How racism & white privilege affects BIPOC travellers
Let me start this post by fully acknowledging my white privilege. As a mixed race girl who has grown up in a very white predominant area of the UK, I have lived a sheltered life in comparison to many. I don’t put my experiences on a pedestal or compare them in any way to what those growing up in the US have lived through. But I do relate to that pain and it cuts deep through my heart. Because small though my experiences have been, they have shaped every aspect of my life for my entire life. From before my earliest memory, race was already an engrained part of my life. It was in the stares, the questions – even the ones that weren’t voiced.
This is why I wanted to create this post – because I know how much of an impact racism can have on the lives of BIPOC people. I also know that I have a partially white audience through this blog and I see that as an opportunity. Over the last few weeks since Black Lives Matter hit the headlines, I’ve been looking for a way that I could make a difference. I have this platform for a reason and I want to use it to educate and to help my audience grow. So, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to broach the topic of racism for travellers, and specifically, BIPOC travellers. I invite you – no matter what your colour or privilege – to take moment to read the experiences of these amazing men and women.
Please note: I am very aware that travelling itself is a privilege. Those featured in this post are already more privileged than many BIPOC people out there. But as this is a travel blog – it was an important issue to raise.
A huge thank you…
Before we get into it – I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to the incredible humans who have contributed their experiences to this post. Talking about racism is not easy, no matter what colour you are. But it can be especially traumatic for those BIPOC people who have experienced it first hand. This blog is all about real, raw, honest experiences and I’m so honoured that they felt they could share theirs on this platform. I hope you will all treat them with the respect they deserve for doing so. You can also click through the images in this blog post to go directly to the Instagram feeds of everyone who has contributed. I urge you to do so, as I have linked to specific posts on racism where possible.
BIPOC tales of white privilege & racism
Lucy Ruthnum, of Absolutely Lucy – adventure travel blog
Paki. Black bitch. Exotic. Mohammed. You look like you need a good wash. Foreigner. One for the collection. Dirty.
My young life was peppered with racial slurs and “banter”, but far worse were subtler forms of institutionalised racism I experienced. As a traveller, I’ve had groups of men follow my family and spit at us for being a mixed race family in Morocco. I’ve experienced all the racial jokes in Australia – but when I’ve challenged them been told it doesn’t include me because I’m “not as ugly as black girls”. There’s the guys tell me I’m “exotic” and try to “collect” me for the experience of sleeping with a brown girl – did you know Mauritian girls are sought after?
A group of racists tried to intimidate me on a train in London. I’ve had men wait in groups on street corners in Nicaragua and leer over me, stepping that little bit closer to intimidate me. I thought it was because I was a woman. Then they shouted racial abuse after me. I could go on and on with the attacks. But even worse are the micro-aggressions and the throwaway comments that you laugh along with because it’s safer/easier. Living in northern Germany, it was easier to ignore the constant stares and attempts at intimidation on public transport than to challenge them.
Lucy is mixed-race/British – with family from the UK, and Mauritius. Going back further, from India. She is based in Norfolk, UK. Website: Absolutely Lucy
Aftab Pathan, of Fresh and Fearless – luxury travel blog
I can’t deny that I have grown up with great privilege, despite being a person of colour. Travel has always been accessible to me, but I’ve never taken it for granted. When travelling to a new destination, I always exercise my due diligence to understand the local culture and what the citizens are like towards coloured travellers. It’s a part of my travel routine that I never vocalise. I just accepted it is something I have to do for my own safety, even today.
A friend and I were returning to Pisa airport after a ski trip in the Italian Dolomites. My friend realised her documents were at the bottom of her handbag outside the entrance to the airport check-in hall. There were three armed police officers standing nearby. The older Caucasian lady of the trio requested we hand over our passports. She took them away and requested the two younger officers to stand around us, as if we were a risk.
At that point, we knew exactly what was happening. We were under investigation because of our race.
We both stood there, completely innocent but with an overwhelming sense of humiliation. Other travellers looked over as if we were criminals. We both lost the plot – it was an outright act of racism. We started raising our voices in protest and were eventually handed back our passports, but we were still under supervision until we were out of their sight.
You can’t judge someone based on the amount of pigment in their skin. It doesn’t tell a story – it never has, and never will.
