Since a young age, my parents encouraged me to explore the world through travel. They also taught me that travel was a privilege. I understood that our family’s wealth, a privileged resource many other people didn’t have, afforded me the opportunity to travel.
There is another travel privilege that I was never taught to acknowledge — I am white.
This racial privilege grants me unsolicited special treatment when I’m abroad and is something I have only recently come to recognize and understand. Like many other white people, I am grappling to unlearn my internalized white supremacy. I am becoming “woke” to a perception of the world that people of color have known their entire lives.
I recently co-led a group trip for eight students of color to volunteer in Costa Rica which helped to reinforce this process of unlearning while also teaching me some important new lessons.
Institutional Barriers to Traveling Abroad
From the beginning, traveling to Costa Rica was more challenging for this student group than it ever had been for me. There were institutional and financial challenges that made this trip seem like a far off dream. Thankfully, my employer was able to confront the financial challenge by finding a corporate philanthropy program to cover the students’ travel fees.
But institutional barrier wasn’t quite as easy to overcome. The most poignant example of structural challenge was the process of getting the student’s passports. My co-leader Aiyeshia ran a passport drive to help all 8 students apply for their passports. They excitedly sent off their applications in early April, anxiously awaiting their little blue books to arrive in the mail a few weeks later.
Unfortunately for 3 of the 8 students, that excitement turned into frustration thanks to a government bureaucracy. The passport office told these families that they didn’t have the right forms (even though they did), and when they resent their applications with the “correct” forms, the passport agency sent them back once again saying they were still missing parts of the application (which they were not). None of the disputed paperwork information was listed on the government website, and when the parents called the office for clarification about what they needed to provide, the agent was rude, unhelpful and acted as if my students had done something wrong.
There was a point in the passport process when one of the parents wanted to give up, saying it wasn’t worth dealing with this and they shouldn’t have to put up with this treatment. My stomach dropped when I heard that. There is no reason it should have been harder for these 3 students to get a passport than any other US citizen — and yet, it is.
As with discriminatory voter ID laws, the passport application process is an institutional barrier designed to disenfranchise people of color and low income Americans from basic rights that wealthy white people don’t think twice about. The feeling of fatigue and wanting to give up is a purposeful and intentional outcome of the process.
After months of back-and-forth with the passport bureau, the passports finally arrived 3 days before our departure date. These three students waited over 3 months for the passports, even though normal processing is 4-6 weeks. The achievement of getting their passports was largely possible because of the dedication, perseverance and hard work by Aiyeshia and the parents of these young people.
Facing Microaggressions While Abroad
Getting their passports was only the first hurdle our young group was forced to overcome. While in Costa Rica, they faced the standard litany of microaggressions that barrage people of color every single day. (Not familiar with what microaggressions are? Read up about them here.)
I could detail all the various examples I witnessed — bystanders staring at us uncomfortably, people walking on the other side of the street when we approached, store owners following around the students as they shopped — but I will just focus on one particularly illuminating example.
Our group was feeding animals at the rescue center and there was a white couple taking a day tour who joined us during the task. They didn’t really speak to the students or Aiyeshia directly, primarily only speaking to me, which in itself is an issue… But I digress. They asked me a variety questions about the group like “How long are they in Costa Rica?” and “What were they doing there?” and “How did they pay for it?”. Although somewhat annoyed, I politely answered their questions.
And then came the kicker: “They sure are well-behaved for black kids. They seem like a good bunch”.
This is a classic example of a microaggression that undoubtedly many people of color will relate to. But for newcomers to the racial justice space who are reading this, you might be wondering what is the problem with this statement? It is a compliment to say they are well-behaved and a “good bunch”.
Let me break it down for you.
This white couple encountered a group of 8 black students and made an assumption about what their behavior would be like. They perhaps assumed they would be loud, misbehaved, deviant or even dangerous. Perhaps they made this assumption based on previous experience with black student groups, but it is more likely that they made this assumption based on internalized stereotypes about black teenagers which are regularly reinforced by media portrayals of black bodies.
When their assumption was proven wrong by interacting with our group, this couple acted as if our group’s behavior was a shocking yet pleasant surprise to them. They acted as if they had never seen people of color behave with such “poise” or “responsibility”.
Now let’s flip the situation. If this couple ran into a group of white students, their assessment would likely not have been the same. In fact, they probably would not have noticed or acknowledged a group of “well-behaved” white kids because society assumes they would behave well. Even worse, if a group of white students were misbehaving, this misbehavior would not have been attributed to their race but rather to their maturity or excused by something like “Oh, they are just goofing around”.
See the problem?
Now back to the story. I responded to the couple’s statement with “of course they are, they are great students and deserve this trip. They worked hard to get here and I am proud to lead this group of smart, capable and thoughtful students”.
My response was sincere but upon further reflection, it was laced with my own racial bias. I felt compelled to acknowledge the students’ honorable qualities as if to validate their deserving a trip to Costa Rica. I responded as if a group of black students couldn’t just travel because they wanted to. They had to deserve it. They had to earn it and I had to justify why they were there. This demonstrates my own internalized meritocracy, my own internalized white supremacy.
Witnessing Overt and Blatant Racism
Unfortunately it didn’t stop at micro-aggressions. We dealt with overt and blatant racism too. I speak decent Spanish, and as such, Costa Rican people would often speak to me directly if they didn’t speak English. In a conversation with a host family, one of the host moms “accidentally” referred to my students as the n-word in Spanish. The n-word. Seriously.
While some may point out that the n-word has a different linguistic heritage and colonialist meaning in Costa Rica, it is nonetheless highly offensive, inappropriate and unacceptable to say that to an American who does come from a background where that word is highly racist. When I called out this host mom’s inexcusable behavior in my broken Spanish (I don’t exactly know anti-racist terminology in Spanish), she awkwardly giggled and apologized saying she meant “morenos” or black people, not the n-word.
Although that experience was upsetting, it was unfortunately not surprising. Since I started working professionally in the travel field, I have dealt with host families not wanting to host people of color or partner organizations refusing to accept an application from a student of color. These are examples of blatant and overt racism.
Racism in travel isn’t new. It’s just new for white people to notice it. There are people in every country who are not subtle about their racism and there are recent stories of hate crimes against black travelers abroad. Because of course there is. Plenty of bloggers and writers of color share similar stories of discrimination and racism, including Tamara J. Walker who says:
Of course, all travelers face a certain degree of scrutiny no matter who they are or where they go. But in my experience of traveling alone and in groups [as a black woman], there is a difference between encountering genuine curiosity and being singled out as unwelcome, suspicious, or undeserving of basic human kindness. From Latin America to Europe and other places in between, these latter examples became the norm for me. Unfortunately, other black travelers I know have had similar experiences.
Internalizing White Supremacy
For me though, the hardest moment of the trip actually came from one of my students. Our whole group was preparing for our adventure activity day, which included zip lining over a rainforest canopy. Only Aiyeshia and I had been zip lining before and the students were understandably nervous about the experience. Several of them were scared of heights and felt uncomfortable, but were putting on a strong face to overcome their fears.
As we were gearing up with our helmets and harnesses, one female student said to me “Black people don’t do this. This is for white people. They do adventure stuff. Black people don’t do adventure activities.”
My heart almost broke.
Zip lining was not just scary to this young woman because of the heights or adventure that most people fear about zip-lining; it was something she believed that she couldn’t do because of her race. And that is the awful legacy of white supremacy and white privilege. It isn’t just something that people perpetuate in the form of microaggressions or overt racism. White supremacy is a paradigm of thought that bleeds through society and poisons the minds of us all, including the people who are oppressed.
Until that young woman made the comment about zip-lining, I never attributed travel or risk-taking as a part of my racial identity. I was subtly taught from a young age that traveling was for “people like me”. Nearly everyone I saw in travel ads was white. I had people in my life who traveled. I never experienced discrimination when I traveled. It was just assumed that I could travel as long as I had the money. This was a space where I belonged.
