Freedom of travel is so deeply engraved into British culture and history that the first thing many of us mourned on 24 June, 2016, the beginning of the Brexit chaos, was the pre-loss of our freedom to easily reside in other European countries. But what does freedom mean to the ethnic minorities who were never given the opportunity to live in foreign countries in the first place? Everything and nothing at the same time.
Without stating the obvious, the effects of slavery are deeply engrained in black culture. Shockingly, many black people within the UK still live undocumented or with an Indefinite Leave to Remain card, due to the high increase of fees associated with the application process for citizenship. That means many among us live in a constant state of fear or anxiety related to a sense of unsettlement. That said, this Black History Month, I witnessed the importance of travel within the black community as a cure for this trauma.
Black entrepreneurship and ownership are at an all-time high due to the social shift, media presence and music culture that celebrates blackness like never before. With money comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes travel. And with that, a new movement has emerged, called the Black Travel Movement.
What started as a trend, the Black Travel Movement has now become a community of black people that share an interest in experiencing international leisurely trips. The movement started in the US and therefore is mainly discussed within it.
A recent study conducted in the US revealed that more African Americans are able to travel, because of the increase of disposable income and the development of more black-based cultural and historical sites. This also applies to the black British community. Due to the geographic location of the US, typical travel destinations of black travellers are Caribbean countries, as well as states such as Miami, Atlanta or New Orleans. Instead, this growing movement has urged many black tourists to consider countries like Morocco, Thailand or Eastern Europe for pleasure.
We all know or have been that person who turned to travel after a minor life episode. As I’m writing this, I sit at a coffee shop in Brooklyn and I couldn’t be happier for the privilege of being documented. Many people believe in the beneficial facts of travelling, such as the opportunity to reinvent yourself or becoming mentally resilient. The urge and desire for adventure have resurfaced among black people, so much so, that there has been an increase of black solo traveller’s blogs. Instagram accounts like @blacktraveljourney, @oneikatraveller and @minoritynomad are filled with endless imagery of world attractions and selfies, but also provide their followers with important racial warnings.
Travelling while black is a thing and unfortunately will always be a thing. When visiting predominantly white countries, the first thing black individuals are alerted and advised on by their peers is the discriminatory practices one may experience. In recent years, reported stories have highlighted the increase of attacks on black people. Although it’s vital for black people to hear about other people’s experiences, it also heightens the fear of travel for many and can prevent the much-needed growth that comes from travel. If you come from an ethnic background and live in the most Western of countries, racial discrimination becomes your norm. It just varies from place to place, from subtle commentaries to real racism. These attacks are disturbing, to say the least, and showcase the harsh reality of leisurely travelling while being black.
Despite the beneficial claims, the Black Travel Movement has quite recently come into hot water for duping their travellers with false pre-contexts. The organisation was accused of robbing travellers from a recent boat trip. With the package price ranging from $2,950 to $3,350 to spend a week on the boat itself, the question of affordability arose. Travellers were promised comfort, community, and great cost, but were given poor service, lack of nutriment, and additional trauma instead.
The reality of planning a holiday can be distressing when simply mentioning the cost. Yet, for black people, no detail cannot go unnoticed, because the harsh reality is that travelling could cost a life. Immigration has shown us the dark views of the world, but ownership has given us chance and hope.
On my third day in New York, I walked into an empty bar and started talking to a born and bred bartender from Brooklyn. As he offered to take me to the Blue Note, a legendary jazz bar, for a sold-out show, he said, “Today never comes but, tomorrow comes today,” and I felt that. The rise of the Black Travel Movement just demonstrates the lack of choice our ancestors faced, the sacrifices our parents made and the benefits we need to claim. Our parents crawled so we could run. Now, we need to travel and experience other cultures so our kids can fly.
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”