Travelling in Brazil, Anu Taranath found that her brown skin attracted a lot of attention. The positive interactions she had surprised her, particularly since many people ignored her companion who spoke fluent Portuguese—but was white.
Understanding how our race, culture and privilege affect our interactions when we travel can help us become better travellers, says Taranath, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a racial equity consultant. In her book, Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, she explores how, as travellers, we can develop a keener awareness of how we’re perceived and learn to navigate our own privilege on the road.
But what is privilege, and what does it mean to travellers?
According to Roni Weiss, executive director of Travel Unity, a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diversity in travel, privilege is comprised of “the things you don't have to think about when it comes to your identity. And the reason you don't have to think about them is because they are aspects of your identity that fit into the dominant or majority group.”
As travellers, we interact with people who are different than we are, whether racially, culturally or economically. Travel can put us in situations where our privilege is obvious or where we experience privilege in new ways. And while these interactions provide opportunities for learning, they can also lead to uncomfortable conversations, awkward situations and a profound sense of guilt.
We spoke with travellers and experts from a range of backgrounds to learn how privilege affects our cross-cultural interactions—and how we can contextualize it within our travel experiences. Here’s what they said.
Is privilege only black and white?
Privilege can be most obvious when it’s related to race, but we have—or lack—privilege beyond the colour of our skin.
While travelling and living in Europe, Sojourner White—an American international social worker and travel blogger—noticed she was treated differently than African immigrants or people who were directly from Africa. “Nationality takes precedence in some cases over my race,” she says.
Jiyeon Juno Kim, who runs the travel blog Runaway Juno, was born in South Korea and lives in Anchorage, Alaska. As an Asian woman, she’s found it easier to connect with women in countries such as India, Nepal, or Malaysia, where it might not be socially acceptable for them to interact with male travellers—even when they didn’t share a common language. “Being Asian—from one of their own cultures—made it easier for them to talk to me,” says Kim.
“We have lots of different identities that play out at once,” says Taranath. “I have more wealth than many others. I have more stability, opportunity, mobility, safety and choice. My US passport gives me privilege. But my small, brown, woman of colour status—not in my eyes, but in the eyes of others—gives me less privilege.”
How does privilege affect your travels?
“Just being able to travel is a privilege. Sometimes we take that for granted,” says Nellie Huang, a travel writer originally from Singapore who now lives in Amsterdam.
As Huang notes, our awareness of privilege can start before we even leave home. Do we have the money and time to travel? Does our nationality enable us to travel where we want, or does it limit where we can go?
According to The Passport Index, which ranks passports based on the number of countries where holders of those documents can easily travel, Germans currently have the most powerful passport, enabling them to travel relatively unhindered to 137 countries. Canadian passports rank 16th and US passports 18th, allowing citizens of those nations to travel to 111 and 107 countries respectively. In contrast, travellers holding Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian or Somali passports would be welcome in fewer than 35 countries.
“It's important to understand how your perspective and bias play out when you experience the world.”
“It's important to understand how your perspective and bias play out when you experience the world,” says JoAnna Haugen, an American travel writer and former Peace Corps volunteer, who now runs Rooted, which helps to support sustainable tourism through responsible content creation. “That can show up, for example, when we go somewhere and say, ‘Oh, they're so poor, or I feel so bad for them.’”
Don’t be so quick to judge, suggests Haugen, who currently lives in Ukraine. “We don't need to be in judgment of what we see all the time. We can travel with a sense of humility and curiosity and wonder,” she says.
Deborah D. Douglas agrees. She’s the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and the author of Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler's Guide to the People, Places and Events That Made the Movement.
“Human beings have a habit of seeking out people who are like us,” she says. “So, we get told the same stories over and over again.” She recommends changing the narrative by exploring an area or neighbourhood that’s the opposite of where you might naturally go.
Be an open, respectful guest
“One of the best things we can do when we travel from a position of privilege is remembering that we are a guest,” Haugen says. “And that means being mindful of the water that we use, the garbage we create, and the noise that we're making when we're out having a good time.”
Accept that people do things differently, without centring yourself or insisting that your way is right. “The reason to go elsewhere, to a real place, is because you want to see what other people are like and how they do stuff,” Weiss notes. “That doesn't mean you have to agree with it.”
“As travellers we're often wrong,” adds Taranath. “We think we know what we're seeing, but we're often interpreting it from our own context.” Assume that your perspective isn’t necessarily correct, whether you’re in your own city or across the globe.
Consider how your background and commonalities can inform your interactions in positive ways, too. Kim says that because she grew up in a traditional Korean family, she appreciates similar cultures. “When I see people living very traditionally, I can instantly relate to that,” she says.
Should I ask questions?
“If you want to experience Indigenous cultures and go into Indigenous communities, don't be afraid to say the wrong thing if your intention is the right thing,” says Joe Urie, who incorporates his Métis heritage into tours he leads as co-owner of the Jasper Tour Company in the Canadian Rockies.
Barry McNealy, an education program consultant for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, welcomes questions too. On his tours of the city’s civil right history, he says that visitors are often taken aback when they learn how children were killed when a bomb was set off in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church or when they’re confronted with the historical realities of the segregated South.
