Last week, there was a tweet floating around calling for a change in how Black travel is depicted and celebrated via social media. More “depth” and “substance” about what it means to travel while Black and less color-coordinated viral photos and “vapid takes.” Twitter, of course, clapped back (because I mean, what else happens on that platform) arguing that no other race is burdened with said responsibility and Black people should just be able to enjoy things however they want to without any obligatory deep or emotional meaning.
As a Black traveler and now Black expat, I was torn about the conversation I saw taking place on my timeline. I, for one, live for a photo-op. But I also studied international development and education because I wanted to gain further insight into the world around me – namely how the same systems that disadvantage me in the United States work globally to have about 75% of the world’s population fucked up (note: this percentage is an estimation for dramatic emphasis). So I feel both sides of the argument. Why should Black people always have to be woke? But on the other hand, why is the current landscape of Black travel seemingly about little more than getting lit on a boat somewhere or quitting your 9-5 to travel the world?Passports have privileges, just like everything else. Click To Tweet
Here’s the thing though; while I feel both sides of the argument, I think they both lack nuance, grace, and empathy. It’s just not as simple as either side tries to make it. A more accurate question or critique would probably be focused on travel as a whole because Black folks are just acting out microcosms of larger trends in travel generally. Note also, Western or Global North travel. We’re centering a very American, maybe Canadian, and European narrative here and not asking the real questions at hand.
Why do we live in societies where folks hate their jobs or are so beat up by them they feel the only answer is to leave it all behind, wander the globe and then “teach” others how to do the same?
How does the fact that Black American people only began traveling en masse in recent years factor into what Black travel looks like today?
What does it mean for Black travel when you still have Black American people in 2018 who haven’t left their city or state let alone the country?
Why does Blackness always have to be performed as “wokeness” or a constant willingness to comment on power systems at home and abroad?
How can we stop judging people who may only want to flex for the gram?
How can travelers have a better understanding of the countries and communities they’re entering before their arrival?
What are we leaving behind in the towns, cities, villages, communities, and countries we visit?
How has social media changed how we engage the world around us for better or worse?
Does global citizenship even exist?
These are the questions we should be asking ourselves in this conversation.We can’t say travel is some great equalizer when it’s not even conceptually, let alone physically available to everyone, abroad and at home. Click To Tweet
If you believe we’re all one big, maybe not always happy, global family, then your answers are likely that we are all free to engage wherever we want. Again, I personally think it’s not that simple. Passports have privileges that we cannot ignore. My United States of America passport affords me the ability to wander around Europe without having to get a visa ahead of time for ninety days. I just show up at the airport and get a visa upon arrival. A European, to be specific, my British roommate here in Spain, had to get a visa ahead of time to come from the UK to the US for 5 days. I can get a visa upon arrival to 186 countries and even when I have had to apply for a visa ahead of time, the process was never that complicated and I have never worried about being denied.
There are often so many barriers to entry in another country and the people I’ve met, here and abroad, generally haven’t felt like they’re entitled to explore whatever part of the globe they want to for no other reason than they want to. At home in Michigan, I see something similar, yet different. There’s fear of the unknown, lack of financial resources, little understanding of why I’m so interested in going to these far-off places, and low ability to conceptualize where some countries are on the map. We just can’t say travel is some great equalizer when it’s not even conceptually, let alone physically available to everyone, abroad and at home.
Only 42% of Americans had a valid passport in 2017. I was unable to find that statistic broken down by race to focus on Black Americans and basically, I think we’re skipping a whole host of steps and talking about the wrong things here. If you don’t want Black travel to be seen or construed as vapid, then do the work to add the depth and substance you feel it’s lacking. If you’re a Black person who just wants to sit in your resort and take pictures for Instagram or Twitter, then more power to you for giving yourself permission to enjoy things and not feeling a need to constantly perform wokeness. But neither side is right or wrong. We, the ones fortunate enough to be able to travel, can have and be both. A location doesn’t become less beautiful or visit worthy because Black people frequent it. Those of us, myself included, who consistently catch flights aren’t any better than those who don’t because they don’t want to or can’t because of class constraints.A location doesn’t become less beautiful or visit worthy because Black people frequent it. Click To Tweet
The Black travel landscape, much like the landscape of the world, is varied, complicated, and full of multiple cultures and climates. We’d all do better to embrace this variation, fill whatever gaps exist in our opinion, and let people have their things as long as they aren’t harming anyone else (harm being relative and something we should ask those in the places we go to about of course). You don’t have to engage with people, places, or content that doesn’t interest or agree with your particular set of faculties. But if so, aren’t you missing out on the whole point of travel, let alone life? Point being, we should seek to take in and experience different cultures, people, and ways of life in pursuit of becoming more aware, cultured, educated and empathic persons.
Don’t let catching flights and not feelings lead you to forget the bigger picture, even as you’re caught up getting your flicks off – for whatever purpose you choose of course. Maybe travel is deeper than the quotes, lyric captions, and Instagram pics. But, maybe, it’s okay if that’s all it is too.