I’ve been wanting to write a blog post on travelling while White for a while. I know that any conversation about race and privilege is a minefield, but for me as a white person, I think it is beyond time for us to start the discussion.
I hope that this isn’t seen as an attack, but rather, a from the heart plea for us to be better and learn from our mistakes. As always, you can email me or add a comment, I’m not perfect and I want to try to have a genuine dialogue.
Travelling while white: Why do they have to make everything about race?
Many white people I know tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to any conversation about race. We tend to feel uncomfortable or attacked when the topic of race or racism comes up, and there’s actually a really good reason for that. This article on racial literacy is an awesome introduction to the term ‘white fragility’.
Now before you get defensive, we all suffer from white fragility at some point, it is quite honestly more a fault of our society than any personal attack. But it is vital we overcome these feelings in order to be able to learn about race, privilege, and just how differently white people and POCs (People of Colour), experience the world.
First, you need to understand that we have been taught to see racism in a completely unhelpful way. We think about people who actively and intentionally hurt POCs, consciously deciding to dislike and disparage anyone they deem as non-white. With this definition, most of us can fall asleep safe in the knowledge that we are not racists, and we can all agree that racism is bad and wrong. But racism is much more insidious than this.
With this limited definition we can get filled with outrage when well-meaning white people are called racist, or when someone tells us that we are acting in a racist way. Racists are not friendly, or well-meaning, and they certainly don’t have good intentions, right? Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.
Racism is often an unconscious bias, years of learning through our culture, media, and often our own families and friends, that whiteness is somehow better than non-whiteness. The most educated and well-meaning white people can behave in racist ways completely unconsciously, and when called out on the behaviour, feel blindsided and misunderstood. This is white fragility, and it centres the conversation around the hurt feelings of white people, shutting down any further dialogue or any potential learning.
Travelling while white: White Privilege
One of the biggest sticking points for White people, is an incorrect understanding of what it means to be privileged. I have friends who fight tooth and nail to show that they come from a poor background, or that they have been fighting unemployment and can therefore not be considered privileged. The refrain is one of ‘I work so hard for what I have achieved, nothing was given to me’. The problem is that none of these things discounts White privilege.
Can someone who is poor, unemployed, or in debt benefit from White privilege? Absolutely. White privilege is not about money or employment. White privilege is a much less tangible thing, which is why I think people have such a strong reaction to the term. I will try to explain it as it was explained to me in the hopes that you can see the parallels with your own life and experience.
I have never walked into a shop and been followed around by the shop attendant as if I was a shoplifter. I have never had someone grip their bag tightly and move it away from me when I sit near them on public transport. In short, I have never experienced someone assume I was a criminal because of my appearance. This is just one instance of White privilege.
I have, in general, been assumed to be a responsible and intelligent person, unless and until I proved otherwise. I experienced no struggle with accessing help or services I need, whether medical, emergency, or otherwise. I have never been turned away from a property I wanted to rent, or a large purchase I was thinking of making. Travelling while White has, in general, been a rewarding and affirming experience. All of these are examples of White privilege.
You may have never thought about these things, and that too is a privilege, as our Whiteness allows us to move through life without reflecting much on our race. I bet you didn’t even think about travelling while White as a thing before you stumbled on this article! Non-white presenting people do not have this privilege, and must live a different reality everyday, all the while being careful not to upset the status quo. This is White privilege in action.
I know it isn’t something we want to talk about, and I know it is easier to push the blame on our parents, or previous generations, or whatever else, but if we do not actively work to acknowledge and dismantle this system we are complicit in it. This comic on privilege does a great job of further explaining what I mean. For further reading, check out Lori Lakin Hutcherson’s response to her White friend’s question about White privilege.
Without a doubt the most enlightening thing I have read on White privilege is this article on explaining White privilege to a broke White person. It’s a PDF so you can download it and share it with others, or save it for later.
Travelling while white: White savior complex
I’ll give you an example from my own life. After high school I was part of a Christian youth team for 2 years, travelling all around my home country South Africa, as well as Malawi and Australia. I was the only white person on the team, and as such, I was pretty secure in the fact that I was not racist, in fact, I was the opposite of racist.
