What’s It Like Traveling As A Black Guy?
At the time of this writing, I’ve been to 125 countries flying about 200,000 miles a year. I’ve flown 180 airlines. I took my first flight when I was 15 in 1980 and I’ve not stopped flying since that day. I’ve flown around the world more times than most. I’m in the air more than I am on the ground it seems. I’m in the air as I initially write this post…
But what’s it really like to travel when you look like me?
I’ve never written about what happens to me when I travel due to my race and how I look. I have other friends who do write about this subject and you can see some of their posts at: http://minoritynomad.com/minority-travel-difference/.
In Jamaica I was taught not to “tell people you business” :-). but, lately, I get asked about it a lot, so I thought I’d tell you about it here. I’m not looking for sympathy in this writing, but more so education and making you aware of the world in which we travel and that the world is different when seen through other lenses.
So, it’s time.
Non-minority travelers take a lot for granted as they are treated very differently, by everyone; you may not realize it, but it happens. When I walk into a room, I’m looked at from head to toe and some people judge me just by the way I look. To mitigate that, I try to at least dress properly (whatever that means) when I travel as this elevates me to the next level and somehow decreases the looked down on factor. Trust me, it works! Tested it many times.
We are humans and sadly, we do judge each other by the way we dress. I’m very observant and I watch people’s body language and actions when I travel. It’s pretty amazing and telling.
I don’t let it bother me, much, I just hold my head up and enter the room like I own it. Always respectful. Maybe that’s a reflection of my upbringing. I was raised mostly by my grandparents until 9 years old, who were strict and always taught me to treat everyone with the utmost respect regardless.
So with that said, here are a few things that’s happened to me during my travels due to the way I look. You be the judge and let me know what you think by leaving a comment.
I’ll start with the good stuff.
I love Japan. The people are so friendly and once I show up, they first laugh and then run (and I mean run), to find someone who speaks English to help me. They are usually initially embarrassed that they can’t help me, so they find someone quickly. They even laugh when they do it, which is adorable.
Lovely country and I always have great respect when I visit.
Celebrity in Beijing
My first time to Beijing was amazing. I was with my work colleague who is about 5’; she’s white. We were walking along the Great Wall of China and a Japanese tourist asked us to take a photo. We both thought that they wanted us to take a picture of them, but they wanted to take a photo of us together. So we obliged. Apparently it’s a thing :-). I’m sure my photo sits on many mantlepieces in Asia :-).
Later, we went to have a foot massage and they thought we were a couple; we were not, so we had the massage in the same room. It was easier to just make it happen than explain that we were not a couple, just friends :-).
That’s travel, you just have to go with the flow.
Another time in Beijing, one of my friends asked one of the “rickshaw” guys if he could ride it and he did. The guy sat in the passenger seat and my friend did the riding. So fun. The stares from passersby were incredible and funny.
My next time in Beijing, this was during the Summer Olympics, people would bring their children up to me and place them in my arms and then step back and take a photo. At first, it surprised me, but once I figured out what was happening, I went with it.
I’ve learnt to understand that people are people and just curious about each other.
What Size Shoes Do You Wear?
I was at the San Francisco Airport (SFO) one night waiting for the shuttle bus for my airport hotel. A middle aged Asian lady came up to me and said: “What size shoes do you wear?”
I looked over at her and smiled and said size 13 wide (which, by the way, are hard to find), 14 depending on the make of the shoes, I concluded.
She looked at me again and said, “Thank you” and walked off.
Do You Comb Your Hair?
In some countries, people have asked me if I comb my hair? (this was when I had more hair than I do now :-))
Yes, I do comb my hair I respond, sometimes I also brush it.
These days, I just wash it daily and voila, I’m good to to go :-). I have naturally oily skin, so no need for any hair products, just in case you were asking.
Your Skin Is So Soft
I get people wanting to touch me when I travel. I know that some travelers are not happy with this, but for me, it’s fine.
People are curious about people and they have questions that need to be answered, so I don’t mind answering them and let them feel my skin.
Then they go, oh your skin is so smooth, to which I respond, I’d like to say thank you to my family’s genetics and also Jergens hand and body lotion. They usually smile and then go away.
