The writer: Nadine White
Date first published: 21 April 2019
Londoner David Parkinson was on holiday in Sweden in February, waiting for a train to his hotel, when a woman appeared “from nowhere” and pushed him and his luggage so hard that he almost fell down.
“I thought it was a mistake until she turned back and looked at me then muttered something in Swedish,” he said.
“I was so furious. As security guards and people where present at the scene, I thought someone would say something but everyone just looked away.”
When he eventually boarded the train, Parkinson asked some other passengers for directions to his stop, but they seemed to ignore him – and some moved seats away from him.
“It was then that I really began to notice the hostile attitudes toward me because I was black,” he said. “I thought ‘oh…what the woman did earlier wasn’t a mistake’.”
Later that evening, Parkinson ventured out for dinner – he was a tourist on his first trip to Sweden and he wanted to try some meatballs. He says he was repeatedly ignored by the three waiters who were serving and ended up buying a kebab from a Somali-run shop around the corner.
“I left the next day because the experience was that bad, there’s still huge racism in Europe.”
From the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs in British pub windows of yesteryear to segregation in hotels in 1950s America, travelling has historically been an arduous, if not perilous, task for black people. But HuffPost UK has spoken to a number of black travellers who say incidences of racial discrimination, and even abuse and attacks, when they are on holiday are sadly not a thing of the past.
Between 1936 to 1966, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book was published by Victor Hugo Green on an annual basis as a guide for African-Americans struggling to travel safely in the era of Jim Crow laws.
In a country in which racial discrimination and attacks were the norm, it advised black travellers of places and services and which were friendly to them.
With the success of the civil rights movement, the book stopped being circulated in the 1960s.
But some people have called for a modern day Green Book to be produced advising black people how to travel safely and comfortably throughout Europe, after experiences of anti-black racial abuse against visitors to the region.
“No one takes responsibility when it comes to racism in Europe,” David Parkinson believes. “They all think it’s calm and if you don’t like it, go back to your country.”
Race-related violence, discriminatory police profiling, and bigotry in the search for jobs and housing are commonplace for many black people in Europe, the European Union’s agency for fundamental rights (FRA) said in a report in November 2018. They found “widespread and entrenched prejudice and exclusion” against people of African descent across the EU.
Sociologists Dr Michaela Benson and Chantelle Lewis, of Goldsmiths University, spoke to around 30 people for their research paper, ‘Brexit, British People of Colour in the EU-27 and everyday racism in Britain and Europe’. They found that everyday racism is a reality for many people of colour living in the region.
“Racists have always been there but Brexit seems to have brought out the really ugly side and made people feel more emboldened to actually come out with these really ugly views,” Ida, who lives in Italy, told the research.
The black women taking part in the research described racist incidents as “dehumanising”. One of them, Magalie, reflected on her successive experiences of racism in Belgium, starting with being stopped by the police as a 9-year-old while walking in her neighbourhood, and a gun being pointed in her face; fainting in a shop at the age of 14, coming round and realising that no one had tried to help, the shopkeeper not even offering help when she got to her feet unsteadily; and while she wanted to believe that Brussels has changed and “if my son banged his elbow and passed out people wouldn’t walk past him on the street”, she also recalled a recent experience where the young son of her Ugandan friend threw up in a café elsewhere in Belgium, and the café workers just slid a bucket and rag to her and said “clean it up”.
British citizen Leon Koffi migrated to the UK from the Ivory Coast in 1994. In May 2018 he temporarily moved to Bulgaria for work.
He had been living there for five months when, in late September, he was viciously beaten while walking with two friends in the capital, Sofia. In the lead up to the incident, he says he had to contend with cold stares from local residents and workplace discrimination – still nothing could prepare him for what was about to happen.
Koffi knew nothing about Bulgarian football, less still about the Neo-Nazi hardcore fans of the city’s two main football clubs – Levski Sofia and CSKA – and their tradition of embarking upon post-match marches.
The 49-year-old remembers seeing around 50 men running towards him. He was repeatedly kicked until he lost consciousness on the cold concrete pavement. Before eventually passing out, the last sound he heard were the assailants making monkey noises, mocking him.
Koffi says he was turned away from two hospitals before finally being admitted in Sofia’s ‘Pirogov’ where he underwent surgery. He remained in the neurosurgery wing of the hospital for two weeks.
It was around this time that he learned that non-white residents had long subscribed to an informal curfew which would see them retreat to the safety of their homes before these marches commenced. Being new to the country, he had no idea.
The attack on Koffi left him with a number of serious injuries including severe concussion, a broken jawbone, significant facial bruising and missing teeth.
“I felt very scared,” he told HuffPost UK.
“This experience puts into perspective the whole aspect of Europe for a black man. Fair enough, we’re always going to be a minority in the world; we only have one continent against the rest.
“But we are human beings and have been contributing to society for a very long time – normally when you do something good you expect some sort of recognition, respect and safety.”
“I am now very scared for future generations of black people in Europe. I have a son; we’ve got talented young kids who are coming up and we have to find a way to stamp out racism. People like me who are experiencing abuse need to speak out and raise awareness about what is happening.”
Koffi says that the police officers who visited him at the hospital for a statement, initially treated as though he was a witness to an attack, and not a victim.