I confidently took part in the team’s activities, which included teaching Life Orientation classes in local township schools, and essentially counseling high school kids. Of course none of us were qualified teachers or counselors, we were all fresh out of high school. But we believed that God had given us a ‘calling’ to minister to young people, and we did so with great gusto.
I am now, many years later, a qualified mental health professional. It angers me that I was part of a team that so easily sent untrained kids into township schools unsupervised. I listened to stories about drug addiction, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, and serious family dysfunction. I was not a professional. What if someone had committed suicide? What if we had acted inappropriately? Simply because we were ‘called by God’, we believed that we were untouchable.
This is what No White Saviors calls ‘white saviour complex’, and it is a form of racism. Don’t believe me? I can tell you with not a doubt in my mind that we could never have done what we did in privileged city schools. In fact, when we went to those schools on occasion, we only danced and sang, and maybe shared a personal testimony. Rich schools have access to trained professionals, poor schools are ‘lucky’ to get 18 year olds with a ‘purpose’.
No White Saviors is dealing with an even more extreme example of this behaviour, involving a white missionary with no medical training, performing surgery with her NGO in Uganda. Over 100 children have died in her care, and get this, she’s still there! If you want to get an education about white savior-ism, and just generally learn how not to centre yourself in the middle of every discussion, follow them on Instagram here: No White Saviors.
And if you are thinking to yourself, well, I would NEVER do something so unethical, you’re right, but there are less extreme behaviours that we need to be aware of.
Travelling while White: Black kid photos
You know the photos I mean. Flick through Instagram, or even attend a church service, and you’ll probably be inundted with variations on the same image. One white person surrounded by a cloud of smiling black children, or one white person cradling a sick black baby, or giving out candies, or learning to dance. These are the pictures that NGOs have fed us through the media for years. These are images of predominantly African people portrayed as passive receptors of white aid, money, attention, help.
Photographs like this are more concerned with how selfless the white person looks than the well-being of anyone else in the picture. The children are blasted across the internet without informed consent from them or their parents. These are not photos that centre the POC, but rather the good work of the white person in the photo. This of course, may have never been the intention of the person, but it is there nonetheless.
I’m also not saying that you can’t volunteer with community-based organisations, or happen to find yourself interacting with children of another race. The problem is that often travelling while White means telling everyone you’re travelling while White, making your experience more important than that of the community you may be engaging with. It is all about your part in the story, and how central that is on social media.
The pictures I’ve included all come from my youth group days, only now I have blurred out the faces of the children. Before, they were all there for anyone to see without their knowledge or consent, and purely to show what I was doing travelling while White.
Travelling while white: Voluntourism
There are many programs nowadays that promote using your vacation time as an opportunity to volunteer in low-income countries and ‘make a difference’. I absolutely understand the impulse to take part in these programs. But I feel very uncomfortable with them.
Many of these programs are glorified hlidays, where the money goes to a foreign-owned NGO, and the people benefit very little beyond giving the tourist a reason to feel ‘blessed’ and ‘useful’. This may sound harsh, but we need to wake up. The so-called 3rd world is not full of people lying around waiting for white people to save them. There are skilled and passionate people working hard every day in their home countries, working with communities, having done extensive needs assessments and creating a brighter future for people.
We need to research, find local community run organisations, and then ask ourselves if we have skills that are so required that our presence will be more help than burden. Doctor without borders is an awesome organisation that takes professional people and resources where there often is very little. Unless you are a medical professional or have skills that are specifically needed, someone is going to have to babysit you instead of doing the work they are actually needed to do.
I’m not trying to tell you not to care. You can raise funds for local organisations, use your social media to raise awareness for them, donate money or get in touch and ask what you can give, all of these things are useful and good and necessary. You won’t get to star in your own reality TV show of ‘Becky in Africa’, but you can start to contribute to the world seeing Africa as a place full of skilled, able, and independent people.