Aftab is Indian/British and lives in London, UK. He has grown up in the UK, but his parents were born in Tanzania and Uganda. Website: Fresh and Fearless
Efia Sulter, of Effy Talks Life – solo travel & wellness blog
One of my most recent brushes with racism while travelling happened in Seoul, South Korea. I was walking on one of the main streets in Hongdae with a friend I’d made at the hostel. Then, I was suddenly aware of an uncomfortable presence and sure enough I turned round to see a man staring at me with disgust in his eyes. I looked away and continued walking, but still I felt his eyes on me. Once again I looked back and he’d stopped dead in the street just standing there, looking at me. So in that moment I decided to stop and stare back. He immediately looked ashamed and walked away.
There’s this pressure when travelling as a black woman that “the way I react is going to set the tone for my entire race”, but in that moment I just wanted someone to know just once how it felt to be on the other side. Sadly this was just one of a string of racist experiences around the world.
Efia is black British and comes from Scotland, UK. She’s currently living in Melbourne, Australia. You can learn more about her experiences of travelling as a black woman in Asia, The US and Australia. Website: Effy Talks Life
Travis Levius, travel journalist & content creator
My passion for world travel is too strong to be stunted by ignorant individuals. That said, the challenges still exist.
There’s been no better way to identify racism than by travelling abroad with white people. Just this February I was on a group trip to Moscow, and all group attendees were allowed to proceed through the border security – except me. Though I answered the same questions and my visa application was spotless like the others, I had to wait an extra 30 minutes for additional checks. It was discriminatory déjà vu, as it happened to me a few months prior with another group trip (all white) in Japan. It was only me who was presented with a poster board of 15 or so drug types, with the customs officer asking if I brought any of the listed illegal substances one-by-one. Even with all “no’s”, they still rummaged through my suitcase.
Being Black abroad has a presence, and I wish I could turn off that ‘visibility’ – along with all the pre-loaded conceptions people might have about me and my ethnicity – yet it remains.
Travis is Black American and is currently based between London and Atlanta. He works as a travel journalist and content creator. Check out one of his latest articles for CNN here.
Amy Jarvis, of S&A Presets – travel & lifestyle blog
I was first exposed when I was 12 years old, I had just moved to Genova, Italy, with my parents and 2 brothers. I picked up the language quicker than the rest of my family. My mum is British Black Caribbean and my father, white British. I would walk home with my mum from work and hear people hiss or say nasty words to us as we walked past. I was so young, I did not understand why these things were being said, I wasn’t brave enough to translate to my mum.
At 21, I wanted to travel the world and trained as an air hostess, I love my job. However, on numerous occasions I have experienced racism not only in other countries but also on board too. I very often get referred to as “the black girl with the eyelashes.” My worst experiences and the ones that are most memorable to me are incidents in Moscow, Israel and Beijing. I’ve been called racist names whilst walking to grab breakfast, or in the supermarket and even on public transport. I then began to research these countries before I flew to know what I would be facing, something my white colleagues would never have to do.
It hasn’t put me off travelling, but it definitely is still a big issue. It has helped me become stronger and even prouder of who I am and where I come from. I just am now more prepared and educated when I travel to certain places.
Amy Jarvis is British, mixed black Caribbean & white British. She is currently based in London, UK, and runs an online business selling presets. Website: S&A Presets
Binny Shah, of Binny’s Food & Travel – food and travel blog
Whilst travelling, whether my own trips or press trips, on a few occasions I have experienced covert racism through micro-aggressions. Examples include when meeting people for the first time:
Them: “Which part of India are you from?”
Me: “I am actually from Kenya.”
Them: “Isn’t that in Africa? You don’t look black?”
Them: “You look exotic. Where are you from?”
Them: “I bet you eat curry everyday.” or “I bet you can handle spicy food.”
Them: “Your English is really good.” (It’s actually my first language).
The most interesting form of racism I have received though has been in India! Because I am not born in India, I once got called an ‘ABCD’ – An African Born Confused Desi. This was followed with a lot of mocking my accent in Gujarati, a language I understand.