Once he begun to recover, he agreed to give an interview on national Bulgarian television news and on local Nova TV. The case gained national traction as a result but then Koffi became the target of vicious internet trolls and Bulgarian neo-Nazis.
He was subsequently sacked from his job for “opening his big mouth” and fled Bulgaria; he is now living in Britain.
Having later been diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Koffi is currently on medication and scheduled to begin psychotherapy to address the impact of attack.
“I cry all the time. The last time was two days ago when I realised that my friend and people of my age, generation, are living the lives they’re supposed to while I have come back from Bulgaria to nothing,” he said.
“I went to Bulgaria to work. I did not lose the job because I was not competent or because I refused; it was because somebody wanted to take away my life for being who I am. And now I am in the same situation as people who refuse to work or are happy to live off of welfare.
Koffi says his PTSD means he doesn’t feel safe in a group of more than four white people at a time. “If it’s more than that I feel unsafe which triggers anxiety, paranoia and the idea that I need to run away,” he said. It might not be the reality but that’s what’s in my mind.”
“Every time I see a white person shouting, or raising their voices, or giving me some sort of order, it is triggering.”
What about the experiences of black Britons visiting Europe for holidays, as so many people from the UK do?
Steven Perkins told HuffPost UK had a near-miss when he went to Prague for a friend’s stag do in July 2017.
He was part of a group of ten and the only black man. They’d decided to go clubbing that evening.
The 28-year-old was tired and he decided to leave early with a friend of his, who is mixed race. While walking towards their accommodation, the pair heard “angry” shouts and turned around to see a mob of six white men charging towards them.
“Instinct kicked in and we also started running,” he said.
“The majority of my time there I didn’t experience anything that I thought was racist but that was probably because we moved in a large group.
“Our only saving grace was the fact that we were about 50 metres ahead of them when we started running – and we ran into a busy part of the city where it was easy to lose us in the crowd of people.”
“I felt confused at first because we thought we had done something to them until we realised they were just drunk, belligerent and looking to kick off with anyone but we were probably easy targets being minorities in their country,” he added.
Saffron Witter, 21, travelled to Budapest in January with a small group of white friends.
She was forced to cut her holiday short and book an early flight home to the UK following an assault in broad daylight.
The marketing student had long been accustomed to stares from locals while on holiday in other parts of Europe but felt particularly uncomfortable about it on this occasion – compounded by men shouting at her from passing cars.
“I expected the stares, though of course it made me feel uncomfortable; I have been to parts of Europe before, where that has happened. But in Budapest it felt way more intense than I’d ever experienced,” she told HuffPost UK. “I always do a bit of research before travelling to see what their attitudes are towards people of colour are.”
In the afternoon that day, the group of friends were walking back to the apartment to get ready to go out again for dinner. It was a long, touristy street, nearby some of the city’s main tourist attractions.
A man walked up to Witter, she says, and spat on the ground in front of her before “swinging his leg back and kicking” her.
″As I turned to face the guy, he was standing, square on, looking at me right in my face. As soon as I locked eyes with him, I knew I was not safe in that situation. I knew it wasn’t an accident,” she said.
“I must have been in shock because I didn’t feel the scale of the bruise until we’d walked away and I got back into the apartment. Plus, he was wearing really chunky boots. So I think that’s why it bruised as it did.”
Witter noticed that the man also assaulted an Asian man who was walking nearby and was shocked that, between both incidents, nobody in the busy town seemed fazed or stopped to help.
“I always do a bit of research before travelling to see what their attitudes are towards people of colour are”Saffron Witter
Witter says she didn’t feel confident about reporting the incident to the authorities or police; her main priority was quickly returning to the UK. She says she was influenced by what she knows about the political situation in Hungary since the ascension of the far-right prime minister Viktor Orban to power, and the growth in far right activity across the country.
“I am quite glad that I didn’t call the police while I was out there because I am honestly concerned about the attitude towards people of colour and I don’t feel like I could have confidently put my faith in the police to take appropriate action or to have been on side in that instance,” she said.
“This is not something I’ve ever experienced before. I think I am quite lucky to be in diverse London – it’s not perfect but it’s definitely not anything near to what I experienced in Budapest.
“A few people have said that I relied on my privilege, thinking I am able to travel anywhere and be safe wherever, when Europe does not afford that comfort.”
“I do wonder whether people who carry out these attacks in Europe have an attitude where they think they’re untouchable. That guy’s attitude was ‘you’re on my land and in my country; you’re inferior and I’m going make you know that’”, she said.
Witter hasn’t been able to shake off the trauma of what happened in Budapest.
“Closing my eyes, I kept replaying it back in my mind again and again. Even now, I have not really gone out socialising with my friends, though I am back at work going about my day-to-day business.
“I’m 21 and I love to travel. I am working hard, saving and I want to see the world. But this incident has definitely made me think twice about where I go.
“I absolutely should be able to travel when and where I like without being physically assaulted. But, unfortunately, it isn’t the case. I’ve put a halt on any travel plans for this year, at least.”
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The UK is committed to promoting human rights, fundamental freedoms, tolerance and respect across the world. We work closely with our international partners to uphold these values and do not shy away from raising legitimate concerns in these areas.”