5 Topics to Consider when Travelling while Black British and an Academic
This writing as much is about me sharing, as it is to encourage the voice of others. What situations have you faced, and how do you or did you manage them?
Based on my personal experiences as a black British academic and my national/ international presentations at conferences, I wanted to share my top 5 topics to be prepared for. These are situations I have encountered on my ventures. I am feeling quite fired up for 2016.
The question ‘you’re an academic?’ was presented to me, most recently last week. This made me think about when I represent both the UK and my institution. On these journeys to conferences I am reminded that being an ‘Academic’ is not enough to escape the political and racialised encounters that my blackness draws. I love my blackness, and whilst I say its ‘their’ issue, it does affect my life.
(This piece excludes the Caribbean and African countries as I have not visited these through work…but I hope to)
- Pre travel – How do your peers respond to the news of your opportunity?
Over the years I have come to push aside the looks of surprise, and or the undermining of my expertise with microaggressions through language and or actions. This even comes from those that have participated and benefited from collaborations in the past.
Some may say, that this is not due to it being a racialised environment, however in my institution housing nearly 20,000 students, why are there so few course directors (countable on both hands), no deans, no heads of college, no senior management team, no executive board members of colour. Beyond my university it doesn’t look any better, Runnymede report of 2015 talks of 92% of university professors being white, the Higher Education Statistics 2013 -2014 state that of the 4,535 female professors only 17 are black. This all contextualises and confirms what I see, but also may explains some of why my experience are the way they are.
As current Co Chair of a staff network with members being over 90% staff of colour (across all roles), this group has over a third of the people of colour in the university as its members; thus it is not the entire staff of colour cohort. However the vast majority of the members talk of experiencing racialised situations from the microaggressions to explicit racism.
- Travel/flight – How do you deal with the ‘RANDOM’ checks or being taken off the plane for ‘RANDOM’ further checks?
Now this is a tricky one because I don’t want to be rude, my mum always says, ‘kill them with kindness’ and ‘give the biggest smile when you feel uncomfortable or in a situation that your instinct screams is unjust’ (as to not let yourself be exposed as being vulnerable). However, my dad says, “ask questions and remember your power” (Malcolm X – action vs. Dr King – diplomacy). So I do a bit of both, smile and agree to the terms which I’ve found will unstable their expectations (I see it in their faces). Then I ask, “How random is this?” They look at me, and I see their minds working…“ok; she could be a troublemaker”. I smile sweetly awaiting a response. Generally I don’t get one so I prod more ”I am an academic representing the UK in an international conference, it seems odd that I am always checked over and above?” Whilst I know this makes no difference to them, I feel empowered by asking questions. I’m told by security (border police) that the two reasons I get this treatment are; I have a Muslim sounding name, and I’ve visited North Africa. I feel every time this is unjust and there are so many questions around this. I took his words as I believed they were intended, a man of colour who is employed to do a job as he walked me back to the plane on his own, knowledge is power. He didn’t have to say anything like everyone else, but he did. This is about the knowledge of the “random” having differential meanings to those for whom “random” is the norm.
It’s uncomfortable and awkward when you go back on the plane after being seated and being escorted off the plane. The increased fears of terrorism, islamophobia, and examples of people being removed from public transport here in the UK, I am therefore mindful. Nethertheless I do share if I am asked the reason I have been told, or believe to be (now confirmed) and try to brush it off. It does have a humiliating element to having to go back on the plane and explain myself to the other passengers to put them at ease.
- Hotel – What to do when reception staff; choose to have you wait while two staff deal with 1 white couple?
This is something that I find happens a lot in one form or another. I approach this in two parts, the immediate and longer term. The immediate is walking up to the counter and saying sharp voice, ‘excuse me do you work here?’ This normally works to not only get their attention, but also in the most part an apology is provided. In my most recent trip something like this happened, I was not prepared for the staff response ‘is this a quick question?’ I raised my eyebrows and said ‘would it matter if was not?’ he then changed his tactics and began to give me the service and attention I had expected. The long term is once home sending out an email addressed to the manager, and directors of the company. I share concerns and suggesting training for their staff on the importance of equality of service and asking for a response that will outline how this will not happen to another person of colour. Whilst to those not of colour these events may seem trivial, what needs to be understood is that these scenarios are continuous, which can erode self confidence, the feeling of justified belonging and of course your level of service expectations. I have not shared all of the many examples as this piece in my mind is to long already.
