Notes on casual racism in travel, Asian Heritage Month, & the importance of celebrating/understanding our differences

Some notes on race, travel, and why cultural awareness is central to racial sensitivity and tolerance.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Geez, you’re writing about the racial and cultural aspects of travel again?”

Yup! The truth is that as a person of colour who is an educator, enthusiastic globetrotter, and aspiring global citizen, the intersections between race and travel are always at the forefront of my mind.  This is natural as I am faced with these intersections every day as I move about the world.  For this reason and others I think that having conversations about them is both necessary and important, particularly in this forum.

So I’ll get right to some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.

**

On Casual Racism in Travel and Travel Writing

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, casual racism is just like “regular” racism in that it is rooted in prejudice and negative stereotypes about people based on their race, colour or ethnicity.

However, this form of racism differs in that it’s not necessarily deliberately discriminatory or intended to cause harm or offense. Instead, it’s rooted in unconscious bias. Examples of casually racist conduct range from making off-colour jokes to voicing unconsciously negative and unfair conjectures about people from oft-marginalized racial or ethnic groups.

Despite its lack of malice, however, casual racism can be just as hurtful, inappropriate, and damaging as types of racism that are more overt and intentional.

So make no mistake, even though it’s “softer”, it’s still racism.

I bring this up because a recent incident reminded me about the degree to which casual racism is prevalent in travel writing, particularly amongst non-POC writers. Last week a popular travel blogger wrote a post on their social media feeds about the disrespectful practices (namely littering and impoliteness) of Asian tourists in New Zealand. See a screen cap of the post below and try to figure out why I took issue with it:

clipnzwanaka

Sigh. I was completely on board with the message until the hashtag. Using “When Asians Attack” as a coda to a rant on respect is reductive, simplistic, and totally not the way to initiate intellectual and non-emotional dialogue. This comment, though made in jest, is divisive and reinforces social barriers. It could also potentially lead to discrimination fueled by hate.

IMG_5317

Shanghai, China

Perhaps the saddest part of the whole debacle is that neither the blogger nor a large segment of their fans were initially able to understand why that remark was problematic, and earnest attempts to “call in” the offensive behaviour (as opposed to “call out”, see this article for an excellent explanation of the difference) were met with defiance, defensiveness, and vitriol. (The blogger has since reflected and apologized for their behaviour.)

Worse still is that this is but one example of many in an industry awash in this sort of seemingly innocuous prejudice and negative stereotyping.

I don’t want to belabour the point too much, but this stellar piece by the super-talented Bani Amor sheds light on the issue of casual racism in travel writing and the travel industry overall.

On Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

In related news, I just found out that May is Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage month! What began in 1977 as a week in May to commemorate the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the U.S. (May 7, 1843) and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869 (the majority of which was built by Chinese immigrants), was extended to a month in 1992.

I came across the below video on Facebook and loved its message. It highlights the struggles, microaggressions, and misunderstandings many Asian people face due to their ethnicity/background, and implores us to educate ourselves before making assumptions or comments about Asians.

Given the incident I just cited, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

After living in Hong Kong for 4.5 years and travelling all over the Asian-Pacific region, I’ve come to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the Asian diaspora– but I still have a lot to learn. I really liked this quote from the video in particular:

“So next time you want to make a comment based on someone’s ethnicity, check your internalized racism. Is it possible it’s coming from an unconscious bias of what Asians should look like, sound like, or act like? If you’re not sure about something, ask questions. Just don’t ask ones based on assumptions or preconceived notions”.

IMG_5425

Shanghai, China

What I love about this statement is that you could basically replace the word “Asian” with any marginalized ethnic or visible minority group. Again, this message is so, so timely in the age of Trump, casual racism, and veiled intolerance.

On why it is important to understand and celebrate our cultural differences

Race and travel intersect. A lack of racial and cultural awareness is a breeding ground for racial insensitivity and intolerance. Thus exposure and education (and by educating I mean actively endeavouring to educate ourselves through research and not just expecting “The [perceived] Other” to explain everything) are key to demystifying and normalizing different peoples, their languages, and cultural observances.

IMG_8222

Different perspectives– literally. Luxor, Egypt.

Have you ever asked yourself why celebrations like Black History Month and Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month exist in North America? They’re around precisely *because* these cultures diverge from what is considered “mainstream”– they somehow run counter to historically and socially established “norms”.  These celebrations occupy a month in the calendar precisely *because* they wouldn’t be celebrated or recognized by the “mainstream” otherwise. February and May are thus designated, pointed reminders that African and Asian-American peoples and cultures have made sizeable contributions to mainstream society, and to foster racial/cultural/ethic appreciation and understanding. So that we can all respect each other.  So that we can all get along.

