My experience travelling as a black woman

As a black woman living in London, I’m accustomed to having easy access to my creature comforts: I can pop into Peckham or Croydon for my afro hair products, take the Victoria line up to Tottenham to visit some of the best Ghanaian restaurants, and celebrate my heritage in the latest Afro-Caribbean festivals in Hackney. This multi-ethnic city has generally been a safe space for me and I’ve rarely wanted for anything when it comes to products, food or culture. 

A black girl travelling through Prague. She's wearing a backpack walks along a path in a public garden in Prague. She is facing away from the camera.
Exploring the delights of Prague on foot © Stephanie Yeboah

Despite all London has to offer, I've always been a keen traveller (or at least I try to be when the budget allows) and am ever mindful about the ways in which I may be treated when going outside of my comfort zone. I say this as someone who has also experienced varying degrees of racism in my hometown, regardless of how comfortable and accessible it is.

Navigating your way through a white society as a black woman is far from straightforward; the fact I'm a plus-size black woman adds another layer of apprehension when it comes to exploring new destinations. When you exist within intersectionalities that have historically been marginalised, subjected to violence and consistently silenced, a degree of wariness about the prospect of travelling is completely normal and to be expected.

However, I love few things more than a challenge and have no interest in letting fear control my decisions. I started travelling to places within Europe and beyond, and embraced my natural love of planning ahead to check if any destinations on my wish list had a tendency to be fatphobic, racist or both.

But even a militant planner like me soon realised this is an impossible task given the lack of available information on these topics online. And that’s why I’m here, friends: to shed some light on these areas using my personal experiences and to do my utmost to help you make an informed choice before you book your next trip!

A young black woman smiles for the camera in the sun-dappled square in front of the National Museum in Prague. Black girl travelling tip for Prague, be prepared to see swastikas.
Soaking up the sunlight in front of the National Museum in Prague © Stephanie Yeboah

Prague, Czech Republic

Cheap beer, great food, the odd Swastika

I’ll start off by saying that Prague is absolutely one of my favourite cities to visit. I've visited twice and would definitely go again. The food is hearty, stodgy and full of beautiful flavours; the beer (oh the BEER!) is great value for money and wonderful (this is from someone who rarely drinks alcohol due to the taste); and the beautiful gothic buildings and local attractions present you with a wealth of options every day. 

What struck me, however, was the sheer amount of Swastika graffiti I saw dotted around the city. I was already aware that the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) was under German occupation during WWII, but the graffiti looked incredibly fresh and that was something I didn't anticipate. Swastikas aside, I found the locals within the tourist hotspots to be very friendly, but I couldn't help but notice I attracted a lot of staring and odd looks whenever I used the metro to travel into town.

The most alarming incident happened in a bar in the Old Town Square when a man (presumably drunk) walked over to my table, gave the Nazi salute, and screamed ‘HEIL HITLER!’ at me. I think it's safe to assume that no one would find this a pleasant or welcoming experience when you're trying your best to enjoy yourself on holiday. The other customers seemed visibly horrified and the bar staff escorted him out. They apologised for his being drunk but I found it odd that no one in the bar referenced what he'd actually said to me. I appreciated the staff asking him to leave, but was a bit perturbed that the issue was assumed to be his drunkenness rather than his racism.

From a fashion perspective, I didn’t come across any retailers that catered towards plus sizes when I visited in 2015 and 2016. I hope the dearth of options has since improved, but it's definitely worth keeping in mind if you're planning to pack light and shop in location. My advice is to stay within the city limits as this area is generally friendly and accustomed to visitors from other cultures. Stock up on a few excellent beers, travel with a buddy, and you’ll have a wonderful time.

