Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. — Mark Twain
I’ve seen this quote everywhere, but it has never felt very convincing to me.
As most of the West mourned the terrorist attack in Paris and ignored the tragedies in Beirut, Baghdad, Japan, and any number of developing countries or places where the majority of the population is people of color, the travel world struggled in its own right.
I’m well aware that Wanderful is one of the few travel forums that actively encourages its members to consider the many complex issues of travel, from travelers’ impact on the environment and the local economy to local political situations and treatment of minority groups in the many places we visit.
When I think of the Mark Twain quote above, I’m reminded that travel is no guarantee of enlightenment, learning, or even an open mind.
It’s just as easy to educate yourself about the world from an easy chair as it is to travel the world without absorbing much of anything new. Many travelers remain in the backpacker, resort, or expat bubble, never interacting with locals outside the service industry. It’s common for travelers to show up to their destinations with no knowledge of a country’s history, culture, or current events.
The dark side of history rarely makes travel itineraries and often goes without mention on travel websites and in guidebooks.
I saw evidence of that this past month, as travelers posted smiling photos of themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower, ignoring disasters in other areas that are just as worthy of our thoughts and prayers.
I heard reports of posts deleted and travelers removed from travel groups on Facebook for voicing concerns about Islamophobia.
I saw people say others were “….quick to play the Muslim card” and insisted that the discussion wasn’t relevant to travel groups, while similar threads discussing the attacks in Paris faced no such scrutiny.
It makes sense for us, as travelers and humans, to consider major tragedies around the world as well as their implications for travelers. So why not welcome such a discussion on all tragedies?
This past year, a large group of travel bloggers came together for the Just One Rhino Campaign. It is absolutely a worthwhile cause, and I was happy to see online influencers use their formidable skills to accomplish social good.
However, I find that the issues we’re “allowed” to discuss in most of these forums are related to animals and children, or developed countries. Child migrants are okay, but the adults are not suitable. Dolphin attraction side trips at TBEX were worthy of a campaign, but I’ve only seen a travel boycott of the Dominican Republic discussed in one of the 20+ groups I’m in. Even there, plenty of folks were sure to remind us that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” of travelers who chose to go anyway, since that would hurt their feelings. No concerns were raised for the feelings of Haitians, people of Haitian descent, and dark-skinned people.
Why is it that animals, children, and Western tragedies are a moral imperative, but problems concerning adults of color are too divisive or controversial for the world of travel to even consider them? Is it because they’re complicated, because we see some people as more innocent than others, or because we value some lives more?
Which issues we consider neutral — or universally worthy of our attention — reveal to us who we really are.
As travelers as well as bloggers, we have the power to change how people see the world. As firsthand visitors, our opinions are often given more weight than what is on the news. Unfortunately for those of us who are white, educated, and of some means, our word is taken above that of a local from a developing country, especially if it’s a “scary” country that is seen as “backwards” by some, populated predominantly with people of color, who are too often seen as “primitive” or “barbaric” despite all evidence to the contrary.
So what can we do about it?
Diversify your media.
Alternative media is growing in the Internet age. Read local news sources on the road, and try to sample international news from multiple countries, so you don’t miss out on valuable stories.
If, like many people, you get your news from social media, diversify your feed, so you have access to valuable new perspectives. Consider that, according to PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey, the social networks of white Americans are 91% white, and try adding news sources that reflect different backgrounds and different opinions.
Remember to question which biases a source may base their conclusions on, and try to look at original data, witness testimony, and expert opinions whenever possible.
Research before you go.
There’s a reason almost every piece I’ve written mentions research: It really is that important.
But it doesn’t have to be boring. Watch movies, read books, and check out art about your destination, preferably produced by locals. Historical fiction is a great way to learn about the everyday reality of different important historical time periods. For the Middle East, I recommend the graphic novel and movie Persepolis, the movies Amreeka and The Battle of Algiers, and books by Naguib Mahfouz.
Interact with locals.
If you do nothing else, please get out of the backpacker and expat bubbles. They can be fun, but they can also be toxic communities that exacerbate culture shock into full-on prejudice against local people.
Go a step further, and, if it’s welcome, forge relationships with people outside the service industry, so you have friendships where money and emotional labor are not a factor. You also don’t want to pester someone trying to do their job or otherwise disinterested in entertaining strangers, so your best bet is to seek out folks who want to meet someone new. Platforms that facilitate couchsurfing and various meal-sharing sites can help forge connections between travelers and locals who are interested in meeting visitors.
If you can, take some time to learn the local language. The words for “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you” can go a long way. An Egyptian cab driver announced that I must be American before I even got into his cab. How did he know? “You asked in Arabic. Europeans refuse to even say, ‘Salaam [hello].’”
Choose words carefully.
When we discuss our travels, whether among friends or in travel writing, we can choose to refrain from lazy language that stereotypes countries and regions or projects our own expectations and emotions onto others.
Words like “exotic,” “savage,” “primitive,” “barbaric,” and “tribal” communicate that the people we’re describing are less than, the other, and one-dimensional.
When we take photos, it is our responsibility to have asked the subject for their name and to have learned enough from them about the situation to base our captions in facts, rather than simply assuming they are happy or sad. The people we meet have voices, and they don’t need us to shout over them; it’s far more worthwhile to just listen.
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
I know it’s not always fun, but it’s up to us to push back on hatred, stereotypes, ignorance, and misinformation. When you see someone using a slur, spreading false information, or generalizing about a group of people based on their religion, race, ethnicity, or nationality, call them out if you feel safe and comfortable doing so. There’s a burden on minorities of all kinds to not only experience these things but to combat them as well. If you are from a more dominant group, it may be easier for you to speak up than it is for someone else.
Sometimes you can supply a resource that offers a new perspective or corrects their misinformation. Other times you could utilize the Socratic method, questioning someone’s underlying assumptions until they reach a new conclusion. There are certainly situations where this is not a good idea (Thanksgiving dinner, anyone?), but if we continue to sit idly by when the people we know and love spew hatred or lies, we are part of the problem. It’s not fair to ask people who are the subject of hatred to always have to explain why it hurts. [mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#36adaf”]If we want a better world, we’re going to have to create it with our own two hands. [/mks_pullquote]
Let’s be the best world citizens we can be. Let’s see past stereotypes and value all life equally. Let’s be ambassadors for a future where our instinct is empathy, not suspicion. Let’s get as much out of our travels as possible and shout from the rooftops what we all know to be true: This world is full of good people, who are just trying to get by and have good lives.
What do you do to dispel hate when you’re on the road? Share in the comments!
Featured image in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey; courtesy of Delia Harrington.