“A lot of times people are reticent to ask what they really want to know or to delve into possibly uncomfortable narratives,” he says. “Bring an open mind. People have ideas of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but they don't really have a great appreciation for the depth of the struggle that those people fought, and for the individuals who fought that struggle alongside of them. You realize that you really never walked a mile in the shoes of people who didn't have the privilege that you have.”
Finally remember that asking questions and sharing stories go both ways.
“Hold the space so that the folks that we are visiting have the chance to learn from us, to ask questions about our lives, the food that we eat, our habits, routines and traditional costumes. We need to turn these extractive activities into two-way conversations,” says Haugen.
That was White’s experience when she was teaching in Spain. Many of her young students, who’d had little interaction with Black people, peppered her with questions. Understanding those questions as being motivated by genuine curiosity allowed her to answer them openly.
“It was a reminder that when they see the US, they don’t see me,” she says. “I’m not the face that they see outside of Obama and celebrity culture.”
What if I feel guilty about my privilege?
“We live in an unfair and unequal world,” says Taranath. “Most people don't want others to suffer. And yet the systems of the world are designed so that some people don't have to suffer as much, while others deemed less worthy have to suffer more. No wonder we drown in guilt as travellers; how could we not?”
Acknowledge that guilt and then talk about it, even before you leave home.
Acknowledge that guilt and then talk about it, even before you leave home.
“One need not get on a plane to learn about inequity, history, harm, resilience, joy, hope, struggle. All of that is right in front of us,” she says. “We can practice having conversations with one another that don't always produce a neat answer.”
Pay attention to how these discussions make you feel. “‘Wow, I feel a lot of discomfort right now. Where's that coming from? I wonder if others who are somewhat dissimilar to me feel the same. How might somebody else feel right now?’”
Weiss looks at the idea of guilt by considering the difference between sympathy and empathy. If you’re volunteering abroad or giving money to someone begging on the street simply because you feel bad for them, you’re not necessarily providing any real value.
“As opposed to coming at it from a Western superiority or saviour complex, come at it from an empathetic perspective and try to figure out what people actually need and want,” he says.
Travel with an “investment mindset”
Travel may be a privilege, but it’s also an economic necessity for many places—something the pandemic has highlighted in communities that typically depend on tourism. Yet, it’s complicated, says Haugen. “We talk about how we're going to build back better [after the pandemic] and focus on locals, and then we're centring the travellers, who are going to ‘save’ the travel industry, rather than looking at what’s best for the people who actually live in a place,” she says.
Huang says that in order to be an ally when she travels, she tries to stay at locally owned accommodation and shop in local stores and markets. “This way the money goes straight to the local community,” she explains.
Douglas calls this approach “an investment mindset”—supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, with the idea that, “this place is worthy of my investment.”
Look for travel companies that support their communities as well. The B Corp-certified Bodhi Surf + Yoga in Costa Rica, for example, starts all of its retreats with a walking tour of the community.
“Surfers are famous for rolling up to a place and not knowing anything about where they’re going,” says Adrianne Chandra-Huff, Bodhi’s co-owner. “We want you to know where you are—not just to get your bearings, but ‘what is the history of this place and what are its challenges?’”
But giving back can sometimes be challenging, particularly when you encounter situations such as children begging. Weiss notes that you don’t know who’s benefiting from the coins you toss their way. He suggests channelling your guilt in a more thoughtful way by supporting a local organization that’s truly helping the community—an organization that you might work with in the destination and continue to support after you're back home.
Connecting with locals in your destination
During your research, Haugen suggests looking beyond whatever the dominant narrative might be. Ask yourself if you’re hearing the whole story, or if there are people or communities whose stories aren’t showing up online in “top 10” lists.
Are you hearing the perspectives of Indigenous people in Australia, for example, or are you learning about the Asian American communities in a city like San Francisco? You might take a Black history tour in Montreal or a Muslim cultural tour in New York City, or stay in an Ecuadorian village that operates a community tourism program.
You may even use social media to reach out to people in your destination. Huang says she uses Instagram and Facebook groups, and this has allowed her to meet with people eager to show off their community. “These human connections can really make a difference,” she says.
Consider how you share travel stories
When we post on social media or share travel stories with friends, Haugen cautions that “we need to be mindful about how the stories we tell are interpreted by other people.” If we say a place is “dirty” or “unsafe,” that narrative influences others, even if it’s based on our own biases.
Douglas says the concepts of “deficit framing” (defining people by the worst thing that’s ever happened to them) and “asset framing” (regarding people based on their aspirations) can help with our storytelling. Instead of thinking of people as “poor” and “still struggling” based on historical challenges, she advises reflecting on their strength, such as the case in US civil rights history.
“In the face of all these barriers, they persisted, they organized, they took chances, they developed strategies and developed tactics. And a lot of those actions ended up in positive change,” says Douglas.
You can also use your travel privilege to change the dominant narrative.
“We cannot assume things we hear on the news reflect what a country and its people are like. The best way to use our privilege is to travel to places that aren't usually covered in a positive light by the news media and share how life is on the ground with friends at home,” suggests Huang, who found this was the case during her travels in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
If you’ve had the privilege of traveling, Chandra-Huff says, bring what you’ve learned back to your own community.“How are you taking that knowledge and doing something positive with it?” she asks. “Because what is travel if not an opportunity for change, for growth, and for inspiration?”Add this article to your reading list