- By Rick Steves
People who are not of European descent might be concerned about how they'll be treated abroad.
In short, does it matter that you look different from most Europeans?
I've collected the following advice from a wide range of people of color who have lived or traveled extensively in Europe.
First, it's helpful to keep in mind the huge historical and cultural differences between the United States and Europe — especially regarding race relations. One-third of the U.S. population is non-white, compared with less than 5 percent of people living in Europe.
Despite this racial homogeneity, some parts of Europe do have a long history of ethnic minorities. Colonial powers, like Great Britain and the Netherlands, have seen a steady influx of transplants from their overseas holdings for many centuries. But in the decades since World War II — as Europe has built a new prosperity, and immigrants have arrived seeking a better life — Europe has become much more ethnically diverse.
As immigrants — both new and old, and from every corner of the world (mostly Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America) — have come to Europe, white Europeans have often struggled to adapt. Progress can be slow. Some white Europeans are frustrated by large numbers of immigrants — and now their descendants — who, they claim, stick together in tight communities, cling to the culture of their homeland, and are slow to adopt European culture. The immigrants would likely counter that they've found few opportunities to integrate with their European neighbors.
Just as in the United States, immigrants are sometimes perceived as challenging lifelong residents for jobs or as taking advantage of the welfare system. Another thorny issue is the friction between European Christianity and the Islamic faith of many immigrants. But the minority group subject to the most overt racism in Europe isn't made up of new immigrants at all: It's the Roma (Gypsies). For centuries, white Europeans have regarded this population — which likely shares ancestors with the people of today's India — with suspicion and fear. This feeling is especially pervasive in Eastern Europe and in Italy, which have large numbers of Roma.
It's possible for Americans of color to be mistaken for an immigrant or a Roma — particularly in areas where minorities are more common (like French cities with large African communities). But many Europeans can spot Americans a mile away, regardless of their skin color. And because American culture is pervasive worldwide, any stereotypes Europeans might have about your race are likely formed by our own popular culture — for example, by actors, musicians, athletes and characters on popular TV shows. African-American travelers report that the overseas popularity of President Barack Obama has only improved their experience in Europe.
A Matter of 'Rarism'
Travelers of color and mixed-race couples tell me that their most common source of discomfort in Europe is being stared at. While this might seem to indicate disapproval (as it could in some parts of the United States), consider the more likely possibility that it's just a combination of curiosity and impoliteness. Put simply, for many Europeans, you're just not who they're used to seeing. Their response to a person of color likely isn't hostility, but naiveté. (One traveler explained that this isn't racism, but "rarism" — Europeans reacting not to one's race, but to one's rarity.)
Because the United States has grappled more directly with its race issues, many Americans at least pay lip service to a "political correctness" that helps insulate members of ethnic minorities from overtly hateful speech. Europeans tend to be more opinionated and blunt, and aren't shy about voicing sweeping generalizations about any topic — including race. Many travelers find this jarring and hurtful, while some consider it weirdly refreshing ("at least it's out in the open").
Travelers of color report being frustrated by racial profiling, particularly at border crossings or airport security. (One traveler speculated that this might come from the desire to prevent immigrants from entering the country and competing with natives for jobs.) It's possible you'll be more closely scrutinized than other travelers, before being allowed to continue on your way.
These trends obviously vary greatly by country and by region, but in most places, you'll probably be treated no worse than you would be in the United States. Very traditional small towns are less diverse, and may be less welcoming, than big, cosmopolitan cities.
Political and Historical Context
It can also help to consider the country's politics and history. The Netherlands, Portugal and Great Britain are no strangers to immigrants from their African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Caribbean and South American former colonies. This can be both good (because locals accustomed to this diversity might be more accepting of people who look different) … and bad (some locals may have formed negative stereotypes about certain groups). In some countries, like Austria and France, immigration issues are a hot-button political topic — dividing the populace and making the person on the street more tuned in to race issues.
The situation is reversed in areas that have a very limited experience with people of color, like the formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe. In these places, you might find more ignorance and insensitivity, but fewer hard-and-fast negative stereotypes.
Will you encounter unfriendliness in your travels? Definitely. Everyone does. But be careful not to over-attribute grumpiness to racism — again, keep in mind the vast difference in cultural context. In the words of one traveler of color: "I think we're more likely to interpret bad behavior from non-Americans as being racist because of our history with white Americans. Often their impatience is just because we're American and we're clueless about other people's cultures and practices."
No matter your race, the best advice for any traveler is to have a positive attitude. Focus on all the nice Europeans you'll meet, rather than the few unenlightened exceptions. If you feel uncomfortable or mistreated, head somewhere else. And remember that most Europeans are as interested in learning about you as you are in learning about them.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.