How I travel… as a Black woman
Award-winning writer and photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström describes the highs and lows of skin-deep encounters across the world
I’ve spent a lifetime decoding them. Those slow crawls of curiosity over my dark skin whenever I find myself exploring a new place. Stares so prolonged that they can unsettle the most intrepid of travellers.
I try to deduce whether they symbolise intrigue, acceptance or rejection. If accompanied by a slight jaw-drop, they’re coming from older women and middle-aged men. Teenagers and married men use every reflective surface to covertly observe. Senior citizens in tiny villages stop and freeze. Some stares contort in confusion when I show up at their luxury lodges. Kids point, gawk and giggle.
But the most difficult of all to stomach are the glares that seem to say they wish I didn’t exist.
We all experience travel differently, sometimes on a much deeper level than we’re even aware of. When I feel the urge to explore and enrich my life by experiencing other cultures, people often question whether there’s a more sinister reason driving this need. When I leave my bubble of familiarity to travel and put my life in context as a global citizen, some demand a deeper reason beyond me wanting to gorge on exquisite Sicilian food, trace the steps of Egyptian history or marvel in awe at intricate Uzbek architecture.
Because to travel as a Black woman for leisure or on assignment is to be wordlessly asked to explain my existence in that very space. The deep enrichment travel brings into my life isn’t enough. My unwitting task as a traveller who happens to be Black means having constantly to battle the stereotypes of prostitute, impoverished immigrant or low-income worker. In addition to exploration, I also have to rewrite narratives that are continually perpetuated around the world on my behalf.
When I was chased out of a store in Luxembourg and told to look in through their windows instead, a fellow shopper – a stranger – ran out after me. She chased uphill after me, stopping to pant in exhaustion, her hands on her knees, before proceeding to apologise profusely on behalf of the rude retailer. Maybe that shopkeeper was having a bad day or was simply racist – I will never know – but I always remember that stranger who apologised.
Travelling as a Black woman is a constant emotional minefield of wondering how to not let a singular negative experience derail the gift that travel is endowing me with in that moment.
“If I end up being the only Black person someone meets in their lifetime, I want that interaction to positively counteract the negative narratives media constantly spread about us”
As a travel writer and photographer, my professional beat is exploring culture through food, tradition and lifestyle. I love sharing the rich stories of the people I meet, their daily lives, the customs they fiercely protect – and what makes them burn with unbridled passion. Travelling with an open mind is easier said than done because it forces us to ask questions of other cultures and of ourselves. And it begins the uncomfortable work of chipping away at our own preconceived notions about people, places and practices.
For me, travel is about being a sponge. I soak up other cultures with respect, but I also squeeze some of myself and my culture out in return to foster understanding, break down bias and break through prejudices. It’s about doing my own part to fight stereotypes by seeing people for who they are as individuals, and not waving general brushstrokes over an entire group.
And it is exhausting work.
After a long, hot day exploring Samarkand, my travelling companions turned to me, themselves shattered. “How do you do it and not get tired?” they asked me. We were halfway through our trip traversing parts of Uzbekistan and I was being relentlessly asked for dozens upon dozens of selfies with locals. Many of them were fascinated by my presence. Most of them had never seen a Black African woman in person before.
“If I end up being the only Black person they meet in their lifetime, I want that interaction to positively counteract the negative narratives media constantly spread about us,” I replied.
As I kept travelling with an open mind over the years, I noticed my heart expanding in parallel. I know when to extend grace based on the type of stares I decode. I also know when to self-preserve and when to receive appreciation without suspicion. I remember standing in a packed yet eerily silent subway car in Stockholm. The subway is a space where everyone stays invisible until they get off to meet their loved ones. In a place where compliments and public acknowledgment aren’t doled out with ease, an old woman yelled across that quiet carriage to tell me I was beautiful.
The privilege of travel has filled me with an undeniable resolve and passion to keep exploring and learning about the world around me. Above all, it keeps me truly listening to people and their cultures, to what they believe and why they live the way they do.
The very act of travelling as a Black woman forces strangers to see me, deal with me and learn about me even when they aren’t ready to. And, in my own way, I begin to chip slowly away at their biases, distrust and discomfort, one encounter at a time.