Recently, I studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain. The experience was nothing short of magnificent. I met incredible people both within the group of Americans I traveled with and amongst the local population.
Myself and another girl in my cohort were the only two Black people out of approximately twenty-five UC college students. Initially, I did not think twice about being one of the few students of color in the group. Berkeley has a very low Black student population. As such, being the only or one of the few Black students was not new to me.
However, I noticed immediately that the my experiences differed from the white students in our group. Particularly there was a deep dissonance in how I was treated at nightclubs by Spanish men vs. how white women in my cohort were treated.
All the women in our group commented on the forward nature of Spanish-male courtship. Even so, I found that my experiences contained extreme racialized undertones. At nightclubs, Spanish men often hyper-sexualized me and approached me inappropriately and incredibly aggressively.
For example, at one club, a man would not stop grabbing me. When I asked one of my friends who spoke Spanish fluently to politely ask him to stop, he continued to grab me while saying “women do not look like her in my country.”
What the fuck? Who says that?
I brought my concerns to my brother, who is incredibly well-traveled and was also in Europe at the time. We spoke of how in Europe, interracial dating is less-stigmatized. As a result, white men abroad feel much more comfortable approaching women of color (white men in the United States rarely if ever hit on me).
We both agreed that this a great thing. America has a deep history of anti-interracial marriage laws. This makes it much harder to enter into an interracial partnership without experiencing some stigma here in the states.
Nonetheless, my nightclub-woes in Spain contained another layer. Barcelona has a very low Black population. Furthermore, the number of Black men I encountered far outweighed Black women, who I found to be virtually invisible during Barcelona daily-life. At night after 1 AM, however, a large number of Black Women work the nightclub-strip as sex workers. A fact I was blind to until one of my friends was propositioned as we were leaving a club.
Now, I vehemently stand against the stigmatization of sex work. I believe women have the right to work in whatever way they choose in order to make a living. And I feel that sex work in no way lessons a woman’s physical or spiritual value.
The issue with the large influx of African women sex workers in Europe is that many of these women are trafficked.
There are multiple articles that discuss the phenomenon of African women sex workers in Europe. Many of these women are lured to Europe under false-pretenses and then forced into sex work to pay off their travel debt. That is not voluntary sex work, that is coercion, that is abuse, that is rape.
This abuse of African women’s bodies creates a climate within major European cities such as Barcelona wherein Black women are assumed to be lascivious. It is assumed that Black women in Barcelona are there to be objects of sexual desire, particularly white male desire. In fact one Black woman detailed how in Barcelona she was flat out mistaken to be a sex worker.
I remember being most surprised by this phenomenon while in a salsa club. I was dancing with a guy (who was a great salsa dancer by the way, I had a blast) and I told him I was finished. After turning back to my friends he tried to grab me.
My friend’s brother asked him to stop and for a moment my former dance partner became physically aggressive. His aggression both shocked me and signified to me that he felt a strange ownership of my body. I had danced with him, therefore I should continue to be available to him.
Now some may read my former statement and say, “how is that problematic? He just sounds like a douchebag.”
Well, you are half-right. He is a douchebag. That is super true and accurate. However, the assumption of my availability as a Black woman that was not placed on any other women in my group is what makes it racialized.
Nonetheless, like most people of color I felt unsure that I was correct in my critique of my experience. I thought “maybe I am wrong. maybe this experience has nothing to do with my race, and everything to do with the dating culture of Barcelona” (lol, because its low-key always about race).
Luckily, one of my thesis advisors from Berkeley was teaching in Barcelona for the summer and we were able to grab a (delicious) dinner. At the dinner I spoke to him about my concerns due to how I was being approached.
We had a casual chat, wherein he, too, commented on the large amount of Black women sex workers in Barcelona. We talked about the adverse effect this has on the perception of the Black female body in Spain and he comforted me by telling me that I was not the only Black woman to bring up this concern.
If you are Black, especially a Black woman, and about to travel abroad you will have a blast. Seriously, it will be an amazing and fun time. Within the fun and joy of being in a new place, remember to be aware of your feelings and in-touch with yourself. There were times while traveling that I felt really sad and alone. I was having all of these experiences that made me feel devalued in a group of students who couldn’t relate to me racially.
This experience taught me that traveling while Black is a revolutionary and resilient act. As a person in a Black body you are never quite sure what you will experience while traveling abroad. Anti-black sentiments exist globally and abuse of Black bodies is wide-spread.
As a result, traveling while Black can be quite a scary experience.
If you have other Black friends who have traveled, ask them to be available to you so that you can talk out your experiences in a way that makes you feel safe and heard. And remember, having the capability to go abroad is a blessing in itself so take life as it comes, smile, and breathe in the beauty all around you.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to check a dude if he assumes you are going to sleep with him, because that is gross and shady and we don’t have time.