How Travel Has Made Me Uncomfortably Aware of My Racism
Recently, I wrote up a travel bucket list, and in the list of places I want to go, found my own racism staring me directly in the face.
But before I get to the contents of list, first some context. When I started traveling abroad, I set a personal policy that I would not go anywhere where I couldn’t at least speak enough of the language to have a logistical conversation about travel-relevant topics. I think that policy initially came from a good place–I was frustrated with the xenophobia I saw in American travelers who complained about how terrible Paris is because the French are super rude, but didn’t bother to learn a word of the French language. “Everybody speaks English!” always struck me as deeply wrong, and I was struggling a lot as a teenager with the meaning of American empire and my complicity in it.
In high school, I was drawn to the study of French because it had always seemed like a rather sophisticated, romantic language, and I already had some exposure to it. I picked German pretty much out of a hat because I needed another elective and it worked for my schedule. So I’m not going to blame myself too hard for starting with European languages, but I do think it had a role in how Eurocentric my perspective skewed over time.
From those initial studies, and my initial travel in the UK, France, and Germany (as well as the only time I broke my personal policy, on a required side trip to Prague with a school group), my interests tended to branch outward from Western Europe. I was really into Russia and Eastern Europe in college, and in law school I studied Turkish. I also developed an interest in less-spoken languages like Modern Irish and Occitan (southwest France). I did, at this point, notice that my language study was still hanging around Europe pretty much, and I branched out slightly with some study of Maori, and later brief jaunts into Arabic and Japanese. But these linguistic forays didn’t necessarily change my travel interests.
By 25, I had been bitten by the long-term lease bug, and became something of a nester. I’d always assumed that my interest in travel would lead me to go (and even live) all over the world, but I settled down in the DC area and realized that moving abroad was way too much of a hassle for me. Years ticked by and it’s now been 11 years since I was last overseas (though not abroad, I suppose, technically, since I’m typing this from a coffeeshop in Vancouver!)
Since my travel is now clearly going to be more personally driven than part of a career, I’ve started thinking about what places interest me. And this is where we get back to the bucket list, because I’ve learned that my preferences lie firmly in the Eurocentric world. Though I do plan to study Spanish and Arabic some more after my impending trip (which I’m on as this post goes live) to France, Italy, and Greece, travel in Latin American doesn’t really grab me and Middle Eastern travel seems “too dangerous.” I don’t have any particular interest in East Asia, either, and of all the possibilities in Africa only Morocco and Algeria made my list. So what’s up with that?
Bottom line: I’m white. And therefore, I’m racist. As much as I want to do anti-racist work, dig into my own whiteness, and challenge my white peers to consider race in their everyday lives, I’m not immune to racism. I’m most comfortable in places where the culture is similar to my own. I’m also used to a certain level of class privilege, and while I can joke about how I’m “too old for hostels,” the fact is that I kind of like clean, American-style hotels, and unlike most people I have the economic privilege to be able to afford them. So, while I do study languages before I go to a place still, I’ve pretty much become that gross American tourist I was trying to avoid. I’m more risk-averse than my younger self, and while I know intellectually that I’m being totally irrational, I avoid places where I’m afraid of anti-American or gender-based violence, bedbugs, or tropical disease. Sometimes I hide behind the excuse that white people traveling is just bad for most places and steeped in colonialism, but there would probably be responsible ways to do it. And I can’t help but wonder in my heart of hearts, how much of this is really fear of being a minority, fear of exposing myself to the kind of violence or conditions that black and brown people in my own country experience every goddamned day without any choice in the matter.
This is hard to talk about, but I think it’s important. I don’t know that the answer even is “go to more Global South nations to get over yourself,” because I don’t think the folks in those countries are responsible for educating my over-privileged ass, but maybe if I do some work on my own biases over time, I’ll get to a place where a wider range of countries hit my travel list organically — not because I’m trying to prove something, but because I’ve genuinely pushed past my own prejudices and have a genuine interest in visiting places outside my comfort zone.