As a black woman in Europe I have been mistaken for a prostitute more times than I can remember. I apparently fit the mold, and after I complain about the phenomenon, white Europeans have told me that it is an “honest mistake.” Thousands of women of colour are trafficked into Western Europe and end up in the sex trade, so many people have assumed that I am one of them.
En route to Morocco, I decided to stop over for a few days in Barcelona. One of my friends from the States was on a round the world tour and we happened to be in the city for a few days. Looking for any excuse for a party, he also convinced another mutual friend to meet us. So there I was in the beautiful Barcelona with two white dudes from California. While strolling down a busy promenade all three of us playfully had our arms linked. I was in the middle, naturally: enjoying the warm night air and the company of two friends while laughing my head off. We were interrupted by a stout man holding four cans of beer. He didn’t say anything just extended the beer to my friend on my right and then grabbed my arm, trying to unhook me from my companions. My friend on my left put his hand on the guy’s chest as if to say, ‘Back the hell up.’ Expletives were exchanged and then came the shoving, eventually my wrist was freed. I stepped back and took a minute to observe my surroundings. As I looked around my eyes met the faces of other black women, and when I looked beyond those faces I saw more black women in the distance, on the benches, up against buildings, all having exchanges with men. My beer-deflecting friend must have had the same realization in that very moment because he said, ‘Holy Shit Nicole, this dude thinks you’re a hooker.’
My friend wanted to go to the club our last night in Paris. I, absolutely exhausted, HATE night clubs and told him so. I eventually agree to go for only one hour. That hour turned into to two and he had met some Algerian woman so I took off down the street. It’s midnight and this random crazy starts following me. Kept saying “15 euro, 15 euro” and did hand motions that I interpreted to mean that he wanted a hand job. I stop at a stand and got a felafel I totally didn’t even want, thinking that the presence of other people would freak him out. Nope, the guy just stood there waiting for me to get my food. I start half walking/half jogging down the street. I tell him to leave me alone, I don’t speak French–everything. I took a chance power walking down a dark alley to a street full of people that lead me no where near to where I was staying. I finally screamed at him with my loudest voice then he backed off. Five minutes later he’s somehow back at me, and telling me “30 euro, 30 euro” and I scream, “FUCK OFF! FUCK OFF”. I then take more alternative routes to my place, looking back the entire time.
As an exotic woman living in Norway, i am often faced with this kind of dilemma , even when pushing my baby in a stroller.
I must say that in Stavanger there are a lot f prostitutes from Nigeria and this doesn’t help especially as they are on the streets and exposed to society.
London Heathrow Airport
While trying to check in for a flight to Copenhagen, a young Danish counter agent took a vested interest into my traveling habits. I would visit Copenhagen every four weeks for regular relationship maintenance, accumulating a ton of passport stamps. On examination of my passport the counter agent asked me what kind of job did I have that I could afford so many flights to Copenhagen. I was about to say something smart when she said, ‘No wait, let me guess you have a boyfriend,’ placing air quotes around the word ‘boyfriend.’ I weighed my options in that moment, imagining myself yoking up homegirl and slamming her head into the flight desk but apparently stuff like that is frowned upon in airports. I took a deep breath and asked to speak to her supervisor. The counter agent next to us went to fetch them and I said I wanted to file a formal complaint. I was basically told that I fit the profile for sex workers because I was “exotic looking”and took frequent trips. I never received an apology.
Copenhagen – Red Light District
During my first trip to Copenhagen I stayed in a hotel downtown near the main train station. Looking to enjoy the nightlife I asked my trendy hotel staff where the cool kids hung out. I was instructed to a club that he marked on my map and I set out on the town. He forgot to mention that to reach my destination I had to walk through the red light district. As I began to notice all the women soliciting I convinced myself that I had taken a wrong turn. I pulled my gargantuan map out and positioned myself under the street light so I could actually see. I was lost, I must have been examining my map for three minutes before some dude rolled up to me in his car. It took me a while to notice him because my map must have been the size of his car. I peered over it, into the vehicle and I see this clown massaging his crotch. He must have mistaken my disgust for genuine interest because in broken English he said “My penis … I wish … for you … to suck it.” I was furious. Granted I was in the red light district but I had a damn map!Prostitutes usually don’t have maps. In my rage I took my heel and kicked his door in. The working girls around all started to cheer and clap as he sped off with his junk in his hand.
