I’m one of those people who inadvertently compares her life to the people I see on social media. It happens every time I see world travelers who are carefree and fearless enough to live out of their suitcases, throwing caution to the wind and visiting the far reaches of the planet. I scroll their pictures on my phone and think to myself, “that should be me!” Then, “Why isn’t it?”
Lately, one of the Instagram travelers I’ve been watching (and getting a little envious of) is Oneika the Traveller. Oneika isn’t an Instagram vagabond just chasing likes (although she gets quite a few) — she’s taught overseas, is a full-fledged media personality, and maintains a blog about the places she goes and people she meets. While the blog has plenty of advice and wistful reflections of beautiful places, its most interesting section is titled “Travelling While Black.” In that space, Oneika talks about what it means to be a black woman traveling abroad and gives her perspective on how she’s treated as a person of color.
Honestly, after reading her first feature on UPROXX and checking out her IG posts and website, I got even more jealous of Oneika’s fabulous life. I’ve had minimal experience traveling. This isn’t a result of not wanting to travel, it’s a result of not placing as much value on it because “Hey, I got bills, am I right?” Culturally, this seems to be a shared sentiment among people of color. Perhaps it’s because, generally speaking, we weren’t afforded the easiest lives and using money to travel feels like a luxury. Or maybe it’s because we weren’t sure how we would be treated overseas, since we already had to experience prejudice and hatred at home. Either way, the face of travel is largely white, and that sucks. While there are initiatives like Hardly Home to get kids who would otherwise not be able to afford it “passport scholarships,” and there are sites like Travel Noire that show that there are, indeed, some faces of color out there traveling, you have to ask yourself why that’s necessary for our demographic.
Oneika’s blog raised all these questions for me, so I went to the source to get some answers. A Jamaican-Canadian, she already has a very different outlook on life, racial relations, and culture than me, a black American. We spoke about that dissonance, her love of travel, and why she thinks there aren’t more black faces and people of color grabbing their youth by the horns and using the opportunity to get out and see the world.
First I just wanted to talk a little bit about what your motivation for traveling is?
I’ve always been really interested in different cultures and languages. I grew up in Toronto, Canada, which is very multi-cultural and a very diverse city, so from a very early age, I was exposed to different people from different places. And so when I had the opportunity to travel in University, I was definitely really keen to do so. I also come from an immigrant family — my family is from Jamaica. I had a number of experiences traveling to and from the Caribbean to visit family. So I had a passport and I was traveling, but mostly it was due to family.
I saw that later you taught overseas?
I did, yeah! I taught in a number of different places. I’m actually a certified French Language Arts Teacher. So I taught in my home country of Canada, but I also had the opportunity to teach in Mexico, France, Hong Kong, and in England. In London, England.
Wow. Okay, so overseas, did you see a lot of American born and Canadian people of color who were traveling?
It was really a mix and I think you have to be really aware and conscient of the timing of the year, and also the area. For example, I went to school in France, and that was my first experience in Europe and that was back in 2003 and at the time, the people that I was in school full time with made up a very diverse range of people. I had a variety of different races and so on and so forth. And that’s because France, by and large, is a very multi-cultural country.
However, when I lived in Hong Kong and when I traveled around South East Asia in 2009, I definitely felt that there was a lack of black travelers like myself, and black people living abroad.
Why do you think that is?
It may be due to a number of socioeconomic factors and also the culture of travel is perhaps more instilled in Caucasian travelers from North America. First of all, it needs to be said that North Americans do not have the same culture of travel in the way that say, Europeans do. And I think that’s due to a number of factors — we don’t have as much vacation time as Europeans, for example.
But, I think, with regards to people of color traveling, at least in my specific case, coming from an immigrant family, my family worked really hard to move to Canada and to bring me up there and to have a life there and to get a good education, so all of their resources were dedicated to that, and not to something like international travel. People like me, at least back in the day, we didn’t travel for leisure, or to find ourselves. We didn’t go backpacking. If we were traveling, it was primarily to visit family in our home country. So I don’t think we really have that culture of backpacking, like some of my white friends did.
Do you think maybe North American-born people of color just place value on different things?
