Traveling as a Person of Color Is Stressful
Trips are supposed to be relaxing, but I can’t help but be on edge.
Source image: Shutterstock
It's not uncommon for people to fall under the belief that traveling is a remedy for being a shitty person or having shitty outlooks on life. That's more or less what I imagine is the premise of Eat Pray Love. One Mark Twain quote exemplifies it the best, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." The quote, shared generously on Instagram travel accounts that heavily feature the same photo of Santorini every six months, is a nice way for people who can afford to travel to feel good about themselves. Not only are you escaping from your everyday life, you're becoming better for doing so. Of course, it's worth wondering exactly what it means for those of us who bear the brunt of prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. What is that person supposed to learn?
I've been privileged enough to have the resources and time to do my fair share of traveling. Naturally, I've picked up on a lot of know-how you'd only gain through experience—stuff like when to buy tickets, how to make the most out of a short layover, and how to sleep comfortably with minimal drooling. All of these things come naturally to me. Still there are consequences. I'll never be prepared for no matter how often I go across the world. Being a Muslim who wears a hijab, passing through security still makes me anxious and can sometimes give me panic attacks based on the country I'm visiting. There's no way to know whether or not I'll get a little extra attention from a TSA agent, or if I'll be asked questions in a way that make me feel there's no correct answer. And while the journey can be rough, I face plenty of worries once I reach my destination. When I go to a new country or city, I'm left wondering how much racism or prejudice I'll endure.
If you haven't been in my position, it's easy to think I'm possibly exaggerating. Maybe you're from one of the cities that have made me scour forums and Google "How racist is ____." If you've never experienced racism, you will likely tell a person of color that they'd have a great time in your awesome, hip city, or your small town where everyone says hello to each other without understanding their real concern. Only, for almost every person of color I know, one of our main concerns when trying to go on vacation is to make sure we'll be able to visit a new place with having to deal with the least amount of racism as possible. Still think I'm being a little too much? This past June, a black tourist named Bakari Henderson was beaten to death in Greece when a group of 15 men instigated a fight with him at a restaurant. While the report doesn't explicitly mention race being a factor, his friends suggested he was a person that was not likely to fight or resort to violence. It's stories like this that become sober reminders for people who look like me that we're not being too paranoid or over the top.
It doesn't just extend to the destination itself either. When you're not white and traveling, finding a place to stay is an added factor of worry. Last summer, I traveled with my sister, her husband, and their children for an extensive trip across Southeast Asia. Without thinking, we completed all of our bookings under her (white) husband's Airbnb account. It wasn't even a question of whose account would be used, we knew we'd have more success with his photo and name representing us, it was something we joked about often—but our fears were again rooted in reality. Since its inception, Airbnb has been criticized for the racism experienced by its customers. Last spring, black Airbnb user Quirtina Crittenden started the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack after being frequently rejected by hosts. Telling NPR that after changing her name and photo on the website, she hasn't been rejected once. Her experiences and the ones of those who used the hashtag aren't unique either—in 2015 a Harvard study concluded that white sounding names had a 50 percent success rate when renting an Airbnb while black sounding names had only a 42 percent success rate.
The problem of discrimination on Airbnb has become such an issue for them that in 2016 the company released an internal report with plans to combat the concerns of customers. While they pledged to create a more diverse workplace and work with experts on bias to remedy the issue, there have still been too many stories about people facing racism at the hands of hosts. This summer alone, a black South African poet was filmed being pushed down the stairs by her white host in Amsterdam, while another host was fined $5,000 for canceling a woman's booking because she was Asian.
As with all discrimination, there are levels depending on who you are. Speaking to Rahawa Haile, an Eritrean American writer who went on a solo six-month hike on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, there's a lot to consider. "I get annoyed when people talk about traveling while black like it's the same across the board." According to Haile, there's plenty more to consider than just race. "I'm more inclined to travel to somewhere in Europe than somewhere where there's a caste system and darker skinned women are viewed as less." Haile echoed my own concerns when traveling, "What's amazing to me is that I have to plan my trips based on how much time I feel comfortable being othered." When trekking through the US, Haile told me the experience felt different than visiting a place in Europe where the history of blackness was different. "I know I'm putting myself into really white and racist situations but I know that they're aware of what blackness in American means for the most part."
Still, being othered in countries where you're not fully familiar with the language or customs is a different experience. There's a level of microaggression and racism you're willing to let go of and expect. Traveling in Vietnam, I noticed many people openly gawking at my family and taking photos, which I'm certain had to do with both race and the fact that we are Muslim. Tourists from other parts of Asia would come up to me and take photos without my permission, though sometimes they did ask to take a photo with me, which I would sometimes allow because it was easier than saying no. For my upcoming trip to Europe, my fears are different and a bit more sinister. With the prevalence of right-wing hate groups like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) which boast tens of thousands of members—my fears are grounded in the area's current political climate.
Telling Haile about my upcoming trip, she expressed something to me about traveling while a person of color I couldn't find the words to articulate. "Traveling by default means vacation to white people, but it's not as easy to access that relaxation for people of color because these are the precautions," she told me. Being well aware of the risks, I can't help but try and think of what the alternative would be. The sad truth is that regardless of where I am, there's no way to escape racism or discrimination. I will only find myself experiencing it in a familiar environment or somewhere I've never been. And while that carries its own risks, I never know when I'll have enough money or time to travel again. But personally, the fear is not great enough to stop me from having what could potentially be a once in a lifetime experience.
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