Friday, 30 December 2011

Black in Berlin: Fitting The Hooker Mold with Blackness

African prostitutes in Europe


The following entry is a repost of one of my articles written for Parlour Magazine. Parlour Magazine is the premier online destination for women across the globe, offering the best in fashion, beauty, politics, music and breaking news. I write about living in Berlin from the perspective of a Black American Woman.

This article sparked a lot of discussion as many women of color shared similar experiences while abroad.


As a black woman living 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 color are trafficked into Western Europe and end up in the sex trade, so many people have assumed that I am one of them.

Barcelona, Spain

Enroute 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.’

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.

Any other women of color have experiences like mine? How did you respond?


27 comments:

  1. omg... I'm going to Barcelona this summer for a few day before moving on France and Italy. As I am "extoic looking", I hope I won't have to deal with this. But if I do, I know not to take it personally. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hate stereotypes! If you travel alone they are always suspicious. I always got X-rays getting out of my hometown in Cali just bc I was alone and traveling to/inside the US. Then i get to the US and just bc in Spanish they think im a maid. Im an engineer and this is male dominated profession that isn't any better w stereotypes... I've really enjoyed your blog. Got here from oneika's blog.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @dtfamu89 I take it personally LOL and I get huffy, or as huffy as I can get with my limited language skills in a foreign country

    @catae oh oneika keeps sending people my way!! she is amazing, isnt she? i am also in a male dominated profession. whenever there are meetings they always look to me to take notes. erm is something wrong with your hand? LOL

    ReplyDelete
  4. This type of stereotyping is rampant in Norway too. I get picked on all the time, and I too take it personally. I mean I look nothing like those hookers these people see on the street so I've never been able to figure out what makes them think I'm one of them.

    I'm just inclined to think it all boils down to good old fashioned racism mixed with a healthy dose of ignorance.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ugh. I always notice the side-eye I get when Liebling and I go to certain places together. I just *know* they think I'm his concubine.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @oneika grrr people. once in a super market in copenhagen i was w/panda and some person kept staring at me. he ended up in the same isle and i spoke to panda who was not too far away, and then he was like "oh you speak english!, well that is surprising" and then chuckled to himself. wtf?

    @shells yes ignorance and racism. i mean their power of deduction is amazing! dark skin...female...in a non black country ::brain calculus: output HOOKER

    ReplyDelete
  7. I had the same experience while I was in Germany. I was actually waiting for the traffic lights to change when a guy asked if I wanted to share his kiwi that he was sucking on rather suggestively!!! I was waiting to cross the damn road in broad daylight!!!!! Oh wait - black - non-black country = hooker!

    ReplyDelete
  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  9. hahaha yes... we also fit the secretary mold!!!! so annoying!! what do you do? I would love to live in Europe for a while. Best of luck in 2012

    ReplyDelete
  10. I got mistaken years ago in a small town in Spain for a prostitute. I didn't realize it until later though. The man kept saying something like "pitar" I didn't know what that meant. When I finally looked it up, I saw that it means "to blow". Nice... :(

    ReplyDelete
  11. The same occurs in Latin America as well -- I don't think I was mistaken for a bonafied prostitute per say, rather someone that was "easy", simply because I am black; I was propositioned on the street by men in cars many times. What was really disgusting about all of it, was that I was seventeen at the time (and looked about fourteen, lol), and usually dressed in my school uniform when propositioned.

    When me and my sister lived in Germany, we were mistaken once for prostitutes as well -- which was doubly insulting given the neighborhood in which we lived and the fact that we were wearing uni clothes. I remember befriending a Sierra Leone futbolista who was infuriated by the insinuations thrown our way.

    I have nothing against women who have to make a living, and I only fault clueless men for propagating this behavior...

    Mdc said it right: "black - non-black country = hooker!"

    SMH.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Disgusting! I think I would have broken that guys car window with my foot if I were you. Thankfully I was never mistaken for a prostitute while in Germany (that I know of at least). It's too bad that we are seen as hookers period in some (all?) parts of Europe. I still love the continent but makes me slightly wary.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I love your post.... the other thing more disgusting than this, is when you are mistaken for a "working girl" because your husband looks white..... I live in the Middle East, and although my husbnad and I are both Africans, because he is from North Africa and I am from West Africa, I am assumed to be his purchase for the night whenever we go out on a date!!!! I try not to let it get to me!!!

    ReplyDelete
  14. my jaw dropped reading this! I cannot believe people are so damn ignorant.
    on another (and much more positive) topic... I am loving your blog and happy to have found it!

