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“Can I get a picture with you guys?“, asked a Korean girl. “With who?“, I replied. “With you! And with your friend!” “Which friend??? I’m alone!” “Your friend over there, he’s going away!“, pointing at a black guy. I burst out laughing when she said that! She obviously didn’t know about the nod when you’re a black person (and that’s not her fault!).
One minute earlier, I ran into one of the very few black people there, and upon spotting me, he did a head nod, a slight one with a “Wassup?“. To which I responded with a discreet head nodding, and also “Hey! How you doin?“. The Korean girl saw us greeting each other, and she assumed we were friends. Cause… yeah, two black guys in the same street AND greeting each other, in an area with almost zero black people, they have to know each other! Actually no, I never met this guy before, and I never saw him again after that. The famous head nod when you’re a black person, also called black nod, a mystery for a lot of people, and I’m gonna try to decipher it!
What’s the black nod?
First off… What is the black nod? What is the meaning of nod? Here’s the definition of the nod, according to the Urban Dictionary “an act of recognition and respect that is accomplished by raising and lowering your head when you see an acquaintance in a public place and you want to show respect for their presence. Two or more black guys nod at each other to acknowledge each other, just because they’re black“
Yeah that’s more or less a good definition. When you’re black and you find yourself in an area with almost no black people, you inevitably went through the famous black nod. A slight nod you do to another black person you see in the street. Very subtle, very quick. If you walk next to me and you look away just for a few seconds, you probably won’t see I just did the head nod to another black person I just passed by. Yeah, that’s how it is, traveling while black, we greet each other!
Generally, we do the nod furtively and quite fast. This is something we do naturally, but it causes confusion and bewilderment among the non-black people who saw me nodding to another black man. “Huh… Do you know him?“, asked an Austrian girl, after watching me greeting a black guy in Samarkand. “Nope, I don’t know him” “But… Why did you say hi to him then???“
Why do black people nod to each other?
Yeah, why do we nod to each other? Why do we greet each other, although we don’t know each other? Broadly speaking, that’s how I would translate the black nod “Hey! I didn’t think I would see a brother over here! Glad to see you! All the best, take care!” It’s another way to shake hands. By the way, when we greet each other, we often do the fist bump (like the main pic of this article). Ok but why do we do that?
In several areas in the world, you don’t expect at all to see another black person. You spend full days exploring a city/a region/a country, never bumping into a single black person! And all of a sudden, on a beautiful day, you finally spot one! You’re then overwhelmed with a feeling, a mix of surprise, acknowledgement, and support, and instinctively, you’re gonna greet each other. Implicitly, you’re happy to see “a brother, one of us”, in a place where you’re a very small minority. “Cool, I’m not alone!“. There’s some implied sense of “kinship”.
It’s a sign of acknowledgement, of camaraderie, a sign of a bond between us, and it’s also a way to say “I’m right there with you!” It’s a bit weird… In fact, it’s as if you were exploring an unknown territory, potentially hostile (I talked about it in my article about the fear of racism when traveling), and just the fact to see another black person, makes you feel more comfortable.
Actually, I think people (in general) will always greet each other when they find themselves in an area where they’re part of a very small minority. It’s just a lot more common to do the nod among black people. For instance, I met a white traveler and he told me he traveled extensively in India, often in rural areas and remote places with no tourists at all. When he was bumping into another white Westerner, they were always nodding to each other. There’s a certain feeling when you see a “familiar” face. By the way, when I think about it, when I was in Dili, East Timor, sometimes I was greeting the very few tourists I ran into, black or non-black (there are almost no tourists there). In fact, the nod is universal.
To return to the subject, I have to clarify one thing. It only happens when traveling -yeah you’re reading a travel blog- at least in my experience. I never nodded to a black guy -or got the nod- in a city full of black people. Never where I live in Paris, nor in London, in Western Europe in general, or in the US. It returns to and it reinforces what I said earlier : it usually only happens in areas where we’re a very small minority. When it happens, the reactions are different. As I said, usually, the chin rises up a little bit, and returns back to its regular position. Sometimes we shake hands (it happened in New Delhi), sometimes we even hug and we start having a conversation (it happened in Ella, Sri Lanka).
Is the black nod a thing outside of the US?
I noticed that usually, black people from the US are more inclined to nod and start a conversation than black people from Europe. It must be cultural, and Americans (in general, not just black people!) travel a lot less than Europeans. I guess they’re even more delighted to see a brother. But yeah, we also do the nod, black guys not from the US. I remember that black girl from the US, her face lit up when she saw me “My maaaaan!!! How are you? You’re on vacation! It’s so cool to see you here! etc…” We started talking as if we were two old friends running into each other and happy to meet up. Black Americans are more inclined to start a conversation “Hey! How you doin? Where you from? What are you doing here? Having fun?” Black Europeans will content themselves with a head nod, and they’ll keep walking.
I’m not gonna lie, talking with someone I don’t know for 15+ minutes (either black, white or anyone else), it gets on my nerves quickly. Especially knowing that after the basic politeness (Where you from, etc…), usually you have nothing to say. Don’t get me wrong, it does feel good to greet each other, smile, talk… when it’s for five minutes. Beyond that, I stay polite but I want to end the conversation. Most of the black people I met just do the nod, others talk for a few minutes but a few ones tell their whole life story… Generally, I do the nod, I greet the guy, sometimes we shake hands or we do the fist bump, but that’s it. If the guy in front of me want to talk, we talk. When it gets long, I find an excuse to leave.