- Locals (in the west) – What do you do when people try to touch your hair?
Ok, so some say people of colour don’t like people touching their hair, I would argue that I have never seen a white on white touching hair without asking. The situation I am talking about is not the times on public transport when the people behind me take a sneaky touch…I turn around they say sorry and they stop. What I am talking about is having a conversation with a person, seeing the whites of their eyes and talking about nothing to do with hair. This usually happens while having a cigarette – I know bad habit but in this moment people relax and are at their unguarded, not their protected and work based selves), What follows then is mid conversation (almost in slow motion) their hand and body reaching…reaching to touch your hair. I say no and move quickly out of reach. I then have the conversation that in the first instance may seem trivial, but when it is explored further, the connotations, the conscious and unconscious presumptions that make a grown adult touch another grown adult in this way starts a consciousness that I hope stays with them. The most recent encounter was followed up by ‘So what’s your daughters name?’ no harm in saying so here it goes. ‘That’s not an African name?’ My mum always says I have this knack of putting people at ease and that makes them say some random things. My response to this question was ‘why, should it be?’ I saw the reflection and her become uncomfortable before my very eyes but she answered ‘well I just thought that black people chose names like Latoya and Keisha.’ To be honest I was so mortified that I just responded, “Really, those are what you call African names? Maybe this is an opportunity for you to look into this, and the impacts of colonisation”. I left it there.
- Support – How do you release the pressure and unburden yourself of the racialised encounters?
The best advice I can give is joining WhatsApp if you haven’t already. This is an application that you can get on your phone and call family and friends via Wi-Fi (not data roaming) without racking up an enormous mobile phone bill. This is what I use and without it I would feel further isolated. These conversations not only allow me to share my experience as a way of deflecting, quick healing and secondary lines of support for those who know what I mean without forensic explanations that you’ll often not be able to justify when travelling with white counterparts, it reminds me I am not alone, but also we use humour when talking, which doesn’t trivialize the situations but makes them much more manageable to deal with. I salute you very special people!
Through writing this piece, I have been able to be reflective. I have tried to share my overarching tactics I use to take back the power I have earned through work and studying and highlight the importance of my community of support to rejuvenate, and heal me. There are a few more topics that I could have listed including the conferences themselves, and presentations. However, in my experience each can be quite different including who attends and contributes as well as what it is you are presenting.
Those that know me will be aware of how much I talk and work around the context of race equality, I think this quote from Eva Paterson, CEO and co-founder of Equal Justice Society really speaks of how I try to approach life:
“Race is the great taboo in our society. We are afraid to talk about it. White folks fear their unspoken views will be deemed racist. People of colour are filled with sorrow and rage at unrighted wrongs. Drowning in silence, we are brothers and sisters drowning each other. Once we decide to transform ourselves from fearful caterpillars into courageous butterflies, we will be able to bridge the racial gulf and move forward together towards a bright and colourful future.”
What situations have you faced, and how do you or did you manage them?
Further reading and information around these topics:
Acker, S., 1993. Contradictions in terms: women academics in British universities. Feminism and social justice in education: International perspectives, pp.146-166.
Black British academics http://blackbritishacademics.co.uk
Chideya, F 2014. New York Times. Travelling While Black http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/05/travel/traveling-while-black.html?_r=0
Garner, R., 2015. The Independent. UK study finds just 17 black female professors http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/uk-study-finds-just-17-black-female-professors-10019201.html
Hunter, R.L., 2011. An examination of workplace racial microaggressions and their effect on employee performance. GONZAGA UNIVERSITY.
Mercer, K., 2000. Black hair/style politics. Black British culture and society: A text reader, pp.117-128.
Nigatu. H., 2013. BuzzFeed. 21 Racial Microaggessions You Hear on A Daily Basis http://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-daily-basis#.dq6m4Y3q0
Ramsees7, BlackStudies.net, ‘MALCOLM X vs. MARTIN LUTHER KING’ http://blackstudies.net/malcolm-x-vs-martin-luther-king-3/
Sue, D.W., 2010. Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons.
Travel Noire http://travelnoire.com
Wilson J., 2013. Huffington Post’You Can Touch My Hair’ Explores Fascination With Black Hair, Sparks Debate http://www.huffingtonpost.com/julee-wilson/
Wright, C., Thompson, S. and Channer, Y., 2007. Out of place: black women academics in British universities. Women’s History Review, 16(2), pp.145-162.