But Where Are You Really From? Being a Black American, Abroad

But where are you really from? Can I touch your hair? For one Black American traveller, the experience of different cultures abroad gives her the confidence to call out microaggressions and everyday racism at home.

in America have people insisted on knowing where I am from.
As a 6ft 1″ freckle-faced Black woman, my features are, apparently,
those of wild fascination. Due to slavery, I have roots throughout
the American South as well as European ancestry. There have been
instances in my adult life where White Americans have insisted on
knowing “where in Africa” I am from. In the most ordinary of
circumstances, complete strangers have harassed me with this

I once spent a summer in the coastal town of Camden,
, to which I retreated to after a hectic period in New
York as the personal assistant to Matt Damon. Needing a reset, I
headed north in search of a relaxing summer waiting tables in a
place where no one was trying to push a script on me to give to my

One day after taking a drink order from a customer, she stopped
me, wanting to know where I was from. “The Chicago area,” I said.
“No, I mean where are you from?” she tried again. “Chicago.” “But
where are you from?” she asked, growing more irritated, as if I
didn’t understand.

But I did understand, and I refused to indulge her. “Chicago.
Are you ready to order?” I asked, trying to smile as she’d be
tipping me, feeling like a “piccaninny” who was refusing to perform
in front of her guests at the table. “In a minute,” she said,
exasperated, before adding: “Where in Africa are you from?” “I’m
not from Africa, I’m from Chicago,” I replied. To say this
microaggression was invasive and repugnant would be an
understatement. I hadn’t approached the table by asking her where
in Europe she was from.

Trinette Faint in Tokyo, Japan | Photo by

There was another instance during my college years in Boston,
where I was also waiting tables, when a customer asked me if I was
from Somalia because she had a student who was from there and we
looked just alike. We were both tall and skinny. I said no, and
left it at that.

Unfortunately, these stories are not rare in my life. They are
not one-offs, but rather a constant line of interrogation by White
American people. It feels as if only my genetic breakdown would
satisfy their curiosity about my lineage. They have tried to
“other” me; I must be from an “other” place, surely not from the
same America that they inhabit.

If it wasn’t this, I was dealing with White people’s fascination
with my natural hair. My hair is versatile and I tend to change the
style often. It’s sometimes in an afro, sometimes in cornrows,
sometimes in braids and, occasionally, tucked under a wig. Some
people have felt at liberty to touch it.

Trinette Faint in Athens, Greece | Photo by

Never during my international travels have I experienced either
of these phenomena. There have been times while in Paris when the
locals thought I was French and began talking to me, but reverted
to English after my rudimentary attempts at conversation. But they,
and others abroad, never pushed and prodded trying to ascertain my

If ever asked, my saying I was an American, from
(or Denver, New
Los Angeles
or wherever else I was living at the time of my
travels) was enough to end the query. If anything, once I had said
that I was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, I’d get amusing
questions based on the film The Blues Brothers. “Do you live next
to the prison?” they’d ask, referring to the 1980 comedy. They most
certainly never reached out to touch my hair.

As I’ve never had to deal with microaggressions abroad, my
travels have allowed me the freedom to be, more so than simply
existing day-to-day in America. Here, there is always some
microaggression to contend with. I have taken pleasure in knowing
that as soon as I touch down in any other country, that mostly

I love my country, but the experiences I’ve had during my
international travels have helped me to navigate things at home.
For starters, I’m better now at recognising and calling out
microaggressions in the moment. There was a time when I’d just
shrug it off, but now if someone oversteps, I make sure to stop

Trinette Faint in Palm Springs, US | Photo
by @talltwrites

Last year I was wearing my hair in long braids, an obvious
change to the shortish afro I’d had a few days before. I received a
lot of compliments, but one woman took it too far. Excitedly, she
reached out and grabbed them, asking too late if she could touch
them while saying how cool they were. She stroked my hair as if I
were the Black Barbie doll she’d never had. I firmly removed her
hands and told her she could not touch my hair, as if I were
admonishing a child who hadn’t understood her mistake. She spent
the next 10 minutes telling me how sorry she was while still
staring at them, willing her arm to remain at her side.

Today, if someone asks me where I am from, I counter it by
asking where they are from. This usually takes them by surprise.
Whatever US city they answer, I ask again, only to get the same
answer. And again. Eventually, they get the message and leave me

International travel has always made me long for more
adventures. I love being immersed in another culture, but the one
thing I never thought these experiences would give me is better
confidence at home. I have always been assured of myself and my
abilities, but I mean the kind of confidence where I feel
comfortable turning a microaggression on its head and into a
teachable moment. The world has embraced me with open arms and has
not demanded that I fulfil its need to know my historical lineage.
With the confidence to step into a moment of aggression, I hope to
halt ignorance in its tracks.

The Lowdown

Discover more of Trinette’s travel at trinettefaint.com or
follow her on instagram @talltwrites.

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