I would simply say that in my particular case, being a child of immigrants from the Caribbean, their focus was not on international travel to go backpacking or for leisure purposes. When we traveled internationally, it was mostly to go back to Jamaica to visit our family members or to go to the US to visit our family members. We didn’t have a culture of leisure travel.
I can’t necessarily speak to the African American experience with regards to that, but I can say that personally, as a child of immigrants, that was my experience, at that time.
You were saying white people would place more emphasis on traveling for leisure, what do you think would spur people of color to say, “Hey, it’s important to go see the world!” What do you think would be an impetus?
I think that the recent black travel movement has really brought leisure travel and travel for exploration to the fore, at least in the African American community. I think that due to social media, and we have a lot of brands like Travel Noire and nomadness Tribe — they provide more images and more encouragement and inspiration and information for black travelers to go out there and see the world.
I think in some ways, a lot of us were afraid to travel. Back in the day, it was something that was really unknown to us and it was something that not a lot of us were doing at the time. And so I think that with all of these resources available, not only is it way easier and cheaper to travel now than it ever has been, but also seeing more people of color getting out there and traveling to places like Russia and Indonesia has really spurred on, or encouraged more black people specifically to travel internationally. And to get out of their comfort zones, basically.
Cool, so do you foresee a bigger increase for people of color on the road in the years to come?
Oh yeah, absolutely! As I noted before, travel is becoming so much more accessible, it’s more accessible financially, and in terms of the mindset or the paradigm, travel is all around us. You see people of color in an Instagram feed for example and all over social media, there are movies like Girls Trip for example that are really promoting the idea of exploration and going away with your friends, and doing all these sorts of things in different places, in unfamiliar places.
I think that that just results in more people having travel on their minds and realizing that it’s something they can do, regardless of their race.
Do you normally travel alone, or do you travel with friends?
All of the above. I travel alone a fair bit and I travel with friends. I actually just got back from a trip to Ghana where I traveled with a bunch of girlfriends, but I also, right before meeting them in Ghana, went on my own to TOGO. So, it’s something that I do and it’s something that I’m a huge advocate of and I encourage every person, male or female to get out there and not wait for anybody else to go with them.
What do you think would be the most welcoming country you’ve ever been to?
That’s really difficult to say…it’s really circumstantial. I think all countries have the potential to be really friendly and it depends on who it is you meet. I encourage everybody to travel everywhere. I just encourage them to be really well-informed and to read up on the situations in the country whether it be political or social, I encourage them.
All countries are welcoming or can be welcoming as long as a traveler goes and is very respectful of the culture, is aware of social and political things that are going on. I’ve been to Thailand four or five times, and I’ve always had a wonderful time there. I’ve found Thai culture to be extremely welcoming and it’s just a lovely country to go to because of the food, because of the history, because of the culture, because of the climate, because of the beaches. Thailand has such a wealth of things to offer and, actually, its nickname is the “land of smiles,” so if you did ask me, if you twist my arm and ask me to pinpoint one country that I find to be really friendly, I would say that that country is Thailand.
But, keeping in mind that the onus is also on you as travelers to go there with an open mind and be respectful and knowledgeable about the country, the customs, and the culture of the place you’re visiting.
The reason I ask that question is that I know as far as traveling, I’ve seen the older generation — or even millennials — say things like “How do they feel about black people there?” Another thing I’ve heard is, as far as backpacking and sporting things and outdoorsy things is, “Black people don’t do that.” Do you think that’s a silly statement?
Yeah, it’s a myth that black people don’t do adventure travel. For instance, there are a number of us who do, but again, that’s not going to be brought to the fore, and I think that it’s really important to have the stories those people told and to have their activities and interests highlighted so that you can encourage more of us to go out and go hiking and rafting and do all these kind of adventure travel things that we supposedly “do not do.” We shouldn’t be limited or we shouldn’t abstain from certain activities because we think that they’re not activities that black people do.
I would encourage all of us to get out there and to try different things, and a lot of that hinges on the images that we see in the media because it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: You think that it’s not possible. You never see any images that show that’s possible, and, therefore, that kind of becomes your de facto reality. It’s really important to highlight those types of activities in travel media, so that we can inspire the next generation of black travelers to go out and do those things.