have been when travelling within the UK.“
There was a depressing familiarity to Oprah Winfrey’s tale of racism in an upmarket Swiss boutique. Billionaire TV presenter Oprah is a household name around the world but this didn’t stop the staff in a Zurich handbag shop from assuming she couldn’t afford the expensive bag she wanted to buy. In Oprah’s case, she decided not to make a scene or to play the “Do you know who I am?” card, instead choosing to leave the shop and spend her money elsewhere. She knew just mentioning her experience would be payback enough and already the owner of the boutique has apologised and tried to explain away the incident as a “misunderstanding”.
While £25k handbags are not normally on my shopping list, being made acutely aware of my race when I leave the safety of home is all too familiar.
For the first few years of our relationship, my white partner didn’t really believe this was an issue. It wasn’t until she witnessed first-hand an entire Croatian beach full of people straining like a mob of meerkats to get a look at me that she conceded I might have a point. There was no aggression or unpleasantness, they were just fascinated.
Now when planning a holiday, along with looking up hotels, bars and local landmarks, I always do a little research on race relations in the area I’m visiting. If I’m travelling to a “black” country – somewhere in Africa or the Caribbean for example – I’m relaxed.
Questions I ask myself and Google are: Is there any kind of black local population? The old adage that familiarity breeds contempt is completely wrong; ignorance breeds contempt.
If there is, what sort of treatment do they get? If the only black people they see are the “looky looky” men on the beach selling fake watches then the idea of a black holidaymaker might spook them. If they hate the immigrants who are already there then my welcome is likely to be lukewarm at best.
If I get into physical trouble, what are my options?
How remote are we going to be and what is the reputation of the local law enforcement?
I realise that in trying to avoid being the victim of racism, a mass generalisation, I am generalising myself. Of course there are wonderful people in every corner of the globe; if there weren’t I wouldn’t travel. My calculation is on the likelihood of bumping into those who have an axe to grind. This calculation isn’t reserved for overseas travel. Some of the most extreme reactions I have faced have been when travelling within the UK.
Quaint pubs in idyllic villages in the west country have turned into silent staring galleries when I’ve walked in but generally, once see I’m “behaving normally”, people calm down.
Preconceptions such as those faced by Oprah or curiosity of the type we saw in Croatia or Devon are not the worst things (if I’m honest, the curiosity is a little like being a celebrity). Someone trying to talk to you about Bob Marley or to buy drugs is vaguely annoying but hardly ruins a holiday. I’m much more concerned about the threat of physical violence.
It might sound unfair but I doubt I’ll be heading to Russia for my holidays any time soon. And while most have nothing but happy tales, some of my black friends who went to Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012 have stories of having to flee from locals when straying away off track.
On a recent trip to a bar in Marbella, I was racially abused by someone who called me a n****r and threatened to “glass me” because he didn’t like the way I was dancing. This was no Spanish local – it was a white guy from Kent who was worried because his girlfriend seemed to like my moves.
Living in London, this sort of overt racism is something I’m not used to anymore and so I was taken aback. In London there would have been loads of other black people in the bar or at least white people who would be willing to stand with me against this guy and his table full of shaven-headed mates. In Spain, I felt isolated and at risk.
Oprah’s experience is no doubt unpleasant but her wealth and fame probably shield her from this most of the time. Being followed around expensive shops by over-keen security guards is nothing new to most black people. I wouldn’t be surprised to get that sort of treatment in Bond Street, let alone Switzerland.
(Source: The Guardian)
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”