Picture Me Black in the Balkans

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This year has been designated as my passport year. I love traveling and getting to learn from and interact with different cultures. I have been to Haiti, Guatemala, and Japan. One thing that I am curious about before traveling is how my blackness will be perceived. I arrived in Kosovo on Friday, June 21st and it has been an interesting journey since then. My program includes a week-long regional study tour so I just returned from a tour in Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia.

(Picture of buildings in Kosovo.)

My program focuses on peace and conflict studies so many sites that I visited in these countries are memorials or provide concrete memories of war. I will post about my different experiences in a different blog post, but for this one, I will focus on my experience so far as a black woman in the Balkan region.

From my flights to Prishtina, Kosovo, I received many stares. I expected that because I was the only black person on my flight to Prishtina from Düsseldorf, Germany. It was my first trip flying alone, so it was a bit odd at first, but I got over it. I was startled with my first face-to-face verbal interaction in Montenegro.

A group of us girls from the program went to get ice cream after dinner. While we were purchasing ice cream, a girl approached us and asked to take a picture with us. We all assumed that it was because we were Americans. She then pointed out that she specifically wanted to take pictures with the two black girls in the group (me and my Ghanian roommate). We were confused at first and just kept looking around in astonishment.

I was not expecting her to say that. Coming from the States, we had to pause and realize that she was not asking to take a picture with any negative intentions. Growing up in the United States, it was easy for me to imagine that she was being rude, but black people are rare in Southeastern Europe. There was no malice behind her request. 

(Me posing with a Haitian flag in Dubrovnik, Croatia.)

After receiving many “hellos”, “can I touch your hair?”, and honking from my first week in the Balkan region, I have learned that blackness can be perceived differently everywhere around the world. In Japan, I felt more black in the United States, then I did in Japan because people seemed to look past my blackness and only regarded me as a human.

I initially felt hurt because no one on the planning committee of the program ever mentioned to black students on the program what may occur. Although I had my initial expectations, it still hurt to know that some people still regard black individuals as exotic people. I wish my humanity was seen in spite of my race. 

(Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Bosnia and Herzegovina.)

As I continued on my trip, I realized that human rights violations occur all the time based on petty human differences. From race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, innocent humans have consistently been victims of oppression and death. When I visited the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was surreal to me to imagine how thousands of individuals were killed simply for being male Muslims.

Some people seem to be born with a “death sentence” based on the essence of their identity. Ethnic cleansing is horrific and as I continue my study abroad journey as a black woman in the Balkan region, I will keep in mind that I live in multiple intersections, but so do many other individuals. It is important to love in this world because there is already so much hate that is spread around. I am determined to accept that I am black in an unfamiliar area, but I will make the best of it and interact with as many native people as I can. I will not allow my race to shy me into being afraid of learning from the rich history that lies in this region. 

 (View from City Wall in Dubrovnik, Croatia.)