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Ketut Subiyanto

Becoming a Travel Ally

By Janet Ngo

We can all do better to support racialized and marginalized travellers abroad. Here's how.

When Danila Zeneli travelled to Eastern Europe with a Filipino friend, they were both shocked by the catcalls from men on the street.

“Chinese.”

“China girl.”

“Doll.”

The comments made the pair deeply uncomfortable, but for Zeneli—who is White—it was also a learning experience. Not only did it make her hyper-aware of stereotypes (grouping all Asian-appearing people as “Chinese” and ascribing a sexual role), it opened her eyes to the way her racialized friends are treated differently, both at home and abroad.

“I can only imagine what it's like to travel as a minority,” says Zeneli.

When we jump on a plane, we’re propelled by the thrill of being immersed in a new environment. But for racialized travellers and expats, there’s an extra layer of preparation and sometimes trepidation. When we go abroad, we’re subject to local perceptions of foreigners of colour. Often, this means giving some thought to both our acceptance and safety abroad.

A 2021 study by the Black Travel Alliance found that 71 percent of American and Canadian Black travellers reported that a destination’s perceived safety is a major factor in deciding whether or not to travel there.

There is no question that BiPoC travellers can face unpleasant incidents of “othering” overseas, including discrimination, bigotry or even systemic racism. But, the reaction of fellow travellers can either buffer or exacerbate the victim’s feelings.

This is particularly true for individuals who are working, studying or volunteering abroad. Fellow foreigners are an important source of social and emotional support in cultural adaptation abroad; support that can make or break an expat's adjustment. Unfortunately, African Americans studying abroad report that a considerable amount of racism they experienced was perpetuated by their non-BIPoC peers, and that their relationships with these peers were reported to be more problematic than with members of the host country.

As we aim to be responsible and ethical travellers, aware of our power and privilege in even travelling abroad, then we should also consider the impact of our interactions with fellow travellers who face oppression—and stand up for our marginalized peers during incidents of othering or racism.

“If you see something, say something”: How to safely intervene

Barbara Yebuga, a Toronto-based diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) engagement consultant, recalls an incident in Canada in which she witnessed a non-English-speaking Asian family on a public bus endure yelling, anti-immigrant remarks and racial absurdities from a fellow passenger who happened to be White.

When nobody on the bus intervened, Yebuga stood between the two parties to act as a physical barrier, and focused on the family—communicating with them through mannerisms to ensure their well-being. Only after the family got safely off the bus did she confront the offending passenger.

Had she been in a foreign country with less familiarity with the language or her legal rights, Yebuga speculates she might not have been as bold to speak out to the perpetrator, opting to only engage with the person being bullied.

As with any active bystander intervention, personal safety is a priority and we must first assess whether our involvement will offer more benefit than harm.

"Whether on Canadian or international soil, we have to speak up."

The goal of intervening during incidents of interpersonal racism is to de-escalate harm toward the target. Yebuga says that besides engaging the victim or perpetrator, we can call the police, record the incident or try to remove the victim from the situation. Some bystander guides suggest engaging other bystanders as an alternative, or sitting or standing next to the victim if you’re unsure of what else to do.

“Whether on Canadian or international soil, we have to speak up,” says Yebuga. Inaction or staying silent conveys approval, which sends the wrong message.

In a social situation, it might be possible to counter stereotypes or misinformation with facts. Potentially offensive remarks could be responded to with a neutral statement like “What did you mean by that?” says Yebuga. Deciding how to act depends on factors like the perpetrator’s intention and whether it’s possible to meaningfully engage with them.

In offering support, Yebuga suggests assessing how the racialized person might be feeling by observing their body language or other cues. It can be difficult for BIPoC individuals to speak up since they might feel that they’ve always had to speak up, or that they just don’t want to be a “Debbie Downer,” she adds.

Research destinations and question norms

Yebuga also suggests we research our destination to become familiar with how particular racial or other minorities might be treated. What kinds of situations could we be witness to? How safe and accepting is the local culture for our travel companions or employees? Do we want to go there?

