Let's End the Myth That Women of Color Don't Travel

Of course, women travel. In droves, actually. Despite lingering stereotypes that cast going off the beaten path as a guy thing, the “average adventure traveler is not a 28-year-old male, but a 47-year-old woman.” A British woman such as Freya Stark, 1893-1993, who traveled her entire life, married for the first time at 54, and was the first Westerner to travel into parts of western Iran. An American woman such as Amy Gigi Alexander, who condensed decades of solo journeys across entire continents into an essay so powerful it catapulted her into the first rung of travel writers. A Canadian woman like Kirsten Koza, who upended Moscow as a 13-year-old at summer camp, and now leads women on adventures down the Amazon and up the mountains of Peru. Independent women whose irrepressible spirit of adventure makes me wonder how it is that anyone still thinks she can’t see the world on her own.

But there’s a reason for this. In the travel industry, a woman traveler becomes a white woman by default, as if it is impossible for any other kind of woman to successfully go anywhere. For Stark, who wrote a dozen travel books and spoke multiple languages including French and Turkish, “the true fruit of travel is perhaps the feeling of being nearly everywhere at home.” A telling statement, since I daresay that no woman of color would venture a similar assertion. That sense of uncomplicated ease is a corollary of power long attuned to a set of institutional advantages now fully harnessed to first-world global capitalism.

To feel at home in the world is thus an elusive state for yearning souls incessantly reduced to powerless bodies “colored” by their own economic and political marginalization. Hence traveling as a non-white woman is never as simple as signing up for a tour that gets you from point A to point B. It is always about engaging a set of expectations and moving beyond them.

Why Is Travel Painted as Being So White?

Seeing the world is never neutral, and the same is true of the language used to describe a land called “foreign,” which is as much a mindset as it is a place. Joshua Keating’s series for Slate, “If It Happened There,” discusses current U.S. events using the “tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.” The clever device has the effect of revealing the pernicious workings of cultural imperialism, workings that typically remain invisible unless exposed through satire, semiotic analysis, or…travel.   

The claim that travel allows you to see your own culture through new eyes is one of its most enduring truisms. It is also a cliché, for it’s quite possible to travel the world and never leave the couch in your head, continuously replaying the commercials in your mind while ignoring the unpleasant bits

The insidious comforts of that mental couch explains why women of color struggle everywhere to be seen—which is to say, to be recognized as individuals with free will and agency—even while remaining acutely aware of being hyper-visible bodies inside the public sphere. (“We may be the only black people in Tokyo getting all the looks,” noted Evita Robinson of Nomadness Travel Tribe, “but we’re still in here.”)  It is also why “non-white women” is a terrible descriptor, and “women of color” isn’t much better, because they are at once too vague, lumping us into a single blobby monolith, and yet too specific, focusing on the visible markers of sex and ethnicity while glossing over other forms of marginalization, including the specific challenges that come from being neuro-atypical, physically challenged, or GLBT.

Frustrated by the lack of attention from a predominantly white industry, niche travel bloggers have sprung up and cultivated their own followers while constantly puzzling over the fact: why is travel so white, when so many travelers are not? 

Not All Travelers Are Treated As Equals

To be a woman traveler is already to defy gendered constructs so persistent that the idea of a solo female traveler still raises eyebrows. Even today, after centuries of women trekking alone, a woman’s effort to be her own person means getting beyond the domestic roles of daughter, sister, girlfriend, wife, mother, mistress, divorcée, and widow, all of which iterate positions inside a family structure defined by the presence or absence of a man. You feel yourself not a person but a body vulnerable to obsolescence, and swapped out when you fail to please, get fat, talk back, transgress.

It makes perfect sense that the 47-year-old woman is the New Adventure Traveler, for she has raised her children, discharged her social obligations, outgrown her dangerous allure, and now is leaving her comfort zones as a way to claim the possibility of forging a self apart from constraints she has felt her whole life but can hardly articulate. This is why travel is so often called “freeing,” yet that sensation tends to evaporate as soon as you personally have to deal with a clogged toilet in a foreign language. You’re forced to deal with your own shit because nobody else is going to do it for you. Depending on your temperament, it’s either cathartic or terrifying. Sometimes it’s both.

For travel to be a departure from the ordinary—which is what makes travel “travel” and not, say, immigration or migrancy—you have to stay in motion. You have to stay above the mundane details that rupture the fantasy in your head.

Women of color cannot travel this way, because we are the rupture. Because we all have stories about being mistaken for the prostitute, the maid, the waitress, the help, and so on, one of any number of faceless, anonymous females there to service the paying guests. One can be lured into believing that the money shelled out to travel to the kingdom of Far Away will buy respect, only to be reminded, again and again, that it just buys things.

With that reminder comes the shock of harsh truths. Around the world, culture is currency. Some travelers are more equal than others.

The New Travel Movement

Last week, Americans Matthew Barker and Sonja Holverson of Outbounding.org hosted an online conversation regarding the lack of diversity in mainstream travel writing. The invited commentators, Bani Amor,  Adedana Ashebir , Navdeep Singh Dhillon  and Zim Ugochukwu have each carved out significant social media presences and attracted distinctive followings. Leaders of the new travel movement, they fiercely claim the right to fully inhabit this time and space, as well as the right to define themselves inside it.

Other voices chiming into the Outbounding conversation, which may be taken as a representative example of unamplified dialogues happening all over the web, made it clear that travel is not a grand unifier among people of color so much as it is a compelling common interest. Rosalind Cummings-Yeates, James E. Mills (the Joy Trip Project), and many more are just a small sample of what Barker and Holverson rightly call a “parallel universe” and not a satellite drifting around Whiteworld. The energy, size and scope of this community is startling. 

That impression is confirmed by Mandala Research, a company that specializes in collecting targeted data regarding the American travel market. Inside the United States alone, the “African-American traveler,” the “GLBT traveler” and the “Hispanic traveler” each represent distinct markets with unique travel patterns. In the US, market research shows that “traveling while black” brings in $48 billion annually; the GLBT travelers, $70 billion. (Asian-Americans don’t figure much into the tracking, yet.) 

In 2012, however, the U.S. domestic travel industry generated $1.5 trillion. If, by comparison, $118 billion is a relative drop in the bucket, this doesn’t mean it’s incapable of making a splash. 

There is money to be made, and several demographics prime for courtship. Yet a commodified version of travel tacitly replicates exploitative models skilled at manipulating the human desire for attention. You are ImportantYou are interestingYou are special. In reality, many committed travelers are not affluent, yet they seem to be precisely because the ability to go forth into the world signals a level of autonomy difficult for many to achieve. Historically, that autonomy had been a privilege of socioeconomic class. Of whiteness as a social construct, as distinct from skin color. Today, however, the willful claiming of the right to travel is also marker of resistance and a symptom of change, for the new global neo-nomads are self-possessed in every sense of the word. But perhaps not for long.

To travel as a non-white woman means traveling to find like-minded others in the world, instead of taking a journey in hopes of finding yourself along the way. But it is for this same reason that the new travel movement among people of color has the potential to achieve, or undermine, the ethical good of social justice. It would be a shame if the rising community of travelers go forth as giddy consumers taking selfies inside Planet Feelgood, instead of accepting the gift that comes from refocusing on invisible others who are us as well as them. Who are here, there and everywhere hoping to be recognized as individuals with names.


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