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How Traveling To Black Spaces Helped Shape My Identity

Whether you’re a long-term traveler, weekend-away-er or full-time nomad, you’ll likely know the power of leaving your comfort zone to travel, it’s the ultimate personal development tool. Travel is synonymous with growth and spiritual development and for good reason. After all, to travel is to deliberately place yourself in unknown and unexpected circumstances, to choose freedom and uncertainty in new spaces, instead of the routine and order of the familiar. Travel is not a panacea for your problems back home, but it can help solve a range of personal issues that may have been plaguing you for years. For me, one year of travel to black spaces enabled me to come to terms with racial identity issues that have been following me around my whole life like ghosts.

Although it’s not obvious at first glance, my upbringing was an entirely white affair. My Anglo-Irish family showered my brother and I with equal parts love and laughter, but as I grew up, they never told me why I was the only black person within our little community in the London suburbs. Fending off jokes, occasional racism and comments about affairs, mix-ups and a secret adoption became part of my narrative, as I repeated to strangers what my parents repeatedly told me; I was a “genetic throwback,” I was unsure of my biological mix, I was (possibly) part black but I had two (white) parents.

However, when the man I had called Dad for 23 years passed away from cancer in 2015, my standard of normal was obliterated, completely. I felt an unquenchable need to start digging for answers related to my race. After a series of family DNA tests, I realized what had been obvious to so many people; that my mother had been unfaithful to my father and there was another, black biological father somewhere in the U.K. that I couldn’t trace.

The shock of first, losing the funny blue-eyed man who raised me and then, finding out a year later that he was never related to me and that my mother had been lying to me all her life made me feel as if my heart had been ripped out from within me. I could barely speak to my mother through the cloud of rage which had me choking on all of my words. So I looked for an antidote, which came in the form of travel.

I didn’t have a plan, or a set idea of where I wanted to go, but I was tired of standing out in a sea of whiteness and made a conscious decision to inhabit black spaces for a change, just to see how it would feel. I’d grown up always fending off people’s guesses of where I was “from” (East Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and Morocco were commonly attributed to me), and I was curious about actually blending in within a predominantly black country. Would I be at home?

My first stop was Crown Heights, Brooklyn, because I’d always dreamed of living a writer’s life in New York City and because I had a friend nearby. I quickly realized Americans are even more preoccupied with race than Brits and trying to explain my complicated story to strangers I met there was even harder so I often lied. I had to get my head around a whole new set of terms that we don’t use so much in the U.K. (light-skinned, bi-racial), but living in a predominantly West Indian area with a Jamaican roommate was great (the food!). Although I loved Brooklyn, I wanted to see more of the world and decided to head to the Corn Islands, off the coast of Nicaragua, and a six-hour flight from New York.

My friends thought I was mad, no one had heard of my new, paradisiacal home 500 miles from Jamaica—and with far less tourism—but I was living the dream. I could rent an apartment for $200 a month and make money working from my laptop, writing. I also found that I blended in a lot. I made friends on the island and started dating a local, but soon realized that issues of colorism and misogyny were going to make living in that part of the world really difficult. For example, I kept receiving comments about my hair, like ‘You should straighten it,’  “Wow you’ve got a big head of hair’ and ‘I don’t see girls wear it like that here.’ Men, including the one I was with, found it strange to see a woman of color embracing her natural hair and constantly reminded me that I wasn’t fitting in with Eurocentric beauty ideals, to which everyone seemed to aspire. After years of disparaging my natural hair back home as a kid, I had finally reached a point where I was happy with it, but coming to this Caribbean island where I was surrounded by other mixed and black people who were clearly battling with their own identity issues made me my question my decision to go natural all over again. After two months, I knew I had to leave.

Visiting Cuba and the Dominican Republic were the highlights on my trip because I really could move around incognito if I wanted. Although many Dominicans told me they found it offensive to be called “black” and, I couldn’t find *any* curly hair products in the stores in the capital city, the people of the island were so friendly and excited to learn about other cultures. I connected with locals and other travelers easily and spent a month on each island. When I was exploring Cuba, I remember being told by a tour guide that Communist rule for half a century had been successful in creating a fairly equal society and that racism wasn’t a huge problem there. Though that wasn’t fully evident in my experience, I loved seeing how blended Cuban families were and how Cubans really looked out for each other.

Being mistaken for a local in the Caribbean was the wake-up call I needed. I’d spent so much of my childhood going along with my mother’s lie and telling anyone who asked that I identified as white because that’s what I was told I was. But moving through black spaces and constantly blending and having people speak to me in Spanish or Creole really helped me come to terms with a side of me that was denied for so long. It confirmed to me that not only was I going to be viewed as a woman of color for the rest of my life, but that there was nothing negative about that, either.

Of course, sometimes it was eye-opening and painful to really accept how non-white people are treated outside of my own little community in London. As many other black travelers can attest, when you’re a tourist who looks like a local, you’re often not afforded that same level of customer service and respect that your white friends may benefit from. Being first in line at the corner store in Nicaragua next to a white man (who was also British) and being served after him, three times in a row, was frustrating. Being asked to justify my existence in an expensive hotel in Cuba by security as other white tourists sauntered past, was maddening. And constantly being questioned on “how someone like me” could afford to travel or “Why don’t you look English?” time and time again was often draining.

Still, traveling to black spaces this past year imbued me with a kind of tolerance and understanding that I didn’t have before I left the U.K. Whereas I was once defensive and prickly when my English heritage was challenged as a teenager because I didn’t have a definitive answer as to why I didn’t “look” English, now at age 24 I’m able to calmly and swiftly shut conversations pertaining to race down if I want to, or stop and chat about my life story if I feel comfortable. A lot of the time on the road, questions about my identity came from curious black locals who could perhaps see themselves in me and often wondered why, although we shared similar features, I spoke with a British accent. In Morocco, where I was reminded of my color on a near-hourly basis in cities like Fez and Marrakech as cries of “Africa!” “Michelle Obama!” and “Black Power” followed me around the medina like echoes, I just developed a sense of humour and laughed it off. And when, once or twice, someone shouted “Beyoncé” after me, I silently jumped for joy.

Not only has my year of travel helped me come to terms with my own blackness which was denied for so long, it’s also widened my perception of the world and with it, other people of color. Being mistaken for a local in black spaces made it easier to make local friends—and buy things for less. But I’ve really loved connecting with a range of people from across the African diaspora and took great pride in being able to dismantle negative or limited stereotypes related to black travelers as I went. Writing and blogging about my experiences has also been incredibly cathartic and has enabled me to forge digital friendships with other black travelers too. I’ve now returned back to London where I moved to Brixton (a very mixed area!) to focus on media projects related to race and identity. And although I still don’t have all the answers related to my own story, my year of travel has certainly has got me closer to accepting who I really am.

Follow the rest of Georgina’s journey of travel, identity and discovery over at Girl Unfurled! 

Last 5 posts by Georgina Lawton