Traveling While White: What To Avoid
Exploring, globe-trotting, adventuring…all experiences that many people find enjoying and educational. But what do you do when white? How do you interact? Do you listen or do you override cultural differences to the most important element to the story…instead of the sideline?
Rafia Zakaria writes about the experience of finding a beloved author’s unexpected prejudices and racism while a woman of color in “These classics of Western literature contain a hidden dark side.” Zakaria opens up, telling readers “there is only mockery and that too of the oblivious kind” in Edith Wharton’s On Morocco. And there is considerable harm in traveling while white.
The asterisked note on the idea of harm is not what can be done to someone white while traveling, but what white people can do to others while traversing the globe.
Wharton’s considered an author worth study due to subversive and scathing mockery of her society’s expectations. However the mockery is then directed to Moroccans because of long-held admiration and fannish quality of French culture and identity. And admiration of French generals that derides Moroccan culture outside of French and European influence.
Experiencing While White
Growing up, I heard the negative words and not-even-subtext messages about Mexicans. Words I refuse to write or acknowledge because I didn’t believe them, even then. If my godmother hadn’t exposed me to different cultures when I was younger, I would have been like Wharton: loving only one side of a different society and culture. My godmother came with her own biases, benevolent versus overt; it’s taken years to deconstruct the biases and find my own voice. Influences are everywhere, whether we acknowledge or not.
When I was in elementary school, she and I went on a trip to Mexico with her mother. Nona (her mom) was my other godmom and a major influence in my life. We went to Acapulco. Two white women and a white little girl without an understanding of culture, language, or anything beyond tourist traps. They had visited Mexico in 1985. Unfortunately, the trip happened when the Mexico City earthquake occurred and split their hotel in half. However, didn’t dampen any enjoyment from the area since they’d survived enough natural disasters to be a pro at that point. Later the two women would wrangle with Hurricane Hugo, a devastating storm along the Carolina coasts.
Our visit was after Hugo and more of a chance to reset and enjoy my summer vacation. One of our excursions we needed a cab. I’m not sure how the cab came to rescue us but I think she called. Our driver was named Hugo, which was a stroke of interesting luck after the hurricane. He was probably in his late 30s with a comforting laugh and smile. Hugo put us at ease.
Turns out he was also amazingly kind and took us under his wing. We needed that, too. We had no idea where any of these things were and he told us the best ones versus the tourist traps. He even took us to visit the ocean where my mom defied warnings and walked in. Turns out she got some kind parasite that burrowed into her skin. Once returning back to the States, she had to visit a doctor and get them removed. Hugo advised against it but Mama was fearless.
One afternoon Hugo took us to the family house where we met his wife and children, including a newborn son. The clearest memories I have of the trip are playing with his daughter. I didn’t have any toys for the trip so she shared these amazing Coke bottle tops with Disney characters underneath. She even let me take some home since I’d never seen them before. It was the biggest gesture for 8-year-old me and solidified my opinion that Mexican citizens can be unbelievably kind and generous. I don’t allow negative comments around me after experiencing a stranger’s kindness and genuine enjoyment at our unconventional friendship. I still remember eating the red beans and rice family style, sitting at the table and joining them as if we’d known them for ages.
What To Do When Traveling While White
Unlike Wharton, I refused to look at anyone else as lesser after traveling. Mama tried to send toys and present that Christmas but the toys were returned several months later. We never found out what happened to Hugo. Something that bothered her for years after. Until her memory faded and all that’s left is a semi-complete shell.
All I can remember is the absolute inclusion. Zakaria doesn’t wholly blame Wharton but I can. While our trips to different countries were roughly 80 years apart, as white members of society it’s our job to go outside our comfort zone and respect another culture’s differences. And to really explore the world we’re visiting and learn from citizens around us.
It’s not easy to deprogram but Wharton was a keenly observant woman. She could have looked beyond the scripted roles and at least studied the humans around her. At least that is a writer’s first instinct, to catalog because you never know when the information will be useful without being derogatory.
As Zakaria notes, there are writers who can looked beyond the white view. Virginia Woolf “took aim at the connected ills of militarism, racism, and the Empire” in The Voyage Out, where the white characters are caricatures and embodiments of the time. The husband, Richard Calloway, only sees women as conquests and prey while extolling the virtues of guns and military. An attitude on the rise as nationalism, like colonialism, moves forward when white politicians and citizens push for more rights and power at people of color’s expense.
His wife, Clarissa, parrots English exceptionalism, which includes racism and xenophobia. Rhetoric currently seen in many first world nations. Relevance is key. We mustn’t forget important thought leaders are fallible and must be held accountable for their own negligent harm. To acknowledge the pain that white privilege promotes. Listen to the critiques about Disney’s Moana and the use of gods, spirituality, and cultural signifiers. Try to learn and not overriding a point of view. There’s more to learn than a single instance.
Beyond The Experience
As a white woman, I do my best to promote stories that offer a cross view of the world. Unlike Wharton and Woolf’s era, we have the internet to rely on and find out truths. As the owner of Wild Pantheon Press, I look for stories that open up and let women’s voices flourish in the reported community. Also actively looking for stories, reading sites like She’s Wanderful, for more information on why my privilege can unintentionally harm someone. It’s not always easy or possible but as a writer I have to observe the truths. I can’t hide like Wharton.
Zakaria writes about Edward Said, the preeminent scholar on Orientalism. Perhaps it’s time for me pull down my copy and finish reading The Politics of Dispossession in order to better understand the lessons taught in my Nationalism class. International relations means paying close attention on all fronts before visiting. As someone who was accepted into a major European university but can’t attend due to cost, the knowledge is a useful tool in a global world. One never knows where roads may lead.
So: time to study up.
Good thing I’m a research queen who intends to visit Morocco at some point. In areas outside of Hollywood’s romanticized view. Hugo taught valuable lessons worth clinging to. Just as the Mexico City earthquake that happened this year, on the 1985 earthquake’s anniversary, will teach us how to visit and aid while white. To not colonize but help without demanding a returned investment. To be inspired by resilience and community while offering help to a hurting nation. A returned favor after Mexico offered aid to the United States during Hurricane Harvey and Irma.
Some politicians could definitely learn how to travel with deliberate thought. Others should read writers like Wole Soyinka, to immerse in the world of non-white culture, before experiencing a trip.
[Featured Image: Walkerssk at Pixabay.]