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:
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?