Being Black in Istanbul
My thoughts on how safe Istanbul is for black people
The experiences I and my partner had being minorities in Istanbul
My thoughts on how race effects my overall experience in the country
Alone near Topkapi Palace
Is it safe being black in Turkey? Just one of many ‘how will my blackness effect my trip’ questions that many black people ask when choosing to embark on a trip abroad. After all, every country has their own unique relationship with blackness. Heck, every country has a unique relationship with every kind of ethnic group, which explains why my Asian partner also got his share of racially motivated interactions with locals.
So, today’s post will list some of the experiences we had when it came to being minorities in Istanbul. And there’s two things I want you to know before we continue:
About 75% of the country is Turkish, about 20% is Kurdish, and the remaining 5% are all other minorities.
I am by far not the only person to report what it is like being black, a person of color, or an interracial couple in Turkey. Take a quick Google search and you will get many a’ hit describing similar experiences to the ones I’m about to describe.
So, let’s go back to that original question:
Is it safe being black in Turkey?
Holding a fallen flower at Emirgan Park
To that I say, “safe enough”.
I didn’t experience any sort of racially inspired aggression, be it physical or verbal, but what I did experience was still irritating and uncomfortable. Instead of actions being defined by fuming racism, they felt defined by good ‘ol fashioned ignorance, the kind that leads to tone-deafness and exoticization, the kind that makes you shake your head and cringe at the level of cluelessness.
Having a list of countries shouted at you
Here I am showcasing the “I’m not here for it” mood
“Nigeria!”, “Ghana!”, “South Africa!”. While walking around markets in Istanbul—most memorably the Grand Bazaar—salesmen continued to try and guess where I was from. There was no conversation involved, though. Instead, they would just start shouting different countries at me as soon as they saw me and continue to shout them as I walked away. The same thing happened to my partner, but instead of African countries he got lists of Asian ones.
Listen, in every country I’ve been to locals have been curious to know where I was from. Sometimes they would even play a friendly kind of guessing game, looking at my appearance, thinking for a moment, and offering up some African country as their final answer. However, in all those circumstances there was a conversation. Even when it was part of the performative ‘come look at my store’ tourist trap salesman routine, there was always some manner of genuine back and forth interaction, not a one-sided recitation. I bring this up because some people will argue that the Turkish salesmen weren’t being racist, that they were just trying to lure me in by putting on a show. Well, to that I’d say two things: 1) They weren’t doing this to any of the other (predominantly European) tourists and 2) While I don’t think they were being intentionally racist, I also know that there are a hundred different ways to get someone to buy things from you and 200 different ways to ask someone where they are from without presenting yourself as an ignorant asshole.
Being photographed with
The photo of me posing with the cool tree
There I was, taking a picture with a funky looking tree at Topkapi Palace, when these two old Turkish ladies walked up. They started speaking to me and I thought they were asking if they could take my spot in front of the tree in order to get their own cool tree photo. I nodded my head and smiled, of course these sweet old ladies can have my spot! I thought. Then, in one fluid motion, Lady #1 hands her camera to my partner as Lady #2 blocks me in before I can scooch out of the way. Next thing I know, I’m taking a photo with these women. They thanked me and dispersed almost as quickly as they arrived.
Now, I suppose there could have been several reasons why a duo of strangers would want to take a picture with me. Maybe they thought I was a celebrity. Maybe they liked my blue & black hair. Maybe they were trying to start a new viral challenge called ‘photos with randos’. Or maybe it was because there was something so unique about me that they just had to capture themselves alongside me in the same way one photographs themselves with a famous statue or a baby tiger. And I must wonder if perhaps this mysterious one-of-a-kind thing about me had something to do with the fact I was only one of two black people I had seen that entire day in a tourist-heavy part of town. I was a unicorn. I was an oddity. I was like the funky tree. For the first time in my life, I suddenly was no longer a ‘she,’ I was an ‘it’.
Getting stared at
How I wish I’d stared back at them
I have gotten stared at in every country I’ve visited—being black, female, and foreign tends to inadvertently encourage that kind of behavior—but Turkey took it to a new level. People stared unapologetically, refusing to divert their eyes when I stared back and them and not responding to my inquires of “Yes?”, “What?”, or the ever confused “Hi?”
In addition to the stares my partner and I got as individuals, we also got stared at as a couple because interracial couples weren’t a common sight in Istanbul.
Being greeted in a language based on your appearance
At Eyüp Cemetery
This isn’t something that happened to me, but instead my Filipino partner. You see, in the same moments when we had random men shouting countries at us, he had random men—mostly restaurant workers and salesmen—"greeting” him with nǐ hǎo (Chinese for “hello”). I put “greeting” in quotation marks because if you shout something at someone as they walk away, is that really a greeting? No. In this case, it’s just a terribly uninformed comment.
Dismissal at a restaurant and from a bus driver?
The ‘are we done yet’ face
This one is more of a question than a statement because I’m still willing to believe there are pieces of the social puzzle that I missed in the moment, pieces that are innocent and describe everything.
When it comes to the restaurant—a place right around the corner from Karaköy Güllüoğlu—the guy behind the counter was incredibly dismissive to me and my partner. We kept trying to get his attention and it was clear he was intentionally ignoring us. When he finally did acknowledge us, he decided to ignore us again after realizing we didn’t understand Turkish. Did he dismiss us because of race? Because of language? Because he was busy? Because servicing the locals was more important than servicing tourists? Can’t say for certain.
And then there’s the bus. We waited for a city bus, the bus showed up, people got off, then people got on, but when my partner and I tried to join those people we were told to stop. The bus driver directly told us that we couldn’t get on, but he didn’t tell us why (or perhaps he did and I missed it, having that I didn’t speak Turkish). Potential language barriers aside, though, all other intel I could gather from the situation didn’t line up with his denial of entry. After all, all the other (Turkish) people got on and the bus clearly wasn’t full. So, was his decision racially motivated? Or maybe he had been specially chartered by the people who got on the bus? Maybe he just knew something we didn’t, something that would’ve take too long to explain or something that was impossible to explain in English? Like in the restaurant, I can’t say for certain.
Alone by the Bosporus
How to conclude a topic like this? I am not entirely sure how. What I am sure of, though, is that even with all the discomfort and irritation surrounding my experience with race in Istanbul, it was still tolerable. I know, tolerating something is by no means an ideal, but it is a hundred marks better than what I was used to in the U.S. If someone were to ask me, “Is it safe being black in the U.S.?” my immediate thought would be no and my answer would be, “Yes, but only if you follow this long list of 24/7 rules that will mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically exhaust you.”
That in mind, Istanbul just seemed “less” when it came to racial tension, discrimination, violence, and all the other junk I was used to back home. The race-based incidents that did happen in Istanbul were both the most prominent racial experiences I’d ever had while also not being heavy enough to color the trip in a negative light.