Black Girl Travel Diaries: Kota Kinabalu

Welcome to the first entry of the Black Girl Travel Diaries.

I’m starting this series of blog posts to share my experiences of travelling as a black woman. So it’s going to be all about race and gender and how I feel that affect my travels to different countries, both positively and negatively.

It’s really taken me a while to get this first entry written and out here. Mainly because racism and gender equality are such sensitive topics that I am very passionate about. But also because it goes against my natural disposition as a very shy individual, to put myself out there like this. However, if it helps to educate or inspire someone, then maybe it’s worth it.

I really want these series of posts to be somewhere we can come together to discuss, debate and to share our experiences. So let’s get to it! I hope you enjoy the first entry of the Black Girl Travel Diaries.

In February, I visited Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia for two weeks. Over the entire two weeks I never saw another black person. In a city with little to no black people, it was therefore not surprising that most people’s reaction to seeing me was to stare. It happened everywhere that I went, so I kind of just got used to it. I also tried to ignore it as I didn’t want to fall into the trap of being seen as the stereotypical “angry black woman” (but that’s a whole nother blog post).

The only time that the staring really bothered me was one time when my friend was at the hairdressers and I was walking around the mall by myself. There were these two women that were constantly staring at me even to the point that when I walked past them they turned themselves around to continue staring. Most people who stare tend to look away when they’ve been caught, but these two did not give a f*** and continued intently staring until I was out of sight.

Have you ever been abroad and had a local person approach you and ask if they could take a picture with you? Unfortunately this happened to me a number of times while I was in KK. So many times in fact, that we even began to make a joke about me charging money for pictures.

I’m just an ordinary woman from London and the only reason that I could see that they would ask me for a picture is because of the colour of my skin. I guess that other than on TV and the internet, they rarely see black people, if it all.

So did I feel like a movie star? No. It felt awkward and embarrassing, and the fact that there are random people with pictures of me that I didn’t even want to take in the first place makes me cringe. It makes me wonder why they wanted it and what they are doing with it. Are they showing their friends and family? What are they thinking and saying about it? The questions are endless really.

Another thing I was asked a lot was “Can I touch your hair?”

During my trip, I had my had in jumbo kinky twists. For those who don’t know much about black hair, basically I put my hair in twists using synthetic hair that is quite similar to the texture of my real hair. Which leads on to another question that I was frequently asked -“Is that your real hair?”

If you’re a black woman, then it’s likely that you’ve previously been asked either or even both of these questions. I love to regularly switch up my hair, so sometimes I have my natural hair out and other times I have extensions or weave in. So the “Is that your real hair?” question has never really bothered me. The “Can I touch your hair?” question is the issue.

I can only recall being asked this once in London. However, a lot of my friends that I spoke to about this, have experienced this a number of times, even to the point where the person does not even ask permission 😒.

I can understand that people may want to touch my hair out of curiosity as it is so different from their own and it is something they may have never seen before, but it can be quite uncomfortable for the person on the other end.

I’m not exactly sure why I allowed people to touch my hair or to take my picture. Maybe it was because I was with my friend’s parents or maybe it was because a lot of the people were very nice. I don’t really know, but I do know that those reasons or any other reasons are not good enough to let myself feel the way that I felt because of it.

I hated it with every inch of my being. I found it be very upsetting and to be frank, it made me feel dehumanised. I am not an animal to pet or an attraction to take pictures of, I am a human being with feelings. And for someone to be saying “ewww” to my hair and to then compare it to a spider (and I hate spiders with a passion!), is so upsetting and frankly very insulting. Regardless of how nice people were about it, it still doesn’t make it any better.

I know a few people will read this and think it’s not that big of a deal, but I believe that yes you can imagine yourself in another’s situation and try to predict how you would feel and react, but you can never truly understand unless you have been in that situation. And anyway everyone is different, so everyone will feel and react differently, but that’s okay.

Looking back now, I do have regrets. I wish I’d done things differently and had just said no. Eventually I did reach my limits, and I decided that my answer to both questions would be no from then on. Luckily, I wasn’t approached for either for the remainder of my trip.

On a positive(ish) note, it was an opportunity to learn more about myself. It’s shown me how hard I find it to say no to people, and when I do say no that I feel like I have to explain my reasoning. However at the end of the day, it is my hair and  it is my body. I have the right to myself and the right to say no. My answer next time someone asks to touch my hair or take my picture will be no. I don’t have to give a reason, but if I do then take it and if I don’t then boohoo 😂. I won’t be rude about it, but I will be prioritising myself over someone’s curiosity.

On a much more positive note, most people I met were very nice and I was made to feel very welcome. There was no way I would let something like this ruin my trip, so despite the issues, I did have an amazing time and I would definitely visit again.

