Travelers of Color in Europe
By Rick Steves
People who are not of European descent might be concerned about how they'll be treated abroad. In short, does it matter that you look different from most Europeans? I've collected the following advice from a wide range of people of color who have lived or traveled extensively in Europe.
First off, your Americanness will probably be more notable to the Europeans you meet than the color of your skin. Most Europeans can spot Americans a mile away. And, because American culture is pervasive worldwide, any stereotypes Europeans might have about your race are likely formed by our own popular culture — for example, by actors, musicians, athletes, and characters on popular TV shows. The Obama presidency has also informed the way Europeans think about black Americans, and Americans in general. One African American traveler told me that several Europeans went out of their way to approach her and express their appreciation of Obama.
Travelers of color and mixed-race couples tell me that their most common source of discomfort in Europe is being stared at. While this might seem to indicate disapproval, consider the more likely possibility that it's just a combination of curiosity and impoliteness. Put simply, for many Europeans, you're just not who they're used to seeing. Their response to a person of color likely isn't hostility, but naiveté. (One traveler suggested that this isn't racism, but "rarism" — Europeans reacting not to one's race, but to one's rarity.) When it comes to sensitivity about race, many Europeans are, frankly, pretty clueless. On a recent visit to a Tuscan farm, a gregarious Italian family proudly introduced me to their black kitten, which they'd named "Obama."
Because the US has grappled more directly with its race issues, many Americans at least pay lip service to a "political correctness" that helps insulate minorities from overtly hateful speech. Europeans tend to be more opinionated and blunt and aren't shy about voicing sweeping generalizations about any topic — including race. Many travelers find this jarring and hurtful, while some consider it weirdly refreshing ("at least it's out in the open").
Travelers of color report being frustrated by racial profiling, particularly at border crossings or airport security. (One traveler speculated that this may have to do with targeting immigrants.) It's possible you'll be more closely scrutinized than other travelers before being allowed to continue on your way.
If you're concerned about how you'll be treated in a specific destination, ask fellow travelers of color what their experiences have been there. An excellent resource for African Americans, including destination-specific reports from several travelers, is Black Travels.com. Or check out the Minority Travelers' Forum section on my Graffiti Wall.
Will you encounter unfriendliness in your travels? Definitely. Everyone does. But be careful not to over-attribute grumpiness to racism — again, keep in mind the vast difference in cultural context. In the words of one traveler of color: "I think we're more likely to interpret bad behavior from non-Americans as being racist because of our history with white Americans. Often their impatience is just because we're American, and we're clueless about other people's cultures and practices."
No matter your race, the best advice for any traveler is to have a positive attitude. Focus on all the nice Europeans you'll meet, rather than the few unenlightened exceptions. If you feel uncomfortable or mistreated, head somewhere else. And remember that most Europeans are as interested in learning about you as you are in learning about them.
Updated for 2013. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.