Traveling in Color

Traveling in Color

Istanbul’s a city that’s seen it all. Since its founding 600 years before Christ and in the centuries since, the Romans, Byzantines, Latins, and Ottomans have each deemed Istanbul a suitable capital for their respective empires. Throughout the years, the city’s geography has worked in its favor. Straddling the Asian and European continents hasn’t been without its advantages as the city has attracted merchants from all corners of the globe to its shores in hopes of trading their spices, textiles, and wares.

It’s with this ‘Istanbul’s seen it all’ mindset that we set out to explore the city without feeling the least bit uncomfortable or out of place in such an ethnically and religiously homogenous setting. Any reservations we may have had about traveling to Turkey out of concern about how we’d be treated in a country where sightings of black folks are few and far between were allayed during our tour through the ornate, over-the-top rooms of Dolmabahçe Palace. Hanging on one of the palace walls was a large, beautiful painting depicting a scene set somewhere in Turkey of caravanning merchants clad in turbans with skin that was unmistakably darker than ours. I considered the painting proof that black travel has been occurring in this corner of the world since ancient times. Yet, we were such a novelty in Istanbul.

I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate since by and large, we went by seemingly unnoticed except for a fair share of prolonged stares from locals whenever we entered their markets and restaurants. But it seems that after the first few nights in Istanbul, the locals really began to take notice that there were black people in their midst.

One evening, en route to our hotel past the Blue Mosque, a vendor approached us and asked where we were from.

“We’re from California,” my brother, Aaron, replied to the amiable-looking man who appeared to be in his early twenties.

The vendor continued to cheerfully engage in small talk with us, curiously feeling us out, when, as if unable to control a sudden urge he blurted, “I love dark people!” Taken aback, we all laughed, albeit somewhat uncomfortably. While flattered, we were a bit perplexed – not due to any insecurity about our complexions, but because in the U.S., being dark is something that is rarely praised, largely due to deluded and misguided ideals about beauty. So adding the context of our black American realities to our conversation with this Turkish merchant, we were curious to know what prompted his intrigue about our skin color.

“Why do you love dark people?” another one of my travel mates asked the merchant.

“Well, because I’m dark and there are dark people in my family.  My brother’s dark,” he explained. “I want to marry a black woman – like you,” he said, rubbing my arm. More awkward laughter as Jave reached for my hand.

One evening, as we were leaving Eminönü, a group of teenage boys startled us when they suddenly seemed to appear from nowhere, bum-rushing us from behind and shouting excitedly with camera phones in hand in hopes of posing in a picture with Jave and Aaron. As the teenage boys bumped fists with the men in my family and blew kisses to us ladies in the group, we looked at each other, laughing in disbelief and wondering when we became celebrities.

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Throughout our stay in Istanbul, we continued to receive random props from locals intrigued by our skin tones – from our restaurant waiter who wanted to pose for pictures with us before we left, to a group of local women on our return ferry from Büyükada who engaged us in conversation, wanting to know more about where we were from and our impressions of Istanbul.

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Even a police officer wielding an intimidating-looking machine gun at the entrance to Dolmabahçe Palace requested us to pose for a picture with him in which he was all smiles. Sadly, in the U.S., black Americans are taught that the police are anything but friendly and that 9-1-1 is a joke. So a machine gun-toting officer wanting to pose with us was welcomed but bizarre to say the least!

One afternoon, as we made our way to a bus stop on the noticeably quieter Asian side of the city, we suddenly heard a shrilling scream from across the street, “AFFFFFFRICCCCAAAAA!” the voice shouted as we looked around trying to match the voice with a face. A few moments later we heard the same unmistakable voice shout, “OBAAAAMA!”

At that moment, I didn’t quite know how I felt. Should I stop and raise my fist in the air with pride, or should I just exchange uncertain glances with my travel mates and quietly laugh about it amongst ourselves? Were the Turkish people genuinely excited to see us and welcome us to their country, or did they see us as an oddity because we’re black?