**

So what say you? Have you ever been a victim or unconscious perpetrator of casual racism? Do you sometimes have to check your internalized bias towards certain racial or ethnic groups? And do you think we should designate whole months to celebrating different cultures or instead attempt to better integrate them throughout the year? 

26 Comments

  • Kelly says:

    I discovered your blog via the #whenasiansattack, um, debacle, and I’m so glad I did. This is such an important post.

    “Race and travel intersect. A lack of racial and cultural awareness is a breeding ground for racial insensitivity and intolerance. Thus exposure and education (and by educating I mean actively endeavouring to educate ourselves through research and not just expecting “The [perceived] Other” to explain everything) are key to demystifying and normalizing different peoples, their languages, and cultural observances.”

    Yes to all this, especially the “actively endeavouring.” Like most white people in my peer group, I’ve always thought of myself as not racist. Yet when I was younger, I was one of those people who questioned the necessity for Black History Month, etc. Much of my adult life so far has been about reading articles and books by POC to challenge my thoughts and whatever casual racism undoubtedly still exists in my brain. I try to check myself and catch myself. It’s not easy, but it’s crucial. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • David says:

    As an Asian American and fellow traveler, yes to all this! I enjoy your blog because I think you’re interesting, engaging, and have a great perspective on travel. I also love how you never shy away from discussing the impact race and ethnicity has on travel and the travel blogging community. I’ll never be one of those readers asking why you’re discussing this issue again. It’s important. It has merit and value. Keep it up!

  • Hi Oneika! I’ve been a reader of your blog for some time, but don’t believe I’ve ever made a comment before. You always do such a great job of bringing up topics I need to be thinking about, not only as a traveler, but as a person in general. I learn something new here all the time and just wanted you to know that.

    My family and I are about to move to Singapore, and even though I’ve lived there before as a teenager, I decided to take a cultural sensitivity course designed for westerners moving to Singapore and holy crap, thank goodness I did. I have learned SO much through this course that I’m afraid I would have been completely ignorant of otherwise, not necessarily from a racial standpoint, but definitely a cultural one. I’m sure I would have picked up on most of these cultural intricacies over time, but being able to go into a new situation already armed with a bunch of knowledge I didn’t have before is going to make a world of difference. Def plan to take one of these everywhere we move from now on! (Assuming we’re lucky enough to keep this expat thing going for awhile!)

  • Kim says:

    Girl, you are talking on truth and I have had to deal with all 5 and don’t forget in some places you are thought to be a prostitute as well smh. Thanks for shedding light on these issues.

  • Ele says:

    I don’t agree 100 %. What the author might have meant is that certain Asians have a reputation for being rowdy, loud, littering ad tourists. This seems to be true about Chinese.

    • Daisy says:

      To Ele: Thank you for your attempt to clear up the intentions of the author referenced in the FB post. However, I strongly take issue with your comment that, “This seems to be true about Chinese.” #1 Things are not always what they seem. # 2 Please acknowledge that “Chinese” are people too and they should be addressed as such before any other label first. #3 Please focus on the intentions with which this post was written. As I understand it, the takeaway lesson is to remember that people should have cultural sensitivity towards one another. Also, passing judgement and then reporting it on social media as fact rather than what it truly is, a personal bias, further separates communities of people. Lastly, I believe this is an important reminder from conflict resolution training. Rule #1 speak from a place of “I”, using “I” forces us to take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions without projecting our expectations onto others.

      With Love,
      Daisy

    • Claire Wang says:

      I think you’ve missed the point of this article. “This seems to be true about Chinese” is a blanket statement – you’re really saying that all 1.3 billion Chinese are the same way when traveling? Not to mention, white tourists I’m sure are also extremely rowdy, littering, and loud at times as well, but no one rolls their eyes and goes “Ew, not all these white tourists again.”

      The fact that this stereotype is applied to just asians rather than any other race is casual racism, and as a Chinese traveler I have to go way out of my way so I won’t be lumped in with the other “Asian tourists” – in fact, whenever I take a picture I worry about looking like an “Asian tourist.” So please consider that all Chinese are individual people too, and not just one big group that acts the same.

      • Monica says:

        Love your blog and the video of “Travelling while black”. I am travelling around Europe next year and I am a bit weary of having to deal with casual racism and so on, as I am a black female from Australia. This article has really helped and made me feel slightly more better to go and travel Europe. Keep up the good work! Love it!

