Business Travel While Black: Why I’m Not a Rule Breaker

True stories of “random” selection and respectability politics

Hello friends, many of us are doing the sensible thing and cutting out unnecessary travel, but one day soon we’ll hopefully be able to travel safely again. When we do, it’s worth knowing that Black people can have very different experiences of travel from their white peers….

Business Travel While Black: Why I’m Not a Rule Breaker

When you’re travelling as a Black woman, there are certain rules you have to follow. These apply to both business and personal travel. In fact, in terms of your appearance, there’s really no difference.

I remember my sister (Lisa Hurley, Copywriter and Co-Host of The Introvert Sisters Podcast) travelling on business a while back and coming to visit me before going on to a trade fair. She was dressed to the nines. When I asked why, she said it was less hassle that way.

Although she didn’t want to give into respectability politics, it was the lesser of two evils if the alternative was possibly to be held by an immigration officer with more time on their hands than education and common sense.

Getting Through Immigration While Black

Her “get through immigration free” uniform included a skirt suit (fitted, but not tight), full face of makeup (done, but not “tarty”), medium heels (feminine, but not flirtatious), “serious” handbag, and “tidy” hair.

If she wore her hair in a relaxer vs. braids, that made her journey even easier. If she chose to wear her hair in braids, she made sure that they were pulled back from her face and secured in a bun.

Whenever she dressed in this way, she sailed through airports all over Europe without being stopped or hassled. However, every time she deviated from that dress code, she was “randomly selected” for a check.

To this day if her clothing is “too casual,” or, heaven forbid, she wears a head-wrap, she gets searched and checked every single time. Would she like to dress more comfortably, especially on long-haul flights? Absolutely. Is it worth the trouble? Not for a second.

I take a similar approach. You’ll often hear Black people say that we’re held to a higher standard than others, and it’s true. When I travel, I look with amazement at the white people who are dressed scruffily, have their feet on tables other people will have to use (that’s just nasty), and have no problem being loud and jovial. As a Black person, especially if traveling on business, that’s not what it looks like for me.

Know the Rules; Check Them Twice

Before I travel, I’ll double check all the rules about what size your case has to be and what can be in your carry-on. I can’t guarantee that a nod and a wink will get me through if something isn’t quite right. I’ll make sure all my paperwork is in order. I have a British passport, true, but will the color of my skin lessen its utility? I’m never quite sure.

Then there’s my dress. Smart casual is the best way to go, if not business casual. As I shared earlier, my sis used to travel in a coordinated outfit that made it look like she had money.

You will not find us travelling in hoodies and sweatpants, even though those would be far more comfortable. Jeans maybe, but nothing with holes in it. The point is to avoid falling into the stereotype.

On the plane, I’m a quiet and unobtrusive presence. That’s my personality, anyway, but I really don’t want to have to deal with stares or to help someone unlearn their biases about Black people.

Dealing With Microaggressions While Traveling

Off the plane, and I know there’s another hurdle to face: getting through immigration. Here’s a sample interaction from the land where I was born.

A common question, which people have asked several times over the years, is “where are you from?”

If people don’t like the answer they get, they may follow up with “where are you really from?”, “where are your parents from?” or “where were you born”? These microaggressions happen in the workplace, but they also happen when you travel for business or leisure.

I get it, they’re puzzled by someone who doesn’t match their world view. Though there are plenty of people of Caribbean origin with British passports, it still seems to surprise some immigration officers. It’s as if they can’t see past the color of my skin.

My favorite example of this was when I was returning to the UK with a friend. We appeared to be the only two Black women on the plane, so of course, the Immigration bods pulled us aside on entry to try to establish what business we had there.

“Where are you from?” they asked.

“England,” we said.

“But where are you really from?” they asked.

“Southampton,” we said, as that’s where we were living at the time.

“But where were you born?” they asked.

“Streatham,” I answered. It’s part of London.

All of this information was in my British passport, which they were looking at.

Confounded, they eventually let us go on our way.

Honestly, I’m never the one that gets to breeze straight through, smartly dressed or not. Some immigration officer always finds a reason to ask more questions. And it’s extremely wearing, you know?

So, it’s no wonder I expect the worst when I travel to other countries. When flying into the US, I have the address and phone number of the place I’ll be staying at my fingertips. I’m pleasant, but only answer what’s asked.

But even after that the microaggressions continue. I may or may not get a cab easily. And when I arrive at the hotel, people are as likely to assume I’m part of the domestic staff as a guest (I tell no lies).

Even when people don’t speak, you can see it in their eyes: what is that Black woman doing here? You see it every time you walk about the conference venue, in the eyes of staff and guests alike.

And when they challenge you, you can see the surprise as it turns out you’re actually supposed to be there. It’s the same as the double-take you get on an all white interview panel.

Black Travelers Must Be Hyper-Aware

To sum up, traveling on business while Black requires me to adopt a particular persona, one that minimizes the appearance of threat and maximizes the appearance of respectability.

It requires me to be aware of people’s attitudes and expectations at all times. And it requires me to keep a lid on any annoyance I feel, in order to make the whole process go more smoothly.

Is it any wonder I’m tired?

Thanks for reading my perspective. I look forward to your feedback.

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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism writer, a professional B2B writer and blogger, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast. If you value my perspective, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription.