— Laura H. (@Laura_GlobalEd) September 12, 2015
It’s not that there’s been a dearth of things to write about: Between the 68 unarmed black Americans shot by law enforcement in 2015 alone and the rise of Islamophobia in response to the growth of ISIS, there’s plenty of evidence to show that racism is alive and well around the world. None of the shooters involved in Paris was Syrian, and yet both Europe and the United States are contending with a major backlash against Syrian refugees.
For some reason, though, I procrastinated.
Maybe it’s because I’m white and live in an overwhelmingly white area. Maybe it’s because, in the sleep deprivation of early parenthood, I’ve made excuses for not doing research on the intersections of travel and racism. I’m ashamed, but worse, I’ve let that shame keep me quiet.
Here’s where I’m going to do something unusual: Today I’m writing to white readers. I’ve probably done this inadvertently in the past, but today it’s deliberate.
White readers at Wanderful: Don’t make my mistake.
The United States, Canada, and Western Europe hold vast amounts of power in the world, and white people are its primary beneficiaries. Whether we’re in Brazil, Haiti, or South Korea, people are trying and dying to look as Caucasian as possible and obtain just a little bit of our privilege. When we travel, we hold a racial passport to go almost anywhere without fear of being harassed, assaulted, or denied services on account of our race.
When someone points this out to us, particularly a Person of Colour, we go berserk.
The term for this, in the United States at least, is white fragility. A lot of us grew up in the anti-racism-is-colour-blindness era, and we struggle when someone points out to us that we’re unjustly privileged and often racist. We let this defensiveness seep into every aspect of our thoughts:
- We say things like, “Well, I get targeted, too, when I travel to X country because of my accent/blonde hair/whatever,” and believe that this negates a global system of racial oppression.
- We think of the African continent as one homogeneous, backwards country and are surprised to learn of its diversity, but rankle when someone insinuates that this makes us ignorant.
- We don’t think before commenting on “ethnic” hair, clothing, or traditions and often borrow these without consent or consideration, particularly when looking for a souvenir while on the road — then get upset when we’re told that we shouldn’t have done that.
- Lists like these surprise us and make us say, “No way!”
I’m including myself in this list of examples because, of course, I’ve been guilty of them too. It’s embarrassing. But brace yourselves….
Maintaining our silence out of embarrassment or shame is literally killing people.
Denying our privilege and power within the world is driving self-mutilation, social striation, anti-immigration, and murder on a massive scale. Look at the media attention being paid to ISIS for attacking a European city compared to coverage of Boko Haram, which routinely commits acts of terrorism across international boundaries. Since it’s on the African continent, however, it seems to be less captivating to Western audiences.
When I last wrote about racism, I encouraged the Wanderful community to “take an honest look at ourselves, our histories, and our ability to have a positive impact on the all-too-racist world” by acknowledging our privilege, becoming aware of the intersections of oppression, and demanding change.
Let’s recommit to anti-racism in our travel:
- Notice who’s taking care of you while you’re on the road. Who manages your hotel, and who cleans your toilet? Is there a racial discrepancy?
- Look for travel companies that practice (and preach) diversity and equality. Want to visit a place with a disenfranchised population? Spend your money at businesses that are owned by, and directly benefit, members of that group.
- Know how different travel opportunities are for people with different skin colours.
- Think before you buy. Is your purchase of that “ethnic” souvenir part of the reduction of a group of people to a piece of kitsch?
- When you talk about affordable travel, remember that “cheap” all too often comes at the cost of someone’s well-being — just think of the affordability of slave-produced t-shirts at your local H&M!
Above all, and probably hardest:
- Set aside your shame and embarrassment. Recognize that we need to talk about power and privilege in travel if anything is going to change.
I hope this inspires you all. I know that @Laura_GlobalEd, with a simple Tweet, re-inspired me.