Racism on the Road: Experiences of a Mixed-Race Couple

Andy Jarosz from 501 Places
Shopkeeper in Istanbul, Turkey

Shopkeeper in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by kavanadb.

I read a number of recent posts from those thinking of travelling who are either anxious, or put off entirely, by the threat of racism on their journey. Having spent much of the last 20 years travelling with my wife, who is Indian, I thought I’d take the time to share our experiences of being a mixed race travelling couple and hopefully offer some reassurance to other travellers.

People we have met in the streets have been more interested in the colour of our money than our skin.

From the outset I will say that we have had it easy. We have experienced no physical abuse or threat of violence, and apart from a few choice words in a language that one of us has been able to understand, my feeling is that people we have met in the streets have been more interested in the colour of our money than our skin. Everywhere we have travelled, people ask Sam where she is from, and of course are never satisfied when the answer is Britain, and want to dig deeper. Even in India and the Middle East where we had expected some visible signs of intolerance towards us, we encountered far more polite curiosity than hostility. Our “unusual” appearance as a couple has bred a friendly approach from people who have wanted to speak with Sam in the local language; that inquisitiveness has been a great conversation starter in many cases.

Displays of racism are typically rooted in ignorance, and are most frequent in parts of the world where society is primarily homogenous. I witnessed more of it 20 years ago, when the number of overseas students around the world was a fraction of today’s numbers, and when a black or Asian face in the streets of Warsaw, Moscow or Madrid was a sight that didn’t go unnoticed.

I remember well a train trip I took alone through an undeveloped part of in 1992. I was in a compartment with 6 people, including two sweet-looking old Polish ladies and a Nigerian student. We had been chatting away, me with the old ladies in my native Polish, and I also shared a few words in English with the student. The two women only looked at him with wide eyed curiosity, rather like a child seeing something for the first time. When he got off at his station, the women soon turned to each other and one said aloud with no hint of shame or humour “wasn’t he so black! Just like the devil!” I looked at her with a look of feigned respect and exclaimed in surprise “so you’ve seen the devil!!” The conversation soon changed to another subject thankfully. Was this nasty racism, or was this ignorance that is still rife within a largely homogenous society (very much the case across the Slavic world)? While it was probably the latter, it still left me feeling quite sad at how society’s prejudices had penetrated so deep.

Ironically, as a mixed couple the worst abuse we have suffered has actually been in England. In the northern town of Bradford where we met as students, gangs of Pakistani youths often shouted some pretty nasty stuff at Sam in Urdu (which she understood) from their passing cars. In other rural parts of the country we have experienced looks of distrust and apprehension, though notably less so in the last 10 years. One of the benefits of the increased migration in the UK is a greater familiarity with immigrants and their cultures (although there is still a long way to go).

Experiences will different for each couple – Asians will be treated differently to blacks in different countries, and whether the man or woman is non-white will have a bearing on the reception they get. It is reassuring however that in most of the world, whatever the colour of your skin, as long as you have dollars in your pocket and are spending them locally people will be quite adept at hiding any prejudices. The universal advice for travelling applies: if you smile, show genuine interest in and respect for the people you meet, it is normally reciprocated.

About the author:

Andy Jarosz is a creative writer sharing short tales from road on his blog, 501 Places.

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Discussion »

  • #1The Longest Way Home

    It’s good to see subjects like this published, as it’s not an often spoken about topic. Though, the real life issues of Racism on the Road are all to prevalent. And, unfortunately, don’t seem to be going away.

  • #2Nisha

    Liked the article. But little bit of racism is everywhere in this world, especially in country sides. They look at you with amusement. :)

  • #3Crazy Journeys

    Good article. Racism comes in all shapes and sizes but hits home most when it is unexpected. Coming from London with it’s multitude of nationalities and general tollerance I was quite shocked when spending time in East Germany with highly “educated” and “inteligent” young people to find the level of outright racism. The comments that they made in relation to eastern europeans and muslims were shocking and saddend me.

  • #4Keith

    Awesome article Andy. I recall the days in the 80′s when I always felt awkward walking down the streets of small towns in Germany or Austria. The stares I attracted gave me the shivers each time.
    Most people are very curious why I look Asian but have an English name and live in the Netherlands. It’s too confusing to most. Haha! Most of them ask what my real (Malay) name is. As a global traveller, I feel obliged to provide some education to the people I meet. So, I give them a short history lesson about the Brits colonising Malaysia in the 19th century, blending in with the locals et voila, I was born and that’s how I got my English name! :-)
    You are right Andy: racism is born mostly out of pure ignorance. If only people would travel more and explore/understand other cultures without passing judgement. This world would be a better place.

  • #5Ling

    I think it’ll change by 2020. Travel is one of the best forms of diplomacy, along with reaching out to the world’s children.

  • #6Milton Wongso

    I laughed when you say they are only interested in the color of your money than skin.

    I think it is true especially if you travel to a developing country like India or Indonesia. People just have this perception – if you hold the green bill, you are richer than an average local person, which can very well translate to their well-being if you make purchases.

    My advice on the racism is forget and move on. What I found is everywhere you go, there will always be “racism” to some extent. It is up to us how we respond.