I felt that riding the local bus would give me some insight into how we were truly perceived. Growing up with a mother who summered in Memphis and a father who was born and raised in Florida during Jim Crow, I was taught stories about Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, and Freedom Riders. In my mind, a ride in close quarters on the local bus in Istanbul would surely reveal the locals’ prejudices if they did, in fact, exist.

As we boarded and handed the driver our bus passes, we realized that some of us hadn’t added enough lira to our cards. As we turned to make our way off the bus to the kiosk where we could add more money to our cards, an elderly local man stood up and swiped his bus pass for those of us who had insufficient fares. Amazed by the man’s generosity, which we all later agreed we’d never encountered at home in the U.S., we offered the man lira for allowing us to use his pass. Smiling, he politely declined our offer and motioned for us to take our seats.

“Teşekkür ederim!” we enthusiastically thanked him in appreciation.

Looking back, I’m still not sure whether we were novelties or oddities in Turkey – perhaps we were a bit of both. Whether we were warmly welcomed because of our skin color or in spite of it shall remain a mystery, I suppose. But in my heart of hearts, I want to believe that by welcoming us and being hospitable, the Turkish people were simply doing what they do best.

What have been some of your experiences ‘traveling in color’? 

  • Great post. That story about the man paying your group’s fare on the bus is especially nice. I grew up Asian American in Texas and have always stood out as a minority. It’s so strange now living in Malaysia where almost half the population is Chinese, and I don’t stand out at all. In fact, most people think I am a local. My blond haired, blue eyed friends get a lot of attention and requests for photos, but I can slip bye unnoticed.

    • Dana Carmel

      I can totally relate to the reversal from being a minority to being in the majority in a new place. That’s how I feel whenever I travel to the Caribbean and even during our travels to Brazil. Sometimes, it’s nice and comforting to blend in with the locals.

  • I really enjoyed reading it. What I really love about travelling is that nobody cares about your skin color, nationality or language. We are like a big family chatting and hanging out together. By “we” I mean “locals and travelers”! Absolutely amazing feeling <3!

    • Dana Carmel

      Sometimes that’s the case, and when it is, it is a great feeling. But sometimes, locals aren’t always inviting. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’ve heard stories.

  • What an interesting post. For second there I thought you had found a Turkish husband in the guy that proclaimed to want to marry a black woman… In some African countries people stare and get very curious even when white folk travel to certain parts where people don’t normally see them in droves. Even in my recent trip to Kronberg I had two cars pull up and the passengers were all smiles probably at the sight of a black person in their small quiet town. I have also experienced a bombardment when I was in Hong Kong but most of the time people have been really nice although taking pictures like Michael Jackson was in town. I dont know why but this still doesnt make me colour conscious when I travel, although my up coming trip to Israel is giving me some food for thought with all the ill treatment of all the refugees there or anyone dark skinned.

    Anyway, look forward to more tales of your Euro trip…

    • Dana Carmel

      I totally agree that white people also “travel in color” depending on where in the world they’re traveling to. And funny you should mention Germany because that’s the one place where I had a somewhat negative experience with a tour guide of all people. It was years ago and I don’t remember which town we were in, but it was definitely a small village somewhere along the Rhine. Hopefully your upcoming travels to Israel will be positive, but I think it’s good that you’re giving some thought to how you’ll be perceived there. As a black person, I think it’s wise to consider these things if only for safety reasons.

  • I don’t have much to add in relation to your experience but I just have to say what a great writer you are. This was a very captivating and interesting read. As always, thanks for sharing Dana.

    Happy travels 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Lauren – as someone who’s trying to become a better writer, comments like yours make my day. Thanks for reading! 😉

  • You know, I feel the same way when people shout “AFRICAAA” or “BOB MARLEY” at me. I never know what I feel… I choose not to see it as a negative, but a way of “noticing out loud” 🙂 It’s very confusing though. Just like you I’ve had locals tell me they “like black people”… Not sure what else you can do with that info than laugh and ask. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this story, it reminds me that I’m not alone thinking about these things!

