Black Travelers Have Passport Privilege Too

My boyfriend and I went to the pool at a local hotel to enjoy a Sunday afternoon together and get a respite from the Panama City heat. I’ve spent so many weekday afternoons working on my laptop poolside that the wait staff knew me by sight and always greeted me warmly.

Sortis Hotel Panama

On this particular day, we slid into a poolside cabana, and he flagged down one of the new waiters to order drinks. The short, stocky waiter took his time approaching our cabana only after he had gotten done flirting with some girls sunbathing beside the pool. My Afro-Latino boyfriend had barely finished placing the order when the waiter curtly asked him for our room number. We didn’t have one. “Well, how did you get in here? You can’t just walk in,” he began to admonish us. My boyfriend looked confused since we hardly had had to sneak past a line of security or an attendant to get in.  We’d simply took the elevator up like everyone else.

money eyes

Growing annoyed, I finally cut in briskly in English and pointedly told the waiter that I’d never been asked for my room number on any of the previous occasions I’d been there.  Although he’d greeted my boyfriend’s Spanish with suspicion, his posture changed when I spoke to him in English as if dollar bills had begun spilling from my mouth. He apologized profusely and quickly went to the bar to place our orders.

A few weeks ago, I asked black American expats if they felt "freer" abroad. When I read the overwhelmingly affirmative responses of my fellow expats as well as the flood of comments on the internet, I thought about this particular incident and how all black expats and tourists are not created equal. Imagine if I had asked the Sudanese about how they experienced Egypt, the Martiniquais about how they are treated in France, or even just asked an Afro-Colombian about how they felt in their own country. I can assure you the responses would have been a world apart from that of black Americans abroad even though we share the same racial background.

Why is that? The answer is simple: @@American green trumps being black abroad.@@ Outside of the U.S., black Americans experience all the positive associations with being American- all the privileges that we are denied in our country.  Once we open our mouths and our accents roll out, we go from being second class citizens to being ambassadors of cool, mini-super powers in motion. Or, as my boyfriend once put it bluntly, “Here, you are a gringa.” 

The power and privilege are seductive- especially after a lifetime of being confronted with America’s particularly vile brand of racism in all its overt and covert forms. Even though you may have barely been a four on a 1-10 scale at home, suddenly all the beautiful girls and guys flock to you with dreams of an American visa out of poverty. The bartender never stops pouring your drinks, and the waiters are always attentive, hoping that the stereotypes about Americans being great tippers are true. Everyone assumes you can dance and that you can play any sport just by wishing hard enough. Speaking English opens doors and job opportunities for you that local people with twice your education and expertise wouldn’t even be considered for. @@Basically, you begin to walk the earth with all the confidence of an ordinary white man.@@

Casco Viejo, Panama

Casco Viejo, Panama

 @@Class- not race- separates us from other black people abroad.@@ The strength of the U.S. dollar and the global value and respect placed on an expensive American education affords us a lifestyle and access that many of us could not have at home. When I studied abroad in Egypt, even on a meager student budget, my two roommates and I could easily afford a furnished 3-bedroom apartment with mahogany floors and crystal chandeliers that overlooked a park in the Maadi suburb of Cairo. Not only was the rent in Maadi out of reach for the average Egyptian family, but where even in the US could grad school students live in such opulence?! Thus, unless we made a concerted effort, we only saw other black people if they were our neighbor’s nannies, maids, or drivers.

I have been confronted with this uncomfortable reality on numerous occasions abroad. On my very first visit to Cuba, a Cuban woman of Haitian descent befriended me on the streets of Old Havana. Before we parted ways, she insisted that I come with her to a famous hotel to see the view from the rooftop. I politely accompanied her and greeted the bellhop at the door as we walked by, but she glared daggers at him. In the elevator, she told me she had wanted to walk into this gilded hotel all her life to see the view of Havana, her city, from the rooftop but, as an Afro-Cuban, she could never even make it past the bellhop by herself.

Not the specific hotel in Havana, just a cool picture I took

Not the specific hotel in Havana, just a cool picture I took

@@Our privilege divides black people into those with the power and access of Western passports (US, Canada, EU) and those without it.@@ Similar to how white privilege works, some black American travelers and expats are blissfully unaware of the experiences of the rest of the diaspora and that the special treatment we attract is unearned. Even more dangerous is the sense of entitlement that unearned privilege can often bring, which can lead some to distance themselves from the local black people and not bother to learn about how they experience the world. 

This past New Year’s Eve, I was invited to Havana as a photographer for a friend’s travel company. A NYE party was being held that night at the house of an influential Afro-Cuban family, and significant group of black American tourists had been invited. All day, the family had been cooking and cleaning in preparation for the party.

afro cuban dance


As the night progressed, people from the neighborhood came, and there was a sense of exhilaration filled the backyard as people drank rum and salsa danced. A little before midnight, the American tourists arrived at the party- standing out in their sequins and NYE best. 

The hostess warmly greeted them and offered them a plate of the food they’d spent all day preparing. The Americans tasted the Cuban food and made a face, many of them left their plates untouched even though many of the Afro-Cubans hadn’t eaten yet to ensure that the foreign guests got food first. Undeterred, the hostess invited them outside to join the dancing and festivities, but the Americans refused to dance and complained about hearing “too much salsa music”…in Cuba. Then to my utter embarrassment, someone plugged in their iPod and changed the music to trap music. The message was clear, we are the cool kids here, and you can’t sit with us. From that point on, there was a clear divide as the Cubans felt shunned and huddled together and the Americans danced to the same music they’d hear at home, oblivious to the other people around them. 

black people in Cuba

Don’t be like these guys. @@While passport privilege and the perks that come with it aren’t things we intentionally create or enjoy, we can actively choose not to ignore the reality of the underprivileged@@- or just ignore them period. For example, if a hotel doesn’t let in Afro-Cubans, there is no reason a black American should knowingly give them more money to use to oppress other black people.  

@@We have to be careful not to abandon our brothers and sisters in the struggle for equality only because our passports are blue@@ and our loads become a little lighter abroad. At times, I keep my mouth shut and observe how differently the world works when one can’t distinguish me from an Afro-Panamanian or an Afro-Cuban. It’s a reminder to me  that my tacit acceptance abroad into spaces traditionally closed off to people who look like me is based solely on my passport privilege and the power of American green and not on any innate superiority that I have over the local black people. When my mouth is shut, I’m shuffled out into the street just like them.