Before my trip to Milan in July 2018, I hadn’t left Toronto in over four years. Surprisingly enough, my last vacation was to Italy.
After dealing with an insurmountable amount of stress in 2014, I decided to treat myself, and I booked a tour to Rome, Venice and Florence. But just before the trip I was filled with mild anxiety. I kept thinking: Did I pack too much? Will the flight be filled with turbulence? Will I have a good time?
Just to update you, the flight and trip were mind-blowingly awesome, and I promised myself that I would return one day.
That day happened four years later, and again, my anxiety flared up. I immediately had numerous questions after booking the tour, but this time it wasn’t the normal questions that swirled in my head like before.
Being a black, solo traveler in 2018, I was extremely nervous about being just that, so the questions that popped into my head dealt with my skin color. I wondered if I would be harassed by immigration because of my skin color, if I would be the subject of someone’s tirade about not feeling safe being on the plane with me, a person of color—and truthfully, I was afraid that my tour mates wouldn’t accept me.
Traveling alone also added to my anxiety, as I had no one to rely on for help. I would have to deal with any problem that came my way by myself. No friends or family could help. It was me, myself and I.
It sounds a little bizarre to be filled with that much paranoia, but due to recent events of black people being harassed and unable to do normal things like drive, walk, shop, have a barbecue or sit in a coffee shop made me think twice about traveling to a country that isn’t really known for their diverse population.
It all came to a head a few days before I was set to leave Toronto. I kept thinking that my future roommate may not like black people, and I would be forced to find another room or roommate.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. My roommate, a white woman from Virginia Beach, was perfect. She was considerate, polite and incredibly accommodating. Rooming with a stranger for a week can be extremely uncomfortable, but she made my vacation very fun and memorable.
However, I was still nervous about my tour mates having an issue with me. I was the only person of color on the tour, and living in this racially charged world has made me think about how others may perceive me—they might have preconceived notions of who I am and treat me according to their biases.
Some of my tour mates were a bit standoffish towards me at first. They would look and stare at me and not say a word, which made me feel super uncomfortable. But a few days into the tour, they warmed up to me and involved me in their conversations. But keep in mind, it took some time.
Being in Italy was spectacular, but I did receive a lot of looks. I was usually one of the few black people or people of color in most places I was visiting, so I made it a point that whenever I saw another person of color, I would acknowledge their presence.
On one of my last days in Milan, I experienced a situation that left me speechless. I entered a crowded souvenir shop to get a last-minute gift for my precocious little nephew. After locating the perfect t-shirt for him, I walked up to the cashier. As I approached, I thought I heard someone say the n-word in a distinct Italian accent. It wasn’t yelled; it was as if someone was trying to say it in the least offensive way. I tried to ignore it, because I honestly didn’t believe that someone could have said it. Then I heard it again. I slowly turned around and saw a bunch of teenagers walking around the shop, but one of them looked right at me. The look he gave me made me realize that he knew what he had said and that the word was meant for my ears. I honestly have no idea if he thought it was okay to use it, or if he was just being malicious.
I didn’t want to start a fight or argument in the store (which would label me an angry black woman), so I paid for the t-shirt and left.
Honestly, it affected me for the rest of the day. I was enjoying my trip, loving the sights, enjoying the food—I never thought the n-word would be said to me in such a casual manner. I eventually let it go, and got back into vacation mode.
I chose not to tell my tour mates, specifically my roomie, because I didn’t want to bring any more attention to the incident.
Besides the odd stare, and the not-so-nice glances, that was the worst thing that happened to me on my trip.
Will that stop me from traveling? Absolutely not. I love traveling too much to let someone’s ignorance prevent me from seeing the world. But it does make me incredibly aware that traveling to countries where the general population doesn’t look like me might subject me to intolerance and hate.