I have lived in London for almost ten years (I’m married to an Englishman) and have had very similar experiences. Luckily in Britain, I don’t really get that sort of treatment – they are mostly charmed by my American manners, my soft accent and general affability. But whenever we travel to other parts of Europe, I have found myself in these types of situations.
The latest was in Cordoba, Spain the past summer. I was standing outside a shop in a heavily toruisted area of the city waiting for my husband, our 3-month-old daughter, my parents and his parents when a policeman started to harass me. As it was thirty thousand degrees outside, I was wearing shorts and a tank top (not unusual – as there were definitely a lot of Spanish women wearing far less). This led him to believe that naturally, I must be a North African prostitute looking for a John. He asked me for my papers and threatened to arrest me if I didn’t show him my passport. He grabbed my arm and tried to drag me away and obviously, I got real Brooklyn on him. Hearing my shouts, my husband, our parents and the shop proprietor came out of the store to see what all the fuss was about. The shop proprietor and policeman had a very heated exchange. The policeman stilled himself and noticed the baby in my husband’s arms as well as the rings on my fingers. Then he looked at our parents and back at me and my husband and daughter and finally realized his blunder. He actually apologized, but the damage was done. I told him where he could stuff it, snatched my baby up and walked off.
I find it terribly sad that this is the perception of continental Europeans of women of color.I think that instead of people in these countries harassing these women, they should be looking at ways to help them leave their current situations and prevent human trafficking altogether.
Norway and Sweden
I live in Norway and I have had to deal with this crap all the time. I’ve had random people solicit me in the oddest of situations: when I’m talking on my iPhone dressed from head to toe in full business wear and my company ID in plain view. When I’m walking my best friend’s daughter in her stroller.
One time when I worked as a bartender (I was in Grad school at the time) I was walking to catch my bus home. The place where I worked (it was actually a very respectable establishment frequented by very affluent Norwegians) was unfortunately located in an area that had become very popular with prostitutes from Nigeria and the Eastern block. I knew the area had a rough reputation for this type of activity, but I had no choice but to be there because of my job. I NEVER loiter around looking as though I’m waiting to get picked up. On this particular night I was on my way home. I was listening to my ipod, walking briskly and minding my own business, yet a patrol car pulled up and two cops got out to question me about why I’m in the area. Are you a prostitute? Are you Nigerian? No, I’m pretty sure its quite clear that my very strong Brooklyn/Caribbean accent will attest to the fact that no, I’m not damn Nigerian! And not a prostitute either since my aim is to get away as fast as I can! They went on to interrogate me about my job as though they didn’t actually believe that I could have a legitimate job, let alone in this area. Being the person that I am I did give them a piece of my mind, and I got the same lame a$$ excuse that it was an “honest mistake”. Honest mistake to stereotype and label random individuals just because of the colour of their skin???
Another time in a quiet residential area in Oslo’s posh west side, I jay walked across the street (there were NO cars in sight while I was actually on the pedestrian crossing — it took me all of 3 secs to get on the other side). Out of nowhere this guy pulls up in his vehicle, GETS out and starts screaming crazy sh*t at me. What did he start is tirade with? You f**king whore! of course. And he proceeded to repeat that throughout the entire time he was cussing me. It seemed to have been the only thing he had on his chest: you black whore, what the #%”!/& are you doing in my neighbourhood!
I had to back out my inner homegirl on his a$$ because seriously I couldn’t imagine WHAT on earth was up with this guy. It wasn’t like I jay walked and his car almost hit me. While I was on the pedestrian crossing his car had barely made the corner leading onto the street that I was on, making it at least several hundred metres separating us. By the time he pulled up next to me and got out of his car to cuss me out I was already on the OTHER SIDE of the street! Moreover, this was a late summer’s evening in a residential area where I’d lived for several years. It was about 6pm, but still bright as midday due to long daylight hours. I knew at that time of the day there were hardly any cars around and so it was perfectly safe for me to jay walk. Moreover, the street was not that wide. I literally got on the other side in like 3 seconds. And jay walking isn’t a crime in this country. This clown just didn’t want to see the likes of me in his neighbourhood.
Nicole prides herself on being a world traveler, already visiting 23 countries on 5 different continents. She currently resides in Berlin, Germany, a city quickly identified as her kindred spirit. Today she is the woman behind nicoleisthenewblack.com, her personal travel and adventure blog. When not plotting her next adventure, Nicole can be found in her kitchen nurturing her reluctant domestic goddess. (She makes a great Red Velvet Cupcake)