For Black travellers in particular, situations may be exacerbated due to the common misperception that Black people don’t travel—a myth perpetuated by their exclusion from marketing materials. The result is that Black travel isn’t normalized for locals abroad or for fellow travellers and mistreatment may not be obvious for bystanders when it’s happening.

Camiel Duff, the founder of travel planning service Ellusive & Co, who is Black, recounts how during her travels in Indonesia, she was uncomfortable with her photo being constantly taken without her permission and with people following her. She eventually realized that local Indonesians were simply shocked to see a Black person. She says that had fellow travellers tried to speak out against it in the moment, it would’ve been “very helpful and very supportive. At least you don't feel like you're doing it by yourself.”

That was the role Zeneli was able to play in Eastern Europe. Uncomfortable with the fetishizing catcalls, the pair discussed the situation. Zeneli quickly understood and empathized with her friend and they ultimately decided to leave the setting for a safer location.

Trust your travel companions’ lived experiences

But what if we’re having trouble recognizing why something is seen as offensive?

This might be the case with “subtle racial expressions” known as microaggressions. If we just don’t “get it,” then don’t gaslight; don’t deny or question the interpretation simply because we don’t see it ourselves, says Yebuga.

“Our lived experiences will make us see things differently, notice things differently and experience things differently,” reflects BIPoC traveller Lauren Akbar, on why we might not recognize the offensive nature of incidents experienced by our racialized peers. “If you listen to racialized folks’ experiences of racism, then you'll be able to see racist incidents [for what they are.]”

Simply not understanding or personally relating to why something is offensive shouldn’t be a barrier to our believing the person and trying to support them. Yebuga suggests thanking the offended person for having taken the difficult step of speaking up by saying something like: “I don't understand how that is, and I'm open to learning more. But as of right now I still support you, and the fact that you feel this way.”

Use travel as an opportunity to centre BIPoC Groups

Recognizing that travel is a privilege in itself, we could also make use of our travels as an opportunity to include and amplify the voices, contributions and histories of racially marginalized groups.

For example, there are a number of ways to support Black communities internationally. Duff suggests that allies visit destinations with “rich history in terms of the Black community, or contributions they’ve had to that country or to the world.” Once abroad, Duff recommends supporting Black-owned businesses like hotels, tour operators, restaurants or travel providers.

Ensuring that travel dollars benefit travel organizations committed to equity and inclusion is also a consideration. The Black Travel Alliance Scorecard, for example, allows consumers to assess travel companies’ activities and commitment to anti-Black racism.

Duff also suggests chatting with BIPoC travellers wherever we visit, to get diverse views and recommendations about the local culture and history. There are also plenty of racialized or Black bloggers and influencers who offer unique perspectives on their travels.

Challenge your implicit bias

Learning about the ways that our racialized peers might experience travel or living abroad differently gives us an idea of how we can be supportive as allies. It involves a lot of personal exploration, as we uncover ways that we’ve inadvertently benefitted from an arbitrary system of privilege based on race and other identities—and what the parallel experience might be like for those with less privilege. 

Akbar noticed on her year-long travels that she met nary a member of the LGBTQI+ community nor a person with a disability. They were “almost invisible” due to unwelcoming cultural attitudes and accessibility issues.

“In pretty much every country that I've travelled outside of North America, I was so sad that I wouldn’t be able to experience those countries with my mom because she's in a wheelchair,” she says.

In order to unlearn and counter our biases, Yebuga says people need exposure and education—which involves engaging with and learning from diverse groups of people, marginalized populations and people with intersectional identities.

For Zeneli, she says she has been fortunate to have a diverse group of friends who have created a “safe space” to talk openly about racism, which has deepened and strengthened their relationships. But she adds that she understands the importance of doing her own learning, including taking courses, listening to podcasts, and reading.

Despite her efforts to build her awareness, she knows she’ll make mistakes. Her friends have taken the risk to be vulnerable and occasionally call her out.

“It's uncomfortable and it's difficult,” she says. “It's a lot of looking deep within yourself and being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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