Innocence of a Child. Racism is Taught
Floating in the outdoor pool, heated to a balmy 31 Celsius, provided a full commentary on “other” fear. This massive pool was heated by timed jets. Imagine a VERY large hot tub. One of these jets happened to be in front of where myself and a friend were sitting. When it cycled on some children, two Hungarian girls and a boy, no older than 5, swam over to be pushed, tickled, and twirled by the waters. All laughing with glee and excitement as children often do. The current from the jets constantly pushed each one into me. I would catch them with my leg an gently glide them away eliciting more awe and excitement. Their kids. It’s what they do. What made this scene all the more “interesting” was the fact I had a twenty foot “privacy” radius around me. Imagine what happens when you put detergent into oily water. All the oil just floats away.
But the look on their fathers face showed decades of fear and misunderstanding. He had no idea how to react to this scene of his children actively interacting with not only THE black person in the entire park, but likely the first they had ever met in their short lives. I could see the apprehension in his face. He seemed to be a relatively kind man. Just confused. And rightfully so. I don’t blame him at all. Africans were largely shut out of communist controlled Europe which only dissolved 23 years ago.
What this scene reminds us is that people are taught to fear each other. Prejudice and bigotry are taught. I wasn’t an “angry black man” to these children. I wasn’t a thug or gangster as often were portrayed in the media. I was just a guy they played around and occasionally bumped into. For their father I was something more. Something, Different.
My Evolution of Tolerance
As children in the inner cities we’re largely taught not to stare. It’s rude and disrespectful. 18 year old me would have been enraged by the stares. “What the hell are you staring at”? Fairly common reaction. Where i’m from staring is a threat. It’s provocation. And everyone knows it. An unwritten rule if you will. Unfortunately I hear my people all too often retain this ignorance when considering travel.
Fast forward 13 years. I enter the “hot room” through a steam covered door. As has become my “normal” all eyes are on me. 40+ Serbian and Hungarian tourist lock eyes on me for a good 10 seconds. I suck in my ever growing gut to show off the immaculate abs hiding underneath and slide in the balmy water. As my companion and I chat, I can’t help but notice the elderly woman staring at me out of my peripheral view. I return the favor. As soon as we lock eyes she looks away. And so the game went for about 20 minutes. I could see the teen girls looking and giggling at me. I could see the couple in the corner confused eyes. I could also see the huge smile on the face of several tourist who came in and saw me. They took the time to look me in the eye and smile. I returned a courteous smile and nod.
This is my reality. This is the world I live in. Instead of getting bothered and upset by this I accept it as part of who and what I am. I am a young black man from the United States. And this is what I have to deal with traveling. For better or worse. I choose to live in the world as is. And carry myself accordingly. Not complain about the world as I think it should be.
The Reality of the Stare
I’m often asked, “How do you deal with the stares and touching”? (referring to kids wanting to touch my skin in Asia or bald head). My answer is always the same. I embrace it. I embrace the opportunity to help someone understand my cultural background. The opportunity to prove wrong all the negative stereotypes media portrays about myself. A counter argument is that I’m being treated like an animal. Well I understand that. But few “animals” have the economic and social capability to travel anywhere in the world and interact with pretty much all cultures, religions, and races.
African-Americans are unique. We are almost a different race from our African ancestors. We were bred (yes BRED by slave masters) to look and perform the way we do. Our culture is a unique hybrid of African, European, and Latin. Our music, fashion, and demeanor has spread around the world. Unfortunately, our tourism dollars haven’t which is why these “stares” persist.
According to the Mandala Research firm, only 17% of African-Americans travel internationally. Let that sink in. 17%. African-Americans are more likely to go to prison than London, Tokyo, or Santiago. When we do travel we’re in a sad but unique position. We have a presence in many cultures without actually being seen there. So once we do arrive it’s an oddity. The stares are largely out of curiosity and sometimes fear. The perceptions of our community is equally presented negatively and positively by the media (from crime to the arts). So a reasonable assumption would be that people’s views would be equally split. And in my experience, it is.
The Anti Stare. My Hungarian Mother
We pull up to the small bed and breakfast and are immediately attacked by a massive American flag. This is Miskolctapolca. A small Hungarian city with a population of 4693. 100% being of Hungarian, Ukrainian, or Slovakian decent. A city steep with communist tradition still evident in its architecture. The flag seems more out of place here than anywhere else in the world I’ve visited. And this wasn’t an ordinary flag. This was a big old TEXAS sized flag.
As I walk in I’m greeted with uncomfortable excitement and glee from the Hungarian owner. She seemed overly excited. In a creepy I may tie you up kind of way. VERY overbearing. As we checked in I constantly would see her taking peeks at me and smiling. I have no idea why it bothered me so much. Later in the evening we went to dinner at the restaurant on site. A dinner prepared by the owner, Anna, as well. Anna showed me the attention of a doting mother. Ensuring my meal was hot enough and enjoyable. My companion joked she’s in love with me. Her husband was just as personable and kind to me. Although not as doting as his wife. I would soon find out why.
Anna and her husband live in Florida during the off season. So they live half the year in Eastern Hungary and half the year in the U.S. Hence, the massive U.S. flag. While living in the U.S. their daughter married a Dominican man and had a child. Anna and her husband’s only grandchild. She showed me a photo of her son in law and grandchild. He looks eerily like myself. AHHHHHHHHH. I get it now I thought. You see Anna understands what it could be like for someone of my skin tone in eastern Hungary. A fact she openly pointed out. A lot of people are racist in the area simply because they don’t have any exposure to us.
People like Anna consistently restore my faith in people. They remind me that there are always those willing to stand up for the marginalized. Exposure and interaction are paramount to understanding and inclusion. I’m not saying I expect everyone to be like Anna when I arrive. But I sure appreciate it. The opportunity to meet and interact with Anna and her husband was an unexpected surprise and one that makes traveling as a minority a very interesting adventure.