Thanks for reading my post, I know it was a bit of a long one.

Like always let me know what you think in the comments. Have you had any issues while travelling because of your race or gender? What do you think about the whole taking pictures and hair touching business?

Oh and keep your eyes pealed for the next entry of the black girl travel diaries about my trip to Gran Canaria!

24 thoughts on “Black Girl Travel Diaries: Kota Kinabalu

  1. Great post, and one that I can really relate to. Most countries I have visited I’ve experienced staring which makes me very uncomfortable and out of place. This is unfair as I have paid for my holiday like everybody else. In regards to the picture taking, it reminds me of an experience me and my friend had in Egypt, a man asked to take a picture with us. To be honest it made me feel like part of the tourist attractions. Me and my friend felt awkward but still agreed as we didn’t want to come across as rude.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experience! Coming across as rude was definitely another reason that I felt that I had to say yes. But I’m now starting to question why it should be considered rude to say no to something that makes you feel uncomfortable.

  2. Although I will never understand what it’s like to be a black woman, I totally get the people asking for pictures thing! Being anything but Indian in India makes you somewhat of a tourist attraction, and the paler you are (and the lighter your hair), the more attention you get. I got asked for photos by strangers so many times (and some of them in a very forceful manner) that my friend ended up knocking a man out! It’s so hard to say no when you’re in a situation like that.
    Very interested to read future posts on this topic!

    1. Thanks for reading my post and for sharing your own story, it’s always interesting to hear about other travellers’ experiences! Thankfully the people who approached me for pictures were nice about it, that’s what made it even harder for me to say no. But by then saying yes I put myself in a situation where I felt very uncomfortable. It’s a tricky situation really..

  3. Haha I’m sure many can relate to your experiences. Thanks for sharing! I hate people touching my hair, and I make it known to them when they ask. The staring is the most common of all. When me and my brothers went Thailand and in certain areas of Singapore it was the same. I got bored of politely pretending I couldnt see people staring at me, so started not only staring back, but giving them a little wave at the same time, saying hello in Thai. We only took one voluntary picture with this lovely family we met in Singapore. But on one occasion we were at one attraction taking our own photos when we noticed a guy taking pictures of us, when we went to confront him, he scarperred off. Lol

    Anyway, this is really nice Debz. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for reading my post and sharing your own experiences!

      Haha I do the same thing when the staring gets a bit much, I just wave and smile at them and they normally tend to get embarrassed and look away lol.

      I really hated people touching my hair or taking my picture, but I have to give them credit for at least having the decency to ask first.

  4. Hi Debbie!

    Thank you for such a great post, very much.

    I wanted to blog about my Thailand experience on this issue because I went through a similar experience.

    I share your feelings of regret, frustration and anger at the thought of this. I also had braids and got asked many times if that was my hair, and I kept saying yes because I didn’t want to explain myself. People also took photos with me and of me – sometimes without my permission. It made me feel rather scared to think what could possibly happen to me as a black girl while traveling. For a while I had anxiety about ever traveling abroad again because I feel like we will always face some harsh reactions and at times they can be worse.

    I will blog about my experience and say more about this.

    Mapitso from

    1. Heyy! Thanks so much! I completely understand why you would feel anxious about travelling abroad after this expereience, but I hope you won’t let it stop you. I’m so happy that more black people are travelling these days and really hope that this will improve the situation over time.

      You should definitely blog about your experience and how it’s affected you, I’d really love to read more about it. 😊💛

  5. Thanks for sharing! I had a similar experience when I visited Japan. No one asked to touch my hair but constantly asked to take pictures. I said yes initially but it made me really uncomfortable. I’m on holiday, I’m not a walking exhibition! Towards the end of my trip, I got comfortable saying no and while some kept it moving, some (mostly teens) were really insistent and I just had to walk off. I did get mistaken for a prostitute because I was sat on my own in a slightly sketch part of Tokyo but that’s another story for another time lol.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience too! I love that you were able to gain the confidence to say no, this is something I will need to work on when I next visit Asia! ♥

  6. I have never been in your shoes so I can’t pretend to know how you must have about this experience you shared. I can see you handled it well. Thank you for sharing. It made an interesting read.

  7. Thank you sooo much for writing this! As I am also currently facing this issue now here in KK! First I thought it was funny and interesting that people was so amazed to see a black persons, but now it’s becoming exhausting and even frightening. But just to hear someone else write about this same experience is somewhat comforting, so thanks my sista!

    1. You’re welcome hun! It’s so sad that it gets in the way of us experiencing a different country and culture. I hope you were still able to have an amazing experience however and it hasn’t put you off.

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