  • Mary B says:

    THANK YOU for continuing to write about the intersections of race and travel. I will continue to read and learn and grow! To be completely honest, I am certain that I have been – and maybe even continue to be – guilty of casual racism, despite my best intentions. I often check in with myself about why I react a certain way to someone or some situation, or whether the way that I phrased something could have been offensive. Despite actively working on it for many years, it’s hard to break down those internal biases and social constructs that are so deeply ingrained. But that’s no excuse for not trying, for continuing to perpetuate casual racism, or for shutting down and getting defensive when someone calls me out (or in) on it.

  • Racism of any kind shouldn’t be tolerated… I honestly don’t see the big deal about skin colors.. It’s just skin deep.. It’s who we are and how we act as a person that really matter…

  • Lisa says:

    Love this! One time I said to friend in a conversation “normal people do that too” and as soon as I said it I was was upset with myself. In the context that I used it, it implied that others (fill in whatever group you want) were not normal. And I couldn’t figure out why I even chose that word. I apologized and felt so bad. And we had a whole conversation on how language reflects what society has taught us repeatedly. And yet there are times that I do that, saying girls are dressed like sluts and reflecting misogynist ideas that harm me. It was a good conversation about race, gender, etc.

  • Sally says:

    Thanks for this post, Oneika. It is so important for people of color to speak out on this, even when they are not part of the targeted group. As a person of color, I have decided to unfollow the blogger who posted this. I missed her post, but was informed by what happened from you and Expat Edna. I’m so glad that I learned what happened because I really don’t need to be follow and support a blogger who wouldn’t respect me.

  • Elina says:

    Never stop blogging about racial issues! I find these posts really interesting and these are important things that need to be addressed, especially when there are a lot of people out there that don’t understand where the line goes – I mean, if they say something offensive without even realising it themselves.

    Btw I watched your video and it reminded me of my trip to India, where as a white person I was constantly asked to take pictures with locals. It was fine at first but sometimes people wouldn’t ask for permission, especially if you’d already taken your picture with some group so the next group would just push in and start using you as a prop. It doesn’t feel nice being paraded around like that, especially when you don’t know what purpose those photos serve – they could end up anywhere.

  • Delia says:

    Everyone of all races gets randomly chosen by immigration for special scrutiny at some point. Also women of all races are touched (groped) in China. I’m white and I’ve been targeted by immigration in Thailand, asked for a bribe to avoid a strip search in Nepal, threatened with a body cavity search in Mexico while traveling with my children, chosen by a flirtatious and disgusting immigration officer at the Canada/US border for all sorts of personal questions having nothing to do with my travels. I’ve been chased down the street by middle eastern men making the finger-in-hole gesture in Seattle and Paris and was felt up as a child in the surf in Mexico by grown men. In Jamaica a man grabbed my crotch while I was out of sight of my husband for about 30 seconds. My son’s crotch was grabbed by a male prostitute in Thailand while we were walking down the street together. My son was also targeted in Thailand for a scam by hotel security and handcuffed and beaten. Traveling is sometimes dangerous, and male or female of any race, you can become a target and will, frankly, if you travel enough.

  • This is a fabulous post! As a young Asian American traveler, I too see the intersections of race and travel. Everything you said about casual racism and difference and celebration is so on point. I have absolutely experienced racism, at home in the US, in Brazil, and when I was traveling alone in Barcelona. Generalizations hurt and don’t allow for wide ranges of experience and individuality and are based on (often untrue) assumptions.

    I also totally agree with your point on “actively endeavoring” to learn about others. Like everyone else, I come with my own prejudices, and I think that to some extent, this is “normal.” But I would like to think I’m usually pretty good at checking my privilege and checking my internalized assumptions. And I think it’s really important to not make a few people the spokesperson for all of those that share x identity. Experiences are varied, and it is not our job to educate everyone.

    I’m a new reader but will definitely be sticking around. I love your writing and am glad to see a blogger tackling these issues.

  • AnonymousJapaneseGuy says:

    #whenasiansattack – i’m a globetrotter and this is 100% true. Even the Chinese government had to issue a public message to its people saying they needed to behave themselves because they genuinely act like savages.
    This is the Chinese government saying that. Imagine.

