From a flurry of last minute decisions I now find myself carrying all of my personal belongings on my back and without a home. A backpacker, I guess, is what others may identify me as, although I have never seen a backpacker that looks like me anywhere. Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but I also don’t think I am the usual traveler. We hear of young European backpackers and slighted middle-aged white women who go to Bali on retreats to “find themselves.” But black girls out in the world? Where is that narrative? I’m an Asian girl as well, and I don’t know the representation for that. Do Asians backpack in the dominant cultural psyche? That doesn’t particularly matter as much to me, because the dominant cultural psyche I am used to is the American psyche, and Asians can get away with doing more things than black people can within this framework.
So I am a black girl in the world. And I don’t really know what to do with this. The world does not belong to me the way it does for others. I read an article recently titled: “Black Backpackers? Where are they in the World?” by a black traveler who cites a statistic that only 4% of frequent backpackers are African American (with of course the majority – 70%+ – being white). The statistic is becoming irrelevant in terms of time (it was published close to a decade ago), but how much has really changed? And how much does that matter if we don’t see or hear about black travelers anyway? Part of feeling a sense of belonging in the world is having your experiences and your stories be heard and validated, and most of us know that the voices of black people in general, and of black women especially have long been suppressed and skewed in favor of a cultural psyche that upholds and perpetuates white privilege.
For me, my decision to leave the United States and be in the world is less of a story of trying to “find myself” the way that it can be for others, because when the society you come from already doesn’t validate your existence or see you as valuable, then “finding oneself” becomes quotidian behavior. I don’t fit into that framework nicely, nor do I particularly want to. Maybe I am just a bitter black bitch but “finding oneself” seems to be a white people pastime, a luxury for people for whom oppression has not forced them to search for their identity from the get-go, a choice for those privileged enough to have it. How ironic it seems to try and find yourself in a world that has already found you, but of course I understand the individual aspects of it. Those things just do not apply to me.
I didn’t leave the United States to find myself, I left because I am sick and tired of the shit the US keeps giving us daily – I left for self-preservation. How do we handle the constant trauma of oppression that we experience and remain functional and sane? I’ve forgotten details of race-related tragedies as a form of self-preservation; I’ve started to repress information that drives me deeper into anger and grief and helplessness. I had to leave the US because I didn’t know how to stop myself from being completely engulfed within the pit of rage that oppression fosters and from which love cannot grow. I didn’t leave to find myself, I left because of the repeated attacks on our lives as black people in the US, and the continuous devaluation of women, which is definitely also a global issue. One of the best things I can do to resist oppression is to affirm myself in the face of all that is dis-affirming, so I had to leave.
One thing that has not escaped me, is what I do have in common with fellow white travelers, and that is the privilege to be able to do so. I am not even an individual for whom life is especially shaped by racism, in the sense of proximity – I have light-skinned, mixed, “good-hair” privilege, I have educational privilege, I have grown up in areas with mostly white people, I have beauty privilege (which is a co-partner to sexism and sexual racism) since I look “exotic” and men want to fuck me and give me things and opportunities that otherwise would not come my way. I have all of these things, and I still felt the need to leave the war-zone that is the United States, and so I did. How many people who are much more severely touched by these different oppressions and have a much closer proximity to death than me want to leave their situation? How many black girls wish they could just leave? How did I get to be so privileged? There is no reason why I am here, sitting in a beautiful flat in Paris minutes from the Eiffel Tower, with nothing but time and desire to guide me, and someone else is not. Yes, I have worked very hard in my life to have the things that I have and to create the life that I want and essentially to affirm myself, but I have also had the context within which to do so. It isn’t fair. The people who are most important to me in my life are also suffering from the same fatigue as me, yet I am the one who gets to sit here and write about leaving it. Fuck me, basically. Fuck privilege, and fuck oppression.
There is one thing that perhaps I can do then to really exemplify the fact that I am not abroad and traveling under the same framework that I may be categorized within. I can continue to tell my stories and my truth, just like travelers do everywhere, but with a keen sense of those I have left behind and a strong rooting in “remembering where I came from.” I can be humble. I can maximize my privilege by keeping my sisters and brothers in mind, and telling our stories where perhaps none would be told. I am not sure how many white backpackers are talking about the Prison Industrial Complex in the United States to those they meet, or how many travelers are actively and consciously speaking about the sexism they encounter in different countries, or speaking about their own privilege and the ability to sit and tell you this story anyway. I cannot speak for others of course, and I know that I am not nearly the only one with these thoughts in mind. But I have to do something. Sharing my stories, spreading our realities may be one way to correct the gap that exists in which affirmation of the lives of the oppressed fall through. What else can I do? We must be affirmed. This is the reason I left. Right?
I write this on the first day that I am alone in the world. I have no home, and those in my circle of love are all far from me. All I have is myself; my wits, my resources, my cleverness, my fears, my insecurities, my belongings on my back. I suppose I am here to create my own narrative, but I will be sure to leave traces of us behind wherever I go.