    ReplyDelete
  15. thanks everyone for the great comments and for sharing your experiences. it comforting and also amazingly disgraceful that I am not the only one!

    big 'WELCOME' to new readers and followers. i appreciate the continued support and you guys spreading the word

    ReplyDelete
  16. Tell me about it. Genoa, Florence, Rome, Milan, Copenhagen, Oslo, Geneva!....and loads of spots in Germany.

    Worst was in Genoa where one of the souvenir sales guys assumed I was his regular and I had no idea what he was on about!

    My bf gets looks (and encouraging smiles) when we check into hotels...

    ReplyDelete
  17. You don't be in a red-light district. I was sitting in first class on a train in Italy knitting and I got propositioned repeatedly.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Mehn...I can totally relate. I've had similar experiences in Copenhagen as well (actually had the front desk yell at me to get out of my own hotel when I returned late at night). After realizing I was a guest, still no apologies.

    Before I started traveling on my US passport, I had a Nigerian passport chuck full of visas. To immigration authorities, I was either trafficking or a prostitute. It's so frustrating!!!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I'm so stunned, I can't even really comment.

    Felicia, This Time Now: http://www.nearandfar.wordpress.com

    ReplyDelete
  20. In talking with a German friend last night who has never really dated German women, he made the comment that many Brazilian and African women in Berlin of a certain age were escorts :( He said a percentage as high as 40% but I think he just meant to say that it was common. This is disheartening for so many reasons.

    ReplyDelete
  21. WOw Nicole! Quite the experiences. In Italy, I saw the same thing. I was in Rome, (roaming) and a guy saw me with my map and try to pick me up( at the time I was clueless of what he thought) with traffic behind him. Second time was in Salerno, my host went to get the car and this old guy circled me like a shark, calling me alot. I told him to go away, then some locals helped me get rid of him.

    I started to inquire about this stereotype. What I was told was many Black women are prostitutes in these countries because 1)it's hard to get REAL work when black 2) human trafficking.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I an from the States and live in Austria--it is the same here. Especially if you are brown/black and pretty. I was at a place called Livingstone in Austria for dinner ( an American place no less), and I speak German. I heard a table in front of us saying that I was probably a prostitute because I was brown and pretty--even though I was with a couple of Austrians, including my husband. The thing is you have to stick up for yourself, so I went to the bathroom and came back and confronted them and said "excuse me, but you were talking so loud and I heard what you said and it is simply not true. I have my doctorate and I am married, and it is pretty foolish to judge someone´s profession judged on their skin color." They were so in shock, and one lady said--well it was not an insult- and I said well if someone called you something like that based on your hair color would you be offended-she did not say anything. Keep your head up ladies, you are not alone--it will get better in time.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I got approached leaving the hair salon in a busy shopping district in Lisbon. I interned at the embassy so I was dressed for work (just not that kind) and it was broad daylight. I haven't had any encounters since being in Spain this year.

    ReplyDelete
  24. WOW, I didn't realize this "club" was so big! Room for one more?

    I have a stories when I lived in Mexico City, Dubai, traveling in Italy the list goes on. It's happened in multiple cities in the USA as well although I wasn't considered a hooker, I've been cat called and verbally assaulted, there really is no difference. It's demeaning, disrespectful and vulgar. I simply do not like men who approach me and try to assert their power over me.

    Let me stop before I get to heated. I'm already shaking my head as I write.

    Keep your heads up ladies! Despite this foolishness, we are seeing the world! Traveling is the best education I have received.

    Stay positive!

    V.X.R.

    ReplyDelete
  25. The two times that I know I was thought to be a prostitute were in Havana and Moscow. In Havana the waiter started speaking to me in Spanish when my dining companion complained about being charged for an item we never received. It was then that I realized he thought my companion had hired me for the evening.

    In Moscow while I was in the hotel bar my companion pointed out to me that all the guys in suits where wondering who the new girl was: me. He could understand the conversations he overheard.

    When I was in Barcelona I saw a lot of sisters that were "working girls" but this brother that I met told me that it was obvious that I was not "one of them" and no one else treated me like I was.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I'm Asian of Chinese descent. On a solo trip in London, I was walking on a pedestrian crossing when a middle aged man in his suit and carrying his briefcase (clearly on the way to work) who was walking in the opposite direction smiled at me and wished me "good morning". I smiled back and continued walking. 2 minutes later I found him walking next to me asking me to accompany him for "coffee" at an "internet cafe" where he wanted to show me some "pictures". It was all too obvious and he was pretty persistent.

    Be alert and stay safe on your travels everyone!

    ReplyDelete