by Darah Ghanem
My fascination with travel began at a young age. I grew up in the Middle East and spent every summer travelling with my parents. My family always encouraged travel — they instilled in me ideals about cultural awareness and learning as values that only travel can inspire. As such, I became a strong advocate for travel as an alternative revolutionary practice; it bolsters cultural exchange and brings us closer to cultures we know nothing about. In my mind, the travel community was a utopia where equality, intersectionality and cultural understanding prevail.
What my family didn’t warn me of was the ways in which my own identity would shape my travel experiences. Travelling solo over the years, I’ve become aware of how race and nationality — particularly being Muslim and Arab — would introduce me to a myriad of ways the travel community is not immune to the global history of racism and inequality. It shattered my utopian imaginations and taught me that the travel community has a long way to go. As racism seeps into the fabric of our every day lives, it can be dubious to assume that the global travel community is exempt from global racial inequalities that affect travellers like myself.
The Facade of the “Woke” Travel Community
One of the biggest appeals of solo travel is the opportunity to meet like-minded travellers — “like-minded” meaning open to different cultures regardless of where or when they might encounter them. My experiences, however, taught me that white privilege and racism can transcend the well-intentioned traveller’s agenda and is especially apparent when travellers, largely from the global North, encounter other travellers from less privileged backgrounds they might not anticipate meeting on trips.
As you might already know, the majority of globetrotters are fairly wealthy, white westerners. As an Arab, Muslim, female traveller, I am often the minority in travel groups, hostels, and ecolodges. Unlike many in those groups, I was never truly able to make friends with fellow travellers on my trips. Questions about where I learned to speak English, why I don’t wear a hijab, and how I managed to travel so far on my own became a standard part of my travel experience. Rarely did they probe beyond my racial identity and their questions about my background, heritage and identity dominated conversations. I became acutely aware of the relative ease with which “western” travellers mingled together. They seemed to be able to bond over trivial things, while I was left out or made peripheral to conversations. I recall sharing my commentary on global events and local foods — “I wish Bernie Sanders won the democratic vote” and “Colombian food reminds me of Lebanese cuisine” — in an effort to foster an interesting exchange, only to be met with blank stares. I could almost hear them thinking “how does she know Bernie?” In many cases I was better off speaking to locals at bars or in restaurants than socialising with travellers. I was marginalised by every group of people who claimed to travel for the experience of “learning about other cultures”.
These encounters became telling of the facade of the “progressive, accepting, tolerant” travel community. Once outside the borders of their “developed” countries, travellers exploring other cultures have the false pretence that they are open to understanding the “Other” by simply venturing into foreign spaces. As far as these experiences are of concern, there is a lack of active effort on their part to do any more than consume culture in the same way that you consume any commodity. These encounters also became an indicator of the genuine disinterest of many travellers – particularly those who are afforded aforementioned privileges – to learn about the complexities of the individuals and cultures present. Whether such behaviour is intentional or not is insignificant, as it continues to affect the marginalised traveller, and the marginalised communities being visited regardless.
National Identity and Race are different things — but work in the same way
Another valuable lesson I did not expect to pick up on my travels is the nuanced similarities between race and national identity. My experience showed me that national identity isn’t just a bureaucratic tool, but another layer of social inequity within the travel community.
For governments, nationality (the country on your passport) is an indicator of racial, cultural and ethnic background. For example, being an Arab national, I can only gain entry to 46 out of 196 countries. If you compare that to a German or American— who have access to 158 and 156 nations respectively — Arab mobility is obscenely restricted. Those with Arab nationalities must go through gruelling, expensive, and lengthy visa processes with unpredictable outcomes, as opposed to the relatively swift background checks that those with European or western nationalities become resigned to. National identity is a way for governments to profile travellers and filter races, especially in a post-9/11 world where immigration policy has become a priority for “developed” nations. While this is the standard travel experience all Arab passengers have become accustomed to, social injustices I have experienced in travel came as a shock.
The interactions I’ve had with People of Colour (PoC) who carry “first world” nationalities has been particularly interesting. I always optimistically assumed that all PoC, regardless of national identity, would be more sensitive to global social injustices. But to my dismay, I have experienced micro-aggressions from “first world” PoC travellers, particularly in conversations about global politics.
“You need to understand that the word ‘racist’ is a trigger for Americans” —American Person of Color on a recent trip.
On a recent trip to Central America, I was deep in conversation with a white American man about racism. An American Woman of Colour (WoC) who overheard this told me not to use the word “racist” in the conversation as it might offend white Americans around us. In that moment, not only did it feel patronising to hear that from another WoC, but it demonstrated the differentiation some PoC feel from the “third world”. Her shutting down my right to express how I felt and thought — especially on a topic regarding identity — surprised me. It seems that being in proximity to the “first world” culture allows some PoC the power to repeat the same oppressive patterns of behaviour against those from “third world” backgrounds. When that proximity comes in the form of a “first world” nationality, “first world” PoC can feel racially different from their “third world” counterparts.
Race and national identity are often functions of each other and true intersectionality understands the ways in which the two reinforce one another. As bureaucratic institutions continue to capitalise on racial injustice, individuals will follow suit. Travellers are no exception.
Travel as a Colonial Exercise
Upon critical examination of today’s travel craze, one will notice that it is a predominantly “western” exercise. Even historically, travel was a European activity linked to settler colonialism. When travel-for-pleasure became popular in the late 19th Century, it was accessible only to wealthy European families. Fast forward to modern times, travel continues to be an activity pursued by young westerners trying to “find themselves”. The links between today’s predominantly white, privileged, western travel community and the colonial endeavour of the last century are clear — in the “first world”, travellers’ lack of willingness to acknowledge the implicit and explicit ways in which racism can reside within oneself. In other words, they are not attuned to the aspects of their privilege that irrevocably tie them to collective white supremacy, and allow them to oppress others in ways they did not intend or expect to do.
Travel is a great showcase of the inequalities between travellers of the global North and the rest of the world. For many western travellers, “discovering” other cultures gives them the false sense that they are somehow “progressive” cultural enthusiasts — unless they come across cultures they were not prepared for. My encounters with the travel community have often distressed me, but I overcame this by continuing to travel and carrying my heritage proudly. I do believe that travel can be a revolutionary act once global injustices are acknowledged as part of our everyday lives.
Darah Ghanem is a travel writer and columnist based in the Middle East. Inspired by her love for culture, her writing emphasises the need for ethical tourism. Any travelling she does is purposeful, leaving a positive impact on the places she visits. Darah became passionate about ethical travel after working in the non-profit sector and was looking for ways to make a difference while celebrating other cultures. Darah also aims to break the barrier for Arab female travellers by creating a community of Arab female travellers through her writing. Over all, Darah’s work is all things ethical, authentic and alternative. Follow her travels on Instagram @darahgram.