Even to this day when I go to see my mom and I take a shower or wash my hands, my mother asks me if I lotion (yeah, is a verb too in Jamaica ;-)) my skin.
Celebrity in Kazakhstan
I love Kazakhstan!
Not for its beauty and simplicity, but for its people.
In Asia, I’m a celebrity. People would hide in the bushes in the park to take my photo.. When I saw them, I told them to come out and take a photo with me. I’d walk on the streets and people would stop me and take photos.
I was with a friend of mine from India and he said, he’s never traveling with me again as he gets treated like chopped liver. It’s like he doesn’t exist when he’s out with me. I get him to take the photos :-).
I took photos in the train station stations, the subway, all over the city. Loved it. And my new admireres did too
I was even walking to the train station and a young Russian guy stopped me; he barely spoke any English, pulled out his mobile phone and wanted to take a photo, so we both did.
Looking like That Guy
Las Vegas Encounter
I’ve been mistaken for Samuel Jackson a lot; a lot! As recent as in January 2020 in las Vegas as I boarded a bus to get to the conference I was attending. A guy said, “you look like Samuel Jackson.” So I smiled and asked him if he would say it again for my video and he did.
Here are some other instances.
At The Tesco In Bristol
I was in Bristol, United Kingdom and shopping in a local Tesco grocery store. I noticed the cashiers were looking at me and wondered what was going on. I’m often watched closely when I enter a store, so I thought that’s what it was. Yup, that’s my life.
When I got to the counter to pay for my stuff, one of the guys said “Excuse me mate. Are you Samuel Jackson?”
I laughed and said “no.” They then laughed and said that I looked just like him.
Snakes On A Plane
I was on an airplane and took my seat in Economy class. The lady next to me, shouted, “Hey everybody, I’m sitting next to Samuel Jackson!” I told her I’m not, but that did not stop her. The entire plane though I was him. I could not convince them otherwise.
The “snakes on a plane” references started as well :-).
Christmas Market In Manchester
I was in Manchester, UK at a Christmas Market (they are lovely, plan on visiting one of them) and a lady called me over and said, “Are you Samuel Jackson?” I told her no, but that I get that a lot. She insisted I was nonetheless.
Random Kid In Washington State
I was in a small town in Washington state in the U.S., called Mukilteo and a kid walked up to me and said “Dude, you look like him.” I said, no I’m not and he said yes, you do, can I take a photo, so I obliged. He was quite happy.
My Cuban Connection
I took a Lyft ride one morning to the Houston-Intercontinental Airport and the guy kept looking at me. He then said in a heavy Cuban accent, you look like that actor. I said which one, playing hard to get. He said that guy you know. I said, I don’t know.
So I told him that if he did not figure out who it was by the time I got to the airport, I’d tell him. He kept guessing and eventually I said “Samuel Jackson” and he exclaimed! and called his brother immediately and said something to him in Spanish and they had this long conversation about me. He was so delighted.
At the airport I took a photo with him :-).
I did finally meet a guy who look like the image of Laurence Fishburne so we took a photo together as he gets the “you look like Morpheus” a lot.
Taking Photos in Ljublana, Slovenia
This is John and Lydia and their daughter. The other younger daughter did not want to take a selfie, she’s shy. Their 21-year old son is taking first year Uni exams so he could not make it. They are from Ljublana, but live about 30 minutes outside the city now.
We are soaked as we walked up the hill to Ljublana Castle.
I offered to take their photo as a family, even persuading the two girls to be in it; so we became instant friends.
It all starts with “Hello.”
So here are some not so fun encounters, where being Kerwin a 6′ 1″ Black Guy becomes a chore.
Watched in The Store
When I walk into a store, I’m watched by security until I leave. Yup, it happens. It happened on a visit to Reading, UK at a Boots pharmacy. I had just arrived at the station and needed some ibuprophen.
The Black security guard watched me from the time I entered until I left the store. Upon leaving, I said hello to him, he acknowledged me and we parted ways.
A Police Officer even came in and we talked for a bit. My friend later told me that I was a suspect as I was talking change out of a plastic bag and that’s how the drug dealers roll. The Officer and I ended up having an amazing conversation as she had actually visited friends in Houston and Austin.