    • Dana Carmel

      I agree – it’s good to know that we’re not alone when facing these sometimes awkward experiences. In Turkey, I definitely didn’t see the attention as negative, but it definitely caught me off guard. As one of my readers mentioned, the more and more people in these parts of the world interact with black travelers, the novelty will eventually wear off. On the one hand, it’s great that peoples’ curiosity draws them to us because it opens the door for unique interactions with locals, but on the other hand, it would be nice to go by unnoticed sometimes.

  • Oh boy, too many to name but I’ve never had any bad experiences because of my color. I get lots of attention when I’m traveling abroad and I have just gotten accustomed to it now. I was in Turkey and we got lots of attention as well but I didn’t feel it was negative.

    • Dana Carmel

      Glad you can relate, Roni. And also glad that the attention you got in Turkey wasn’t negative. I generally found the Turkish people to be some of the kindest I’ve ever met.

  • Interesting experience Dana! I personally had never been color conscious until I went to study in England – I suddenly stood out and subconsciously found myself looking for other black people where I could ‘fit in’.

    I have got friends who’ve traveled widely esp to places where black people are rare and their experiences range from being victims of prejudice to the odd celebrity. Black travelers are still very rare, so I guess people will always be curious or fascinated when they encounter a black person for the first time 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Like you, Jave was never color conscious until he immigrated here from Jamaica. I’m not sure that black travelers are rare, but I suppose that black travelers aren’t traveling in droves to certain destinations.

  • Wow, fascinating indeed! Coming from what we call a colorful family (my mom is of German descent and my dad is a mix of Portuguese, Native South American Indian and African), color was never an issue to me or my family, so when I read/see/hear about different treatment because of skin color I have to stop for a second and see that History shows how much the African american community, not only in the US but in Brazil as well, has suffered.
    I think they were genuinely amazed with you guys and if that made them come across as more friendly, the better!
    But I always quote my 8 year old daughter: “We are all the same, all God’s children! The skin is different just because of the sun, but we are all the same”.
    Great post!

    • Dana Carmel

      You’re right, Monique in that Brazil is very unique because so many people are mixed. But as you mentioned, colorism is still a problem there as well. I wish that more people were as wise as your daughter – “a child shall lead them.” As you said, I’m glad that being black worked in our favor in Turkey as it seemingly has in many destinations we’ve traveled to outside of the U.S.

  • This was fascinating, Dana!!! Did you have any idea ahead of time to expect that kind of reaction from the locals?? I giggled out loud about the part where Jave grabbed your hand 🙂 My (ex) wife and I had just gotten married in Kauai and had ventured into a very local market and food stand stop. She was Italian and had a dark complexion and grabbed my arm and said, “We need to leave immediately. There’s a group of guys giving you the stink eye for being a Haole.” She explained to me in the car what that all meant. I have a very German/Irish complexion! Great post, our friend! 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      I always do my homework before traveling to get a sense of how black people are treated in my intended destination, and most of the feedback from black travelers to Turkey was so positive. I always expect people to be curious when traveling to a place where we are few and far between, but posing for photos and being “yelled at” from across the street caught us off guard. And though we may have felt awkward at times, we were never offended. And thanks for sharing your experience because “traveling in color” applies to white people too depending on where in the world you’re traveling to.

  • How interesting to read about this, and how strange you must have felt posing for all those pictures! I also didn’t know that simple things like policemen and buses could still be in your mind the revealing situations where prejudice can eventually come out.

    • Dana Carmel

      Absolutely, Stefania. Black Americans here in the U.S. have had to deal with a lot historically and our struggles continue. And I think I can speak for most of us when I say that there’s never a time that we stop being conscious of our differences, and traveling to a foreign country oftentimes magnifies our color consciousness even more.

thatgirlcarmel

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