Travelling while white: South African Expats
If you have made it all the way here, thank you. But it is about to get even more uncomfortable. I want to talk specifically to the White South African Expats in the room. I’ve been a Saffa Expat for nearly 2 years now, living in Korea and travelling around South East Asia. At this point I get really nervous to hear about or meet other white South Africans.
Guys, South Africa has a complex and layered history, and although I love my country deeply, there are some big problems there. The problem for me though, is that those problems keep leaving SA and spreading their particular brand of hate and hurt all over the world. It’s us, White South Africans, that I would argue are one of SA’s biggest issues. We can all agree that corruption and violence are terrible things, but White people in SA often believe that those things are because of one thing: POCs.
When I hear about another South African, my heart stops for a second because I don’t know what the next sentence will be. I have had a heartbreaking conversation with a Korean teacher who couldn’t understand the aggressive and racist South African teacher she had to deal with at work. I’ve also had my heart drop when the second sentence out of a South African’s mouth is ‘well at least this is better than the mess the k****** made back home hey!’, assuming my complicity in these sentiments.
I’m an economic migrant. I left SA because I had a job offer that provided me with 3 times my salary at my then job. I am privileged because even here in Asia, my white skin means that I get job offers much more readily than a POC, regardless of nationality. I am also privileged because I had the wealth necessary to make the move to halfway across the world when a job offer presented itself. And I am incredibly privileged because although I am making a lot more here than at home, I was not escaping poverty. I was living comfortably and could have continued to do so without undue stress about being unable to pay rent or buy food.
Please, White South Africans, we need to check ourselves. We need to reflect on where we come from and what we portray to other people. I am not minimizing the fear or the crime you may have experienced at home, I understand, my husband has been mugged twice, and my father’s house is regularly broken into. It can be so difficult to keep perspective when our families are in danger, but we must fight to remember the inequality that is at the root of the violence and crime in our country.
As difficult as it is, we need to try to remove the emotion and look at the facts: our lived experience is very different to the lived experience of POCs in South Africa. I am not saying you didn’t have it tough, I’m saying that being White was not a hardship you had to endure.
It is up to us to change our own prejudices, the conscious ones, and the unconscious. It will take time, and it will be deeply uncomfortable, but we need to listen to POC, we need to educate ourselves, we need to do some deep soul-searching. We can keep hurting our country, or we can begin to build her up, but we cannot run away.
Travelling while white: something we never think about
I don’t know about you, but I hardly think about my race when I am travelling. I immerse myself in the culture, explore new places, eat new foods, and generally enjoy being somewhere different. This is White privilege in action: we don’t often have to think about being White. We may think of being English-speakers, or coming from a certain country, but Whiteness doesn’t factor into a lot of our daily thinking.
POCs think about being non-white a heck of a lot. They are forced to. If you don’t believe me, look at the Dompas documents that POCs had to carry at all times in Apartheid South Africa, or the ‘Travelling while Black‘ books that were published in the US 50 years ago, letting POCs know where it was safe to shop, eat, and even pump gas while travelling across the country. And if you think it is a relic of the past, look at the 2017 travel advisory issued by the NAACP, warning POCs that traveling to certain states to be aware of race-based incidents of violence and discrimination.
I’m not saying that white people travel stress-free. I wrote an entire article dedicated to anxiety and long-term travel. I absolutely understand and can give you tons of examples from my own travels of times when I have felt scared, cheated, unsafe, stressed, or overwhelmed. Travelling while White is not a bucket full of sunshine. All I want to challenge you to do is to think about how different your experiences might have been if you added being a POC to them.
For centuries, White people have been travelling the world, colonizing, studying, and exoticizing, all the while only stopping to study the strangeness of the ‘Other’, the ‘uncivilized’ behaviours, and the lack of culture. Maybe it’s time we began travelling while White, learning about ourselves and our own prejudices and privileges, and how we can dismantle them.
Travelling while White: Where do we go from here?
If you have been challenged by this blog post and want to learn more about travelling while White or just how to be a less problematic traveller, here are some amazing accounts and people that are doing the work daily. Education is how we fix this, when we know better, we can do better.
How not to travel like a basic b*tch (especially the travelling while Native series that inspired this post)
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