This young lady helped me realize that she didn’t feel the travel space was a space she belonged. And that is a big problem.
Many white travelers I know use travel to escape the “real world” or to take a break from the struggles of adult life, which is fine and understandable. But that is not necessarily the reality for people of color when they travel. To quote white travel writer Sian Ferguson “On planes and in airports, nobody assumes that I’m violent, a criminal, or a terrorist. When entering countries, nobody assumes I’m trying to illegally immigrate there. In foreign spaces, my foreign-ness is seen as interesting and not weird or odd.”
People of color can’t leave the color of their skin behind when they board a plane and regardless of where they are going, they are likely to experience some form of discrimination. Sure, there are destinations where people of color may face less discrimination than others, but it is something they can never avoid entirely.
Having This Conversation is Important, Albeit Challenging
Given that travel is the space where I work, write and think about often, my experience in Costa Rica reminded me how important, critical, and time-pressing this conversation is. Travel isn’t the only space where we need to be talking about white privilege. This needs to be part of a much, much larger conversation about inequality, white supremacy, and anti-black racism.
Unlearning white supremacy is really, really hard because it is basically hard-wired into Americans from birth. It especially hard for those in the privileged group (white people) to discern, accept and manage their involvement in it. There is a lot of guilt, anger, and resentment that comes with confronting your involvement and perpetuation of white supremacy.
And hey, I get it — I deal with those troublesome feelings myself. It is a lot to process. And like my response to that couple, we will inevitably make mistakes or say the wrong thing in the process of unlearning.
But I, nor anyone, should use the challenge or discomfort of this conversation as an excuse to not have the conversation. We need to have this conversation. And we need to have it now.
Changing the Privilege Narrative in the Travel Industry
I don’t write this piece because I want brownie points or validation in my “wokeness”. I don’t write this as some sort of PSA announcement for travelers of color — they are already well aware of this discrimination. I don’t write this piece as if I have discovered some new atrocity and want to make everyone aware of it. I am not the first white person to notice this systematic racial bias, and plenty of other observers are far smarter and more articulate than myself (I particularly like this recent post in HuffPost as well as this older piece from the Matador network).
I write this because I want to change the narrative. I want white travelers to identify and deal with their privilege. I want to work towards equity and equal access for ALL travelers. I want to make the travel industry as diverse as possible.
I am tired of reading posts about how everyone should just go travel. I am tired of primarily white travel bloggers telling stories about how they quit their job to travel and now make a 6-figure salary teaching other people how to do the same thing. I am tired of hearing that travel is achievable for everyone if you just set your mind to it. I am guilty of promoting those tropes myself and I am ready to change the message, change the narrative.
As white privileged travelers, we need to acknowledge that our ability to travel isn’t always the same for communities of color, and it isn’t just economic reasons holding people back. It is racial reasons too. We need to acknowledge that often our own racial privilege allows us to explore the world safely and comfortably. We are able to travel, in part, because of white supremacy.
If we want to dismantle white privilege in travel, we all have to be an active part of changing that narrative.
Travel writers need to stop shaming people who don’t (or can’t) travel. Instead of spreading false narratives about travel, let’s empower travel for everyone. Let’s build a diverse community of travelers. Let’s champion stories of young people of color going abroad. Let’s develop opportunities for everyone to travel regardless of their privilege. Let’s support the next generation of young travelers, like this group that I co-led, to feel confident and safe traveling the world.
I think this recent group experience in Costa Rica helped me more deeply understand and empathize with travelers of color. I hope that the travel community can start to have this conversation on a larger scale, just as we are doing as a nation, because it is an important conversation to have. In a hopeful sign, there are some good stories about positive change happening within the travel space. As much as I love traveling and will continue to do so both professionally and personally, I by no means think this is the end of my unlearning journey.