Not that long ago, I was the kind of guy who didn’t care about seeing another black guy, I was just ignoring them and kept walking. “Why do I have to greet him here in this remote place??? We wouldn’t even acknowledge each other in a Western country! Each one of us, we can respectfully do our own thing, without having to interact with each other if we don’t want to! And once again, all the locals here are gonna think we’re friends or related!” That’s definitely the Parisian way of thinking. But I realized that actually, it’s just nice to see a brother, and just have a short interaction.
When did the black nod start?
Honestly I don’t know. It has to do with the black history : slavery, oppression, being ignored and invisible in the society’s eyes for 400 years… and finally be able to be independent, make money, travel if we want to, and just do what we want to do, and see other brothers and sisters do the same. This is just my theory but honestly I can’t tell for sure. I remember this black guy from the US who came up to me in a bar in Belgrade “Where you from?” “From Paris. You?” “From New York! I noticed you guys, black guys from Europe, especially the ones from France, you always pass by a brother without giving the nod! We need to support each other, you just ignored me!” “Man, I didn’t see you…” I wasn’t lying, I didn’t see the guy, and truthfully speaking, if I had seen him, I don’t think I would have greeted him. He was with a group, there was a lot of noise with the music, I was a bit tipsy, etc…
Right now, I do the nod more spontaneously, but if I feel like the guy in front of me doesn’t want to interact, then I don’t do it (even though I do know he saw me!). However, I never do the nod first to a woman, it can be misinterpreted and I don’t want to get in trouble #metoo. If she does the black nod first, then I’ll respond with a head nod as well. Otherwise I don’t do it.
As I said, the black nod is mostly done in areas where we’re a very small minority. By the way, you can apply this rule to any minority group. I talked earlier about the white people in rural areas in India, the rare tourists in East Timor… To go further, the bikers and the cyclists also do the nod when they pass by each other (a minority group compared to the cars, and there’s a sense of belonging to a group). There’s also the cultural aspect. For instance, in the countryside, almost everyone greet each other. They usually all know each other, but it’s not always the case. That doesn’t prevent them from greeting each other. Whatever it be, the black nod won’t disappear anytime soon.
You’re black? Do you nod when you see another brother? Do you start a conversation? Or you just ignore? You’re not black? What do you think of the black nod? Surprising? Cool? Ridiculous? Is it communitarianism? Let me know in the comments! Also check out this list of black explorers who traveled the world, and this list of black travel bloggers to follow!
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Gabrielle Soria says
Really nice article! I’m an American from Oakland, Calif. and I grew up always seeing the black nod. Moving from such a diverse place to Europe was a big culture shock—I think it’s really cool that you wrote such a piece exploring that kinship of identity. 🙂
Thank you very much!
Actually, I’ve noticed white expats always greet each other here. They will tend to nod or even say a greeting, and neither one necessarily knows the other. But they don’t do it to non-whites (like in an elevator, this is very noticeable). It always irritates me, especially when my American white colleague is greeted, and I’m like right next to her and ignored. But maybe it is the same thing as ‘the nod’.
Malaysians tend to be 50-50 – the delight in finding a countryman (and that the countryman was identified correctly and isn’t actually Filipino, for example) has to exceed the natural shyness we have with bothering strangers. But the best example has to be when I did my Masters degree in Wales, where there were very few Malaysians in a small and quite isolated Welsh town.
I was just registered into uni, walking down the hill with my parents, and suddenly a car stopped next to us on the road. Then a window rolled down, and the driver stuck his head out, calling out with a totally typical Malay phrasing, “Melayu ke?” (You Malay?) And that was how I got a surrogate family in Wales (along with the home-cooked meal benefits that come with it!)
I didn’t know white expats were also greeting each other. I guess it depends on the location. There’s always a sense to belonging to a group, that’s probably why they don’t nod when they see you. Haha funny (and awesome!) that you met a Malaysians in Wales! Who would have thought!?
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George Moore says
Good piece the nod is a real thing ice breaker and it is understood. I make sure I speak when there is eye contact for respect and engagement.
Yeah the nod is always understood. I try to have a short conversation as well for respect.
I live in a small CA town with with a small black community and although “the nod” or as I’ve always called it “the head check” is used, far too often black men don’t greet each other in this or any other manner and it’s deeply distressing tom me. I was walking out the grocery store today saw a brotha walking in who didn’t even give me a passing glance. I love my people and I get excited when I see them so it’s disappointing to me when the love isn’t shared.
Yeah I understand the frustration…
I had no idea about this! This was so interesting to read, and I found myself smiling through the whole article imaging you trying to explain it to people who have no idea, haha.
Haha thank you!
It’s funny, as I’m not black (I’m Indian), but with a shaved head and a dark complexion, people often mistake me as such, and I get nods from black dudes all the time. 🙂
Hahaha you know how it feels to get the black nod 🙂
Totally right for the cyclist’s nod. I bought a bicycle not long ago and since then I some times get the nod from others when am waiting at a red light. But I never get the black’s nod. It’s because I live in France (Aix-En-Provence) I guess.
Yeah the cyclist’s nod is also a thing!