  • Annette Rahbek Floystrup says:

    “Museum exhibit”…I can relate! I’m a 66 year old white woman, born in Denmark, now living in California. In my late 20’s, I spent a a month traveling and visiting friends in Pakistan. Did I mention I’m tall? And blue-eyed, and at the time, blonde? I had had a wardrobe of Pakistani clothes made to measure before arriving, so I was dressed appropriately for both the weather and the culture…and very comfortable, BUT, as I was always with a group of Pakistanis, I was repeatedly taken for being that unicorn among Pakistani women, a woman from the valley of Swat, where blond, blue-eyed remnants of Alexander the Great’s army live to this day.
    Visiting the museum in Lahore (a fantastically beautiful and historic city), I found myself surrounded by local families, and women especially were touching my face and hair, because most had not seen a white woman up close, AND they thought I was Swati. I got my companions to rescue me, but yes, unwanted touching, being crowded around as an oddity…it is at best a strange experience, and at worst, rather frightening.
    I was very grateful for my Pakistani friends.
    I love your blog…keep traveling!

  • shelley says:

    Admittedly I haven’t traveled nearly as extensively as you, but I have had some curious interactions with locals. In Bali, I toured a fish market and the vendors actually came up to touch my hair (it was in a giant afro puff). Yes, fish hands in my hair…gross! The tour guide had to rescue me. LOL! Also in Bali, little children calling me the n-word but I won them over with candy.

    In Hong Kong, I couldn’t go far without Asian tourists taking pictures…so I guess I am in a lot of family albums. In Italy being serenaded by random Italian guy singing Marvin Gaye – now that was funny AF. In Zurich, Switzerland, London Heathrow and good all JFK in NYC being detained by Immigration/Customs for additional questioning. Most of these experiences occurred 10+ years ago, but Switzerland was recent.

    Although I’ve had some interesting experiences, I wouldn’t trade them for the world. I had a great time experiencing different cultures and hopefully traveling remains in my future.

    Btw, I love your blog and look forward to experiencing more of the world through your eyes.

  • Chibili says:

    I have experienced a bit of casual racism, but I always took it as a curiosity thing. I remember two little twin girls kept staring and pointing at me on night in the Malaysian Island of Penang. That same night, a elderly woman locked her eyes straight at me. It was cute, I never thought much about it, being a black African(Zambian) in a non-black part of the world will always get people looking at you because you’re different. That’s acceptable. I think some people were drawn towards me because of this difference, so it’s a win-win situation. On the darker side, if the minority race of expatriates or students have created a bad reputation for themselves then one might expect some sort of racial profiling and eventual casual racism. I remember ordering lunch and the waitress stood right besides me waiting for me to pay up. After consulting with my friend, it so happened that West Africans have a habit of not paying for meals, mainly the Nigerians. So in this case, how can you blame the waitress for being prejudice towards me?

    As someone who is planning on relocating to South East Asia, I do realise there a few crazies out there but all in all Asians are are as friendly as unicorns. The idea of traveling and experiencing other cultures gives life a greater meaning. “If you haven’t experienced other cultures then you are not as educated as you think.” I am not sure who said that, but I couldn’t have made it up. What I am trying to say here is that whether you are black, asian or white, you’re going to get casual racism as you travel, c’est la vie. Love your blog Onieka! 🙂

  • Please feel free to take a look at this blog post on my views on racism.

  • R says:

    Thank you for such a powerful post! I also wanted to share my horrible experience today. Had to get it off my chest somehow.

    Right now I’m traveling in England. Today I helped out my elderly neighbor carry her groceries to her home. There were a lot of people at that time since she was having a gathering. Then she said, “Oh good Lord thank you for my free Filipino maid.” I was grossly shocked because everyone didn’t seem to mind and she had to repeat it twice. I was at the brink of voicing out my frustration but I just smiled, said “Hope you have a great weekend,” then walked away. I’m never the type to confront.

    It’s kind of frustrating and it’s more frustrating when people do not believe that you are just here to travel. Some people give hints that there is a care home that I can work for, or there is a Filipino who can help me find a job. God! At 27 I’ve travelled to 37 countries and I had the luxury of going back and forth in countries I like. Last year I went to Europe 4 times to and from the Philippines. Not that I’m insanely rich, but I’ve got a comfortable lifestyle because I’m smart with my money and where I want to spend it. I work hard and smart. Plus I have wealthy parents whom I can call out for help haha!

    I’ve always loved traveling but at this stage I’m just appalled by the fact that with the surge in travel and internet use, which are supposed to “close the gaps” between nations, why is it that people are not getting emotionally smarter? Why do they still have antiquated and archaic views of the world and the people who live in it?

    For my travels this year I’ve taken solitude within and have enjoyed reading instead. Can’t wait to go back home this December.

Comments are closed.