Being Black in Australia: My experience in Sydney

Before I made the big move to Australia, many people tried to stop me in my tracks.

From what I knew, there were very few black people living there. After watching one too many videos about snakes and spiders, I was shook. Still, I did it for the culture and made the leap to Sydney.

Before I go into my experience, I’ll give you some context. I am African American woman and I travelled alone to Australia. I am also 6 feet, so I am pretty tall. These factors may, in some cases, make my experience slightly different to yours. Please take this into account.

Rather than telling you if living in Sydney as a black woman was good or bad, I’ll let you make the judgment.

Sydney Harbor Bridge, The Rocks

You’ll become an overnight celebrity

Australians tend to love Americans, although they prefer Canadians. Many locals think the few black people they see are either rappers, models, or athletes. It was quite enjoyable – although a little vain – to walk around everyday as if I’m a celebrity.

It was surprising to discover that urban music is regularly played and the style is frequently imitated, which is why it was so easily assumed that I was a rapper.

There were a few instances where Australians decided to try out slang when speaking with me. I lost count of the number of times I heard “hey girl, hey!” or “waddup playa?!”

It took some time to avoid giving people a savage side eye whenever that interaction happened. Now that I look back, I see it as entertaining because I learned that is was usually coming from a place of admiration rather than appropriation.

Admiration, not appropriation. The Carter Sydney

A day rarely went by where I had a shortage of stares in public too. But I don’t think they were in a degrading manner. Naturally, the sistah in me wasn’t a fan and I initially took it quite personally. But after a few weeks of observing and adjusting, I realised that most of the locals were just trying to figure me out.

As a 6 feet tall black woman, this alone generated its own set of double takes. Especially since I got a lot of my essentials in predominantly Asian areas. They would always take a quick look at my face then look straight down to my feet to see if I’m wearing heels. I saw these stares coming from a mile away.

Nope. I’m just this tall.

You’ll be safe

Sydney has proven itself to be one of the safest cities I have travelled to. Guns have been illegal in Australia since 1996, which in turn makes the country much safer. Stabbings are also a rare occurance.

The police generally do not carry firearms, unless they are called to a potentially dangerous situation. Even then, they take great care to prevent escalations. I saw it all the time.

Being familiar with police-civilian tensions in the US, I was on guard whenever I crossed paths with an officer. But worrying was in vain. Australian police are some of the friendliest people around and never fail to smile back when you make eye contact. Whether diffusing an altercation, speaking to trespassers or arresting someone, I’ve seen them exhibit the utmost patience and care.

With any destination, especially when travelling solo, one should be vigilant no matter the general safety level. I still took precautions such as walking in the street when it’s dark (as you’re more noticeable to others if someone assaults you) and constantly making myself aware of my surroundings. Some train stations in Sydney become completely deserted at night so there are times where you have to keep your guard up.

Even though you should always be cautious when taking public transport, I never witnessed anything shady on public transport in Sydney – not even a single argument.

Mug Life- Darlinghurst

Racism depends on the “type” of black you are.

Depending on the “type” of black you are, it will affect your experience in Australia. As a black Westerner, you’ll probably be fine. But Aboriginal Australians are the group referred to as black and unfortunately experience a lot of racism.

Historically, they are the equivalent of Native Americans (i.e. were colonised and had their land stolen). They are falsely looked down upon as being lazy; I’ve had to stop a colleague in his tracks because he casually made racist remarks about Aboriginals in front of me.

The Australian authorities have been very vocal about the country’s wrongdoing and implement employment and free healthcare initiatives to improve Aboriginals’ wellbeing.

But this hasn’t prevented the daily discrimination that they face. However, Aboriginal Australians are some of the sweetest people you’ll meet in the country.

Aboriginal digeridoo player, Circular Quay

Yes, you will find hair products

Not knowing what the future held for my hair when moving abroad was enough to make me want to stay in the US. Once I arrived in Sydney, I was left without a hairstylist and had to learn to do my hair on my own.

There is a string of African beauty salons on Enmore Road in Newtown that’ll have all of the hair care products you need!

Wigs, ponytails, braiding hair… the works.

They even have one store called African Salon/American International Market. None of them have warehouse level inventories, but they have a small number of everything.

Shipping products to Australia is a long process, so I’d advise against it.

Bear in mind that Sydney is expensive, so a simple edge control will probably set you back [tooltip description = ‘$9/£7’]12 AUD[/tooltip]. The prices in Sydney definitely had me clutching my pearls – and my edges.

I’d advise you to stock up before you travel, but if you’re ever in need of some emergency products, at least there’s a place to get them. I was grateful for that.

Another thing: Sydney can be humid so the chance of having a hot mess on your head is a serious reality.

Twisting your hair every night, just for it to fall apart in an hour, is daunting. I have far too little patience for that.

Bush walking (hiking) and outdoor activities are my thing, so I’ve learned that protective styles and wigs can go a long way.

Ultimately, it’s a great thing that there are salons in Sydney that cater to afro hair – they may not have all of the products I’m used to but they got me through.

Newtown mural, Newtown

The stereotypes

Given that I was not on holiday, I had to find a job. This added another side of the black-woman-in-Australia experience: the workplace can have slightly different energy than in your day-to-day interactions as a traveller.

You will be judged due to the silly stereotypes of black people. When I walked into my new job, I was instantly faced with weird looks, as if my presence was a bit unnerving.

Fortunately, Australians lump all Americans together as hard workers, so the unwelcome feeling was short lived.

From my observation, Australians tend to feel more comfortable if you are Black British. This is likely due to the accents being more closely related. The stereotype may not necessarily be negative either. My co-workers used to say that listening to me is like watching TV, because all black people on TV are hilarious. While some may take offence to that, we are all pretty damn funny so I’ll take it.

In my experience, Sydney is one the safest places for melanated people. This large city, that is 12 times bigger than LA, has a lot to offer for travellers and expats alike. There’s a tremendous amount of different cultures to immerse yourself in, which are all inclusive and inviting. It’s a long flight from many countries, but it’s worth it.

Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by Quiana Wesley

Have you been to Sydney? What was your experience like?

Quiana Wesley

Quiana Wesley was born and raised in sunny San Diego, California. Plus an amazing few years in Dallas, Texas. in 2015, she hit the ground running after finally getting her passport. Solo travel is her newest love, but she also has an obsession with hiking and photography. Keep up with her on Instagram She takes her beloved Sony camera everywhere she goes. Email: compassqtravel@gmail.com