The University of Iowa

Chronicles of a Black Male Traveller

March 2nd, 2016

Marcus and Arthurs Seat

Finally climbed up Arthur's Seat and it was totally worth the view!

By Marcus Smith*

Hello All!

I have now lived in Edinburgh for two months, and I recently had a week off of class and had the opportunity to travel around Europe. Now that I have seen a little bit more of the world, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my identity as an American, specifically a black male American, abroad.

I have visited several other cities in Scotland including Glasgow, St. Andrews, and Dumfries. I have also been to Freiburg, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; and most recently London, England. I knew that these places were obviously less ethnically diverse than America, but I did not know how that would translate in terms of how they treated black people. I had my guard up knowing I would be more vulnerable because I am American, and I also had an additional layer of caution being a black man in a virtually homogenous white environment.

I was ready to face a new atmosphere where I assumed there would be similar toxic race relations that there are in the U.S. I was ready to have to defend my black identity, to limit the places I could go, and to have tense encounters with the police; but so far I have never had to do any of those things. Living in a country where the population is 96% white, race is simply not a common topic of controversy and conversation. The news is not plagued with racially motivated crimes, and there is not an ideology that some lives matter more than others. Now, in no way am I trying to diminish the experiences of black people in Europe who have faced racial discrimination, for I am merely expressing my own experience here so far. I might experience racism at some point in Edinburgh. I might experience racism in another European country. But so far my time here has fortunately been highly positive, and I have begun to care less and less about the racial demographics of my surroundings.

Meeting up with fellow Hawkeyes

Happy to meet up with fellow Hawkeyes (and freshmen floormates) in Germany!

When I say I am living in a place where race is negligible, it does not mean I have discarded by black identity. It means that I have been able to simultaneously express my black identity, assimilate into Scottish identity, and learn and experience cultures from all over the world. I have formed relationships with people from every continent, and this has truly helped me develop a more multifaceted approach towards race in America and throughout the world.

I have learned that a place does not have to be proportionally diverse in order to be welcoming of other ethnicities. Being the capital city, Edinburgh is more diverse than the rest of Scotland, but the population is still 92% white. There is a very strong sense of Scottish nationality and identity here, and yet there are still several different cultures here that flourish and thrive all together.  While walking down one street, you will see a Turkish barber, an Italian wine shop, and a Scottish kilt store all right next to each other. It has been truly incredible to live here. Though there is a miniscule presence of black people in Scotland (1% identify as black), or Europe for that matter, I have never felt uncomfortable or felt as if my race was not welcome here.

I would like to end this post with a brilliant quote from Maya Angelou that I have related to a lot while abroad. It reads, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends.”

This has been my first time in Europe, so all I had to rely on when trying to gauge the racial climate were preconceived stereotypes and Buzzfeed articles. But after experiencing life here for two months, I can confidently attest that the people of Edinburgh are tolerant and welcoming of my black identity. Again, I will emphasize that this does not mean that I believe racism is non-existent in Scotland, for racism can happen anywhere, at any time. But too often stories of extreme and isolated racism are sensationalized and deter people of colour from traveling there. If I confined myself to visiting countries that are 100% racially tolerant, I would have to travel to another universe. Granted some places are worse than others, and I definitely research each destination before I go there, but it would have been such a regret to avoid traveling in fear of potential racism. After being suffocated with racial tensions in America for the past twenty years, it has been eye-opening to see the world beyond the skin colour of the people around me.

*Marcus Smith is a sophomore studying political science as well as ethics and public policy at the University of Iowa.. The Bolingbrook, Illinois, native is spending his semester on the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University program in Edinburgh, Scotland.