Other examples of where I have felt that my colour has come in to play are when being seated at a restaurant, I tend to be shoved on a table near the back. This also happened at a press event in London too where it was obvious that I was the token person invited for ‘diversity.‘ I always react in a calm and collected manner, but the covert racism really does need to be addressed through education and learning as it is deeply ingrained.
Binny is third generation Indian born and brought up in Kenya, and now living in London. Website: Binny’s Food and Travel
Danny Aw, of A Wanderer at Heart, a solo travel & positivity blog
I was around 15 when this occurred. My family and I took the monorail to different parts of the cities. We sat next to a middle-aged white woman and she got up immediately. When my brother moved closer to her, she moved to the other end.
I was lugging around a huge suitcase on my way home from the airport. The bus that I hopped on after getting off the train was full so I just remained standing. A middle-aged white man who was about to get off the bus told me to get rid of my “stupid” luggage.
I wasn’t the type of person to back down in situations like this. So I smiled at him and casually told him off by saying that he shouldn’t have all that negative energy because he might, otherwise, stay single forever.
Dan is from Singapore and you can find his website: A Wanderer at Heart
Wunmi & Sophia of Thrifty with a Compass – BFF budget travel
Traveling as a POC often means having a very different experience compared to my white friends. Picture this – I remember it so clearly, because the pain and the embarrassment cut so deeply. I was at the Madrid airport flying home to the United States. I had just finished getting through security and was walking to my gate, when I was ushered to the side of the gate. They were performing ANOTHER security check, this time at “random”.
It did not take long for me to realise that the only other travellers around me were also dark skinned. It was glaringly obvious. They began ripping apart my entire bag, going through every pocket. Determined to find something that they thought fit my “image”. No matter how educated, well-traveled, kind, or respectful I present myself, my dark complexion will always be seen as a threat to certain people.
Wunmi (Nigerian) and Sophia (Vietnamese) are BFF budget travellers from the US. Website: Thrifty with a Compass
Yaya & Lloyd of Hand Luggage Only – a travel photo diary
Travelling around the world as often as we do, you’re constantly reminded that your race plays a huge factor in how people treat you.
It’s a strange thing to get used to because it was never really a thought that organically came to my mind at the start. I grew up in Nigeria which is predominantly black so race was never really a topic of conversation or a thing that crossed our minds. On our trips, however, my race has become a thing I’m constantly reminded of. Perhaps even exacerbated when travelling with Lloyd, who is white, and almost always treated differently.
I constantly get ‘randomly selected’ for extra security checks. (It happens so frequently to just me – not both of us that it’s definitely not random). We’ve been in conversations with restaurateurs and hotel owners where I’ve just been disregarded entirely. Even when I ask a question, they turn to Lloyd to answer the question I asked.
Or when I was physically blocked by airline staff while I was boarding a flight back to London from the US because the airline staff “insisted that only Business Class passengers were boarding at the time”. Except I was flying Business Class. They didn’t even bother to ask the question or check with me and just made an assumption based solely on how I look.
It’s not all been negative though – in Asia, I’ve had lots of people who’ve asked to take photos with me, which I choose to see as a positive thing, as it’s always done so politely and with a smile.
Yaya and Lloyd are from Nigeria and the UK and started their travel blog, Hand Luggage Only, while studying at Cambridge University.
I truly hope that this post made you stop and think. Most of all, I hope it made you realise how widespread racism actually is. That it’s not just aggressive attacks but a constant daily bombardment of “banter”, micro-aggressions and feeling on edge. This is just a tiny cross-section of people of colour from across the UK and US who have been affected when travelling. I’ve heard a million more stories just like this, and even worse in some cases. If you’ve grown up with white privilege, you may not realise the full extent of how people of colour continuously shift and change their behaviour and lives in order to put themselves at minimal risk. But it can affect every aspect of your life, from the things you wear and the way you speak, to the route you walk home and your education.
If you’re white and felt angry, or attacked by any of the words in this post. Instead of contacting me in the heat of the moment, I suggest you look up the following resources and educate yourself further. Once you have done so I’d be happy to have a discussion. But I won’t be entertaining conversations about this post with uninformed people. To those who have read this post with open hearts and minds – I thank you for taking the time and hope you will continue your education.
Resources on racism & white privilege:
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
- Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World
- When They See Us
- Dear White People
- The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
- Explore the full Black Lives Matter collection here