Sometimes, if I go into a store and can’t find what I want, I buy a chocolate bar, so I don’t get accused of trying to steal something. So I don’t just walk in and walk out of the store as I know I’m being watched every moment and could be accused of something. I hate confrontations and having to defend myself to stupid people.
Not Making A Fuss Even When I’m Right
I was in a store in the UK getting a gift for a friend of mine and the manager was so wrong. He was quite loud and was giving me the leave the store look. I knew I could have told him off and shouted at him, but I did not.
I did tell him off, but nicely and then left. He would not let me use my American Express card as he though his machine would not accept it using Samsung Pay. It would, but he was adamant. The guy had a problem as he yelled at another customer who was trying to get his iPhone looked after as it was not charging and he had bought it from the store (it’s not an Apple store).
You can’t treat people like how they treat you. You treat them with dignity and respect always. It really pisses them off as they expect you to be upset, but you are not. So it messes with their minds and they can’t deal with it. For me, that’s satisfaction.
Denied in Prague
I was in the Prague Airport and I was checking in for my flight. At the time, I was Gold Medallion with Delta so it means that I get to use the Sky Priority lane at check-in among other perks.
I walked up to the Sky Priority lane and the agent asked me for my boarding pass or reservation. Unfortunately, I could not pull it up and I remember that on the reservation it did not show that I was Sky Priority and I did not have my card with me. (I was an idiot as its actually in the App; which I had, but forgot at the time).
I told her this and she said I need to find it. I kept trying to find it on my phone; without success.
While this happened, a white guy walked up and went straight to the counter, no questions asked. I thought it strange, but then another white guy walked up phone in hand and she asked him nothing.
Seeing that, I just continued to the counter and she did not stop me any more.
This one is interesting. When I return to the U.S., I get “randomly” checked/questioned at Customs. These Officers are doing their jobs and I have nothing to hide so I’m so good with this.
It’s just that I seem to get random questions just based on visual inspection. But to be fair, I don’t check a bag, I only have a backpack, sometimes two, so I must fit some Customs profile. And my travel patterns are erratic, but the stop is not based on my paperwork, just visual inspection of me walking by. This happens at all different ports. I’ve only had to do secondary screening twice within the last year though, so there’s that :-).
Just late last year I got checked every time I entered a country and this happened about four times in 48 hours.
TSA Pre Check
There was a time when I’d get randomly checked like every airport for about a month. It was so weird that I asked them about it. Everyone says it’s random. But when it happens at every airport I used for a given month, it’s weird.
Lately, I’ve been good, but this was a weird one.
Extra Checks in Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, I always get asked extra questions when I show up, regardless of whether I was connecting or departing Amsterdam, having stayed there. You can’t reason with these guys, so you just play it cool as you need the security clearance to be able to board.
Meanwhile you see other people just going their merry ways without barely any questions asked.
Overlooked on A Flight More Than Once
I was on a flight in First Class; I got a complimentary upgrade due to my status. The flight attendant came by and asked me if I wanted a pre-departure drink. I said yes, I’d like some ginger ale with a little bit of ice please. She never returned with it. Now she could have forgotten right?
Then a Black male flight attendant came back asked everyone in First Class if they wanted a drink or a refill except myself and the lady next to me. He even did it twice and skipped us twice. I actually wrote a note to the airline, but they have not responded to me. It’s been over 2 years now.
Same thing happened on another flight on a different airline. The Black female flight attendant completely ignored me and treated me so weird the whole flight.
On two flights between the U.S. and Canada, I got treated very differently from the Canadian crew than the U.S. crew. The U.S. crew gave me the cold shoulder while the Canadian crew treated me with class.
Ibis Hotel Denial
At Ibis at the Amsterdam airport, I remember going to the Priority check-in counter for Frequent Stayer members and being told to go to the regular counter. I’m an Ibis Frequent Stayer Member (Le Club) so I can use the Priority area.
The bad thing is that I get treated like crap and when they realized my status it changes.
In this case I went to the regular counter and the guy who helped me was simply amazing; thank you.
Holiday Inn Oddity
I was at a Holiday Inn in Lincoln, UK and I arrived before the normal check-in time. The lady said to me, that check-in was not until 3p. I said I know, but can you please check my reservation. She said no. I insisted three times and finally she pulled up my reservation.