    Cheers,

    Milton

  • #7LoriLynn

    My experience is that racism is everywhere and seems to be a natural human tendancy that is built in to our DNA no matter what level of education we have, or country we come from. It’s everywhere. We like to think that in the year 2009 the human race is better than that, but not much has changed. I do agree with you Milton in that it is up to us on how we respond.

    LoriLynn

  • #8BlackChickOnTour

    Thanks for writing this article. My husband is Swedish, I’m a Black-American, and currently we reside in Saudi Arabia. We travel quite a bit, and I can tell you, we’ve never really experienced as much racism as I experience in my own country, the good ol United States of America. However, I try to avoid BS as well. My thoughts are…if it’s too much to contend with…or I’m at risk…then why go. For example, as of right now…I will NEVER step foot in Russia. They are killing and/or severely harrassing Africans on what appears to be a daily basis (from what I read in the news). I was semi-planning a trip to South Africa, but when I pulled out my Lonely Planet Guide, and 2 pages were dedicated to racism (basically, it’s still in full effect), I was like…”I don’t know”…then the next pages I read were on the violence…then I was done. Racism and Violence…seem to me they’d just be itching to get some crap started with a mixed race couple. LOL…But seriously. So…no South Africa…at least for awhile. I have white and Indian friends from South Africa, and they tell me that I gotta go to Cape Town and stay the hell out of Johannesburg, but I’m still skeptical. Maybe another time…

  • #9LatinoinLA

    I’m Hispanic-American and I’ve always had an apprehension for traveling. I decided to put those fears away and just do it. In the past two years, I’ve visited 5 countries from Europe to Latin America. I haven’t experienced any overt racism, just a lot of stares. I identify myself as American it confuses a lot of people, and I have to explain that I was born and raised in the states, but my ancestry is from El Salvador. Interestingly enough the most confusion I’ve caused is in Latin America, where people can’t figure out where I’m from, when I speak my neutral Spanish. And they think I must be really wealthy if I’m not white and I’m traveling in their countries. I agree with BLackChickOnTour, there are some countries I just won’t visit, like Russia, even my Russian friends tell me to avoid it. I just spent the holidays in Germany and I loved it, people were really friendly.

  • #10Ralph

    A very good read, this helps a lot of people be more open minded when it comes to the topic of racism. Indeed traveling opens up many doors with regards to this, the more people who gets to read about this the better way of avoiding racism altogether.

  • #11Cathy

    I agreed with Milton. It is how we respond. Having parents who are Chinese and being married to American really confuse a lot of people. I lived in America for 20 years. 4 siblings are married to American out of 7. People should have open mind.

    I had one roommate who is black and other roommate who is Spanish in my first and second year of college. I learned that they experience lots of racism.

    Does racism exist where you live?

  • #12Genie

    I returned to my hometown in the American midwest twelve years ago to work. On my first day in the employees lounge, I suppose I subconsciously noticed that all the ‘African-Americans’ were sitting over on one side, but didn’t really think about it. I sat down on an empty seat and inquired of the woman next to me what she was reading. She slammed the book closed, tossed it in my lap and then ostentatiously turned her back to block me from their conversation, which mostly consisted of why ‘some people’ couldn’t ‘keep to their own side’. I’m white and I had never (I realized suddenly) run into negative racism aimed at me, not even in the rough sides of LA. Imagine my shock at having the tables turned in my own hometown. Which, I imagine, was the main purpose of their remarks. I recognize their need to, as it were, ‘get even’ and I wasn’t inclined to sit on the ‘wrong’ side of the room again, but I did make overtures that were eventually accepted. Sad that in this day and age, they were still necessary.

  • #13Dewi

    Thanks for sharing, Andy. I’ve never thought about it much, but travelling as a mixed raced couple can be an issue in some cases. I was just wondering if anyone has had any experiences with travelling as a mixed race couple in South Africa. I never wanted to go there, but I’ve met some really nice South Africans and everybody is telling me what a great country it is. Now I’m planning to go. The only thing I’m a tiny bit worried about is the racism. But maybe it would be good to go, because the more people will see mixed race couples, the more accepted it will get. About me, I’m a Dutch girl of Southeast Asian descent and my husband is white. We’ve travelled quite a bit, in Europe, South America, Russia, India, China, Northern Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Australia and Pacific. People were friendly and open to us everywhere. In Russia we did not have any problems, but the people in St. Petersburg are not very friendly and helpful. Moscow was a lot better and Irkutsk was fine, so the more eastwards we travelled, the better it got. Ironically the only place where we really had problems was Southeast Asia.
    Any thoughts about South Africa, anyone?

  • #14Oli

    It is interesting that the women compared him to the devil. I have studied a bit of the history of racism, and much of it is rooted in religion. However it is very rare nowadays to see it expressed that way.

    By the way I don’t mean to criticise religion, in many ways it is accidental, and due to interpretation rather than belief. For example 12th century church iconography in Britain depicted the Devil and his followers as black – despite the fact that black Africa had yet to be discovered. Also the figures had no ‘african’ features apart from skin colour. Constant references to light/darkness as good/evil, etc appear, such as Jesus being the ‘light of the world’, ‘He is good, and in Him there is no darkness’. The Qu’ran as well expresses that ‘hellfire blackens the skin’.

    Anyway, I am glad you have ahd so many positive experiences along the way!

  • #15Christian Rene Friborg

    In my honest opinion, love does not recognize race or skin color. Racism in itself is terrible

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