A young black woman poses in the foreground and some ruins in Pompeii are visible in the background. Other visitors mingle around; she is standing alone. Mount Vesuvius looms in the background of the photo. A black girl travelling through parts of Italy may experience racism.
The famed ruins of Pompeii overlooked by Mt Vesuvius © Stephanie Yeboah

Venice & Naples, Italy

Wonderful pizza, historic landmarks, a dollop of racism

Italy had been on my travel list for the longest time. I’d always dreamed of visiting Rome, Pompeii and Venice, the city of luurve. So you can imagine how chuffed I was when my boyfriend surprised me with a Valentine's Day trip to Venice in 2016. We had been to Naples the year before, but I found the experience so unpleasant that I frankly wanted to delete the memory forever.

The city itself – the architecture, the food, the attractions – was absolutely on point, but the racism I experienced was shocking. From having the local men assume that travelling with my white boyfriend automatically made me a prostitute, to women coming up to me only to grab my braids and swing them around like a skipping rope, I was at my wits’ end. It wasn’t until I came back to the UK and was told by a friend that Italy has a somewhat violent history of racism that the ordeal truly sunk in.

On this occasion, however, we were visiting the ultra-popular city of Venice and I assumed that since it's a huge tourist destination, it would result in a much more welcoming experience.

Unfortunately, Venice turned out to be a bit more of the same; hidden smiles and sniggers when I stepped onto a gondola, having my hair pulled by strangers and being served last in restaurants. Bad service can happen to any weary traveller, but when it happens every time you soon realise it's focused on you specifically. The events cast an unwelcomed cloud over my experience of the city and over Italy in general, and it’s unlikely I'll return because of them.

Obviously, this is very much my personal experience and I would definitely not advise anyone who looks like me to make the same judgment for themselves. Vigilance is key in any destination and having long, braided hair seemed to result in many locals assuming it was fine to invade my personal space. Something to bear in mind if you're planning a trip with a similar style; personally I found the adverse reactions I received weren't enough to overcome the draw of the architectural and natural beauty of the country.

A black plus size woman poses in front of a private pool in a yellow bikini. The sun is streaming through the palm trees, she's smiling and looks really relaxed and happy. A black girl travelling in Bali tip: plus-size woman attract a lot of attention.
Living my best Balinese life in my private pool © Stephanie Yeboah

Bali, Indonesia

A place to live your best plus size life

Bali was the first long-haul trip I’d ever undertaken and aside from my layover at Hong Kong airport (where I was stopped several times and asked to take photos as the locals thought I was Oprah), I can’t say I had any negative experiences as a result of my race. Bali is tourism central: it’s essentially the Super Mario boss level of travel and consequently has a variety of different races and cultures that comprise the demographic of visitors.

What was interesting to note, however, was the way I was treated because of my weight. I was mostly stared at, with the odd person giggling and pointing at me, but I could tell that it didn't arise from a place of malice. Bali has little-to-no public transport, and the local diet is incredibly healthy, so it stands to reason that being overweight may not be as much of a 'thing' there as it is in the West.

At no point during my travels did I encounter another plus-size person, which is why I believe the glances and stares were more a case of me being an anomaly rather than an unwelcome presence. I had an amazing time in Bali and it was the first time I experienced feeling free and able to live my best unapologetic, fat life. I walked around in bikinis, swimsuits and strapless dresses and felt absolutely amazing.

New York, USA

Nothing but plus size love

My travel experiences as a plus-sized black woman have in no way made me feel that there is nowhere on earth that is safe to travel; I’ve had absolutely wonderful experiences in Budapest, Barcelona and New York, where I’ve been made to feel incredibly welcome and had wonderful experiences.

In fact, New York was the place I started my journey towards self-love. I hung out with other plus-sized women in my apartment rental in Harlem and felt completely embraced by the community there.

My key piece of advice is doing some research into your chosen destination before you set off. Regardless of the destination, your safety and state of mind are of paramount importance and being prepared can make certain experiences feel like less of a shock.

It’s understandable that these resources are difficult to obtain when the spotlight is usually focused on the perspectives of white, slim women, but here’s hoping that things such as the body positive movement and social media ‘woke’ movement can begin to infiltrate the travel industry. More diversity and inclusivity within travel writing and the influencer community can only ever be a good thing and I truly believe it will encourage ethical and informed travel for everyone.

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