It was then that she said Mr. McKenzie, your room is ready. My friends looked at me and asked what happened? I said, I have early check-in based on availability as a Spire Elite member; they then wanted to know why didn’t the agent check when I arrived. I said I have no idea (but I really do have an idea ;)).
At one of the Holiday Inns at Newark Airport, I made a booking and when I arrived the lady told me that they were full. Actually, they called me while I was enroute in their shuttle van to tell me this.
Once I arrived, she treated me like I didn’t belong there and a valued member. I was upset, but calm and I looked around and noticed the security guard inching closer to the counter. Not sure what he was expecting to happen.
I reported this to IHG and nothing really came of it.
Life Goes On
I don’t dwell on these things when I travel, i just smile and move on. It’s perhaps why I’ve not really mentioned it before now (It’s been a while since I wrote this and never published it). When you treat me like crap on arrival and try to make up for it later, it does not work as you’ve already shown your true colors.
It’s why I love the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” as in the first scene at the hotel in London, that’s how I’m treated sometimes when I check into a hotel. Life is short so I don’t dwell on it.
I’ve learned to live with it and not make a scene when it happens; since when the authorities show up, it will always be my fault :-). It’s fun to watch the face of the people who are being jerks once they check my status and realize they should not be treating me the way they are and then they start to grovel and over compensate.
I get satisfaction surveys after most stays so I give them my displeasure there via rating and comments. Sometimes I get a phone call back, which are always fun.
First Class Check-in
I had a flight to Charlotte from Houston. I checked in at the First Class counter as I’d received my upgrade earlier. Since I do flight reviews, I try to experience all the facets of the flight.
So I found the First Class/Elite line and went to the front. Immediately, the agent looked over at me, although she was taking care of a customer and asked me if I’m in the right line. I said, yes I am, then she went on to say that people sometimes get in the wrong line. Umm… I ignored here.
She was extra nice when it was my turn and she realized that I was indeed in First Class. By then the damage was already done.
Airport Lounge Access
Airport Lounges are the best and sometimes the worst :-). I usually get extra scrutiny there.
When I walk into Airline Clubs, some will look at me like I don’t belong there.
I was at the Star Alliance Lounge at the Tom Bradley International Terminal in Los Angeles, CA (LAX). I presented my United Club card and my Air New Zealand ticket as I was flying to London-Heathrow, UK (LHR). I had already asked the United agent in the United Club in the same airport, if I was able to use the card in the Star Alliance Lounge. She correctly said yes.
However, on presenting the card at the Star Alliance Lounge, I was told no as it does not look like the card. I was showing her the electronic one in the United App.
I explained to her that the electronic card actually looked different than the physical card so they need to update their records. I also told her that I spoke with the United Club agent and she said it was fine. It’s not my job to get the Lounge to do their jobs, but apparently it is this time.
Annoyed, I waited for her to call United and verified that I am an active member, despite the fact that the card I showed her in the United App, had an expiration date in the future.
Eventually, she came back and advised that I was cleared to enter. Sigh.
Fast forward a week and the same thing happened again on my return flight; different agent.
Now I get it, people try to sneak into Airport Lounges all the time. but your job is to treat everyone the same, get it together people.
I oftentimes, take the lounge rules with me or references to it so I can politely show the agents the rules. One learns how to make travel easier when things like this is a frequent occurrence.
Bus drivers have a very difficult job. They really do and this is the world over. I get the look of disdain when I enter sometimes. It’s the make sure you pay your fare look.
Of course I always do, as well as say hello. This surprises them and then their mood changes.
I get it as I watch all the time I take the bus and I can understand why they treat me the way they do. It’s not right, but I get it.
I don’t let the negative experiences stop me from traveling as my travel goals are to educate and inspire people. And believe it or not, the negative experiences are teaching experiences. I buck a lot of stereotypes when I travel and make a lot of friends and hopefully have changed people’s perceptions.
One of the most annoying thing about being a Black male traveler is that oftentimes, I’m a suspect by people who look like me, it’s extra irritating then, but I keep my whits about me and continue smiling. Eventually, they come around, but it’s frustrating.
So these are my Treats, Trials and Tribulations when I travel as a Black Guy, what say you? What’s your experience like, or what have you seen?
Share on Pinterest with this image.