Traveling While Black

What’s it like traveling while Black?

Well, the last five years have been eye-opening, to say the least. I went from being the only African-American teacher in a Jewish school in Brooklyn to exploring Asia to teaching English in Spain. There have been some remarkable and life-altering experiences along the way.

For as long as I can remember, I have been more cognizant of my “Blackness” than most others around me. I’ve always observed people more than I’ve interacted with them. I’ve always felt like I have to do everything in my power to keep from letting down the race. Better for people think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, right? Unsurprisingly, applying this kind of pressure to oneself can be quite detrimental and overwhelming.

Historical Precedent

I was one of the few African-American kids in each of my high school classes–especially being one of two in my honors English class. I felt like the world hated me. Unaware of the ramifications of letting these feelings go unchecked, I’ve carried them with me throughout my entire adult life.

It’s like I became attached to that version of myself and didn’t allow him to grow up. I’ve let these sentiments control my decisions, bring me anxiety, and force me to deny myself opportunities.

Well, the good thing about getting older is you get wiser. You begin to care less about what other people think. By no means do I have that whole “Hakuna Matata” thing down pact, but I’m beginning to see the light.

If I could go back and slap some sense into my younger self, I would first make sure to perfect my technique and deliver a blow so potent and vicious that he’d never forget the lesson behind my gift.

It’s Not That Bad

I’d tell him that high school is just a rest stop on this road trip that we call life. I would tell him to go and explore the world as soon as possible. I’d tell him to get out of his head and start enjoying everything that life has to offer. Stop looking and go ahead and leap for God’s sake!

The younger version of myself was too observant. He was too worried about everything that could go wrong. He thought Murphy’s Law was written for him personally. He’s wanted to travel abroad ever since he was a child, but he has always been worried about how bad the experience could/would be.

His logic was fair. If at times, the treatment from his own countrymen could be so bad in his own country, he could only imagine the atrocities waiting for him if he dared to step outside of his nation’s borders. That younger version of myself had such a small-minded view of the world.

Fast-forward 10 years, and you would have found me approaching a major crossroads in my life. I still hadn’t even met my goal of moving to another state. Forget moving out of the country; I couldn’t even muster the courage to leave my state’s borders.

Making Tough Decisions

Another benefit of getting older is that life has a funny way of forcing you to make tough decisions. As I was staring down the barrel of my 30th birthday, I found myself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

At this point, I was finishing my 2nd year as a teacher in a Jewish day school in Brooklyn. It was one of the best things that could’ve ever happened to me. It forced us to jump over a few mental hurdles together. I still remember submitting my application for the job and hoping they wouldn’t call me to interview.

How awkward would it be when I showed up for the interview, and they finally saw that I was an African-American? The interview came and went, but my race never seemed to be an issue. Maybe it was all in my head.

After interviewing for and being offered the job, all I could think about was how I’d be the only African-American teacher in the school.

Much to my surprise, no one judged me because of the color of my skin (at least not to my knowledge). The kids–and most of the parents–embraced me and told me how much they loved what I brought to the school.

I quickly came to realize that no one who mattered even cared that I was an African-American who would be teaching their Jewish children. All they cared about was whether or not I knew what the heck I was doing.

That experience gave me the courage to finally take a step towards one of my goals. Before I took the job at the Jewish school, I was offered a teaching position in Florida, but I was too scared to make the leap and go for it.

As fate would have it, I got a second chance to make that leap two years later. Younger me tried to come up with all of the reasons in the world as to why we shouldn’t go down there, but this time, I chose to ignore him. It was another great decision.

Best of A Bad Situation

My personal experience as a teacher in Florida wasn’t all that great, but it facilitated the achievement of a much larger goal. I was miserable in my job, but I had made a good friend who told me about how easy it was to go abroad and teach. Every day, I went home and grappled with the idea of doing something so radical and out of my character like this, but ultimately, I decided to go for it.

I decided to try my luck and go to Thailand for a year. Low and behold, my younger self tried to talk me out of making a necessary change, again. The craziest questions and thoughts bounced around my head non-stop.

What if the people there don’t like you because you’re not white? Asians don’t like Black people. Do a Google search on how Black people are treated in Thailand.

Younger me brought his A-game and was pressing all the right buttons. If you don’t know, Google searching race relations in a country right before a trip is like self-diagnosing using WebMD. You’re left with a smorgasbord of possibilities, a bit of anxiety, and no real answers.

Once again, I found myself in the all too familiar position of worrying about how I’d be perceived. Nevertheless, doomsday arrived, and I had to board a plane headed for Thailand.

When I arrived, I was shocked that, once again, no one cared that I’m a Black guy. Sure, people there were fascinated by the color of my skin, but there was no hatred. If anything, they cared more that I’m an American. Actually, people were usually curious about my color.

Who Doesn’t Love Chocolate?

One of my funniest memories was a typical weekday afternoon in which one of my 1st-grade students was so curious about my skin that she asked me if I tasted like chocolate. The next thing I knew, she had quickly licked my arm as she came to hug me goodbye. Nothing teaches a child to keep their mouths to themselves quite like a mouthful of sweaty skin. She never asked if I’m made of chocolate again.

In Thailand, I was treated better than I am at home in America. I was the only Black person in my town, and I felt like a local celebrity.

People would stop to take pictures with me, invite me into their homes, and offer me food. If my younger self could experience the world as I have over the last couple of years, he would’ve looked forward to leaping instead of measuring every step.

I currently find myself in Spain, and finally, I have no anxiety about being in a new place. Once I finalized my plans for Spain, I was pretty excited and couldn’t get here fast enough.

This time around, I’m looking forward to having as many unique experiences as I possibly can. I have a sneaky suspicion that my younger self is too.

The simple truth of the matter is that it doesn’t really matter what color you are. Many people who you’ll meet on this journey are adventurous souls looking to enrich their experiences on this planet.

The best thing about my journey thus far is that I’ve been learning to relax and enjoy the ride. I embrace the random craziness that life throws my way!  I encourage you to try and do the same.

Sincerely,

A Jaded 80’s Baby

 

 

Author Derek Phifer

Financial freedom fighter. Breaker of molds. Destroyer of misconceptions. My name is Derek, and I'm a jaded 80's baby.

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