Traveling Abroad With An Afro

This summer, I had an amazing study abroad opportunity where I was able to teach a STEM unit to 5th graders in Spain. I was fortunate enough to get a class of excited, bright, and ambitious kiddos, and I was so happy with how my lessons turned out and how the students dove into the projects. I was able to confirm that teaching is definitely my calling, and that I have the confidence and strength to teach older kids who are almost as tall as me - if not taller! 

However, my awesome and enlightening academic adventure was somewhat snuffed by the experiences I had outside of the classroom. Spain is a beautiful country with a lovely culture, and despite my misfortune on this trip, I would love to go back in the future and hopefully have a better time! Most of my issues came from subconsious racial profiling, and ignorance, which I hope can be fixed easily with a bit of explanation and education.

 

To paint the picture, I am a black, Puerto Rican girl with a beautiful big afro and apparently, some Spanish people are not quite used to hair like mine. I don’t mind answering questions about my hair, but I don’t like when people touch and or/pull my hair when uninvited. Seems like a simple thing, but I was plagued the entire two and a half week trip with curious Spaniards grabbing fistfuls of my hair as I walked by on the streets. One time, a stranger thought I looked so ‘exotic’ that he decide to film me as he walked by, which was totally not cool and straight up uncomfortable.

There were a lot of factors at play here, one of the biggest being the language barrier. It’s funny that I’m Puerto Rican, yet can’t speak Spanish very well, but I tried my best with my high school language class skills. I quickly learned how to say, “Don’t touch me.” The only issue was that some people didn’t listen. Another problem was that I was afraid to speak up. Being a black traveller in a different country, I was afraid to cause a scene or succumb to the angry black woman trope. The last problem was that the culture was different. Spanish people are much more intimate and familiar with each other than we are in the States. For example, friends who meet to hang out often kiss each other on the cheeks as a greeting. Maybe that was a reason for the unsolicited hair touching?

 

Regardless, I learned a lot about what I must do as a traveller in the future. First, I know now that it is super important to do some research into what the local culture is like and what the typical look of the locals is. How similar or different do you look in comparison to them? Figure out what you can expect from locals in terms of their curiosity - most people are not trying to be rude, they are just curious! Once you can figure that out, also figure out how to politely educate them. Try not to internalize your discomfort like I did. Speak up and explain why it is not ok to touch or invade personal space and boundaries. Lastly, try to really enjoy yourself in this new place and try new things! Every experience is a learning experience, and you’ll come out from your travels much wiser and better rounded.

HCXO, Samantha