Racism on the Road: What It’s {Sometimes} Like Being a Non-white, American Traveler

Updated May 2020

This topic affects a segment of the population that’s under-represented in the travel blogging community, namely non-white Americans.

After 9/11 we saw racism a spike in racist attacks – violent and non violent towards people with brown skin in the United States. Travel, in general, changed for everyone after 9/11 but especially for every person with brown skin. We were met with additional scrutiny at security. Were non-brown people screened? OF COURSE. But not to the same increased rate as brown people.

Within the last few months, with the spread of COVID-19 across the globe, we are witnessing another spike in racist attacks. This time towards Asians instead of South Asians. According to STOP AAPI HATE, there have been thousands of verbal and violent attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans across the United, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries.

Today I feel like I’m reliving the Rodney King riots of 1992. Nearly 30 years later and we haven’t moved the needle in this country. The difference is the internet and social media where information is captured at the utmost grassroots level – and spreads across the globe within minutes. And that’s incredibly powerful because the way to move the needle is to educate | raise awareness | communication.

The fact is, there are a lot of situations and conversations that white travelers never face whether at home or while traveling. Thus, challenges and situations that non-white people encounter aren’t even on their radar – and understandably so. I am writing this in hopes of creating understanding, empathy and awareness amongst my fellow travelers by sharing real experiences. I hope that it will lead to fun, better, and safer travels for everyone.

First, I should share that most encounters I have faced around my nationality are not malicious. For every racist act that’s happened to me during my travels, I have had more interactions with people who treated me as people should – a fellow human.  Women travelers comment about how gorgeous Indian womens’ hair is and ask what I do to keep my tresses healthy; which inevitably leads to conversations about travel to India and Indian culture – especially Indian weddings.

So while most experiences are benign, the ones that aren’t are worth addressing so that as a travel community we can collectively do better.

{The Immigrant Story}

My family’s story is one shared by countless immigrants. My parents emigrated to the United States from India as graduate students in the late 1960s. They sought new opportunities, to contribute to society, and reap the benefits.

My eye first turned to traveling the globe when I was 20 and studying abroad in Adelaide, Australia. I had been to India numerous times – to visit family but those trips were different. Living in Aus was my first independent travel adventure and I was hooked — determined to explore the world.

Growing up in conservative Orange County, California, in the 80s and 90s, I was accustomed to being ‘different’; and my family experienced overt as well as covert racism — a store clerk at the mall, a teacher or administrator at school, neighbors’ comments, other kids who made fun of my Indian and vegetarian food at lunch, and even being called the n-word.

There was the constant reminder that I was different, despite being born, raised and living in the United States my whole life. As a child that’s difficult to process. You don’t see yourself as different and you don’t don’t understand why others do.

Being ‘othered’ is diminishing. And decades later nothing’s changed. A couple months ago, I was on my daily walk in my nice neighborhood in Menlo Park, California when I was stopped by a woman who asked, “are you a sand n—–?” I was rattled by the incident for the rest of that day. But what lingered on was the disturbing thought that what people see when they see me is not a woman. They see a brown woman and that comes with labels and preconceived notions that are somehow my burden to dispel or confirm. Being ‘othered’ is diminishing.

{Unshared Experiences}

Racial Slur

White people don’t know what it’s like to have eggs hurled at them from a moving car, while someone yells, “Abo”, at you when you’re innocently walking home after class. It was night. I was alone. And I had already fallen in love with Australia. And for the first time that night I questioned that love. It all happened so fast that I didn’t even have tears to shed until I got home, finished processing what had happened…while I pulled eggshells out of my hair.

Where Are You From?

Most white people don’t know what it’s like when you’re traveling and someone asks, “where are you from?” and you say you’re from Orange County or San Francisco or wherever and the other person looks at you with bewilderment and then follows up with, “where are you really from?”.

Each of these situations is different and context matters – someone’s tone, intonation and non-verbal cues distinguish between an innocent question or a loaded one. But again it’s the reminder that you’re from somewhere else – you are not simply a woman, you’re a brown woman.

{You’re the Same Skin Color, So You Must Be Together}

I was traveling solo, in line at San Jose airport to check in my bag for a flight. There happened to be an Indian family in front of me. As the line progressed, that family went up to check in. I was now at the front of the line. When the next counter became available the airline attendant looked at the white guy behind me and said, “sir come on up.” She skipped me. I looked at the man behind me and said, “I think she’s confused, I’m next in line”. He smiled and agreed.

I walked up to the counter and smiled. In response, the ticketing agent scowled at me and rudely said, “Ma’am families need to stick together at check in.” To which I responded, “what family are you talking about?” Again rudely she quipped, “aren’t you with them?” pointing at the Indian family that had been ahead of me in line. I said, “no”. I could see the realization of her error on her face, and instead of apologizing or at least just being nice, she doubled down with anger for the rest of check in. I would have let the incident go and move on, but this was an airline and a route I fly often. Moreover the incident bothered me. So I emailed the airline to inform them of what occurred and all I got back from them was a non-apology, apology.

I vividly remember another incident in 6th grade. I was standing with a group of white girls at school. A mom and her son walked by – they happened to be Indian. One of the girls I was standing with looked at me said, “who are they?” I shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t know” and she said, “but they’re Indian?” At that moment a white family walked by and I had to bite my tongue to stop the urge to ask her, who they were.

{Reminders That You’re “Different”}

My first day of class in Adelaide, Australia, I was insanely excited for the new adventure and practically skipped to my first class. It was a small cohort of approximately 15 students. The professor introduced himself and then asked each of us to go around the room and do the same.

I was one of the last students and when I said hello and introduced myself everyone including the professor looked at me in shock and surprise. I was equally shocked by their reactions. What just happened? Please God tell me there isn’t snot on my face. I cavalierly brushed my hand across my face. Nope, no snot. What just happened? I finished speaking, completely bewildered.

As the week progressed all of the students were broken into work groups and over the next few days I became friendly with one of my classmates so I felt comfortable asking:

me: “when I introduced myself on the first day, why did everyone look so shocked and surprised?”

classmate:“you were not what what we expected.” 

me:” what do you mean?”

classmate:“I think everyone expected you to start talking in some incomprehensible accent from India, Bangladesh or something…”

Her comment was not malicious. But I never saw myself as different. And that day I realized that everyone else does and that was not a good feeling.

{Arriving Home from Abroad}

I had just landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) after the long trek home from Zimbabwe. As I walked along the curb scanning for my ride, I pulled my cell phone out of my coat pocket and a candy wrapper that fell to the ground. As I was bending down to pick it up – an airport security guy yelled at me, “Hey! In THIS country, we don’t litter”. My heart sank at his racist and rude remark. I couldn’t help but sarcastically think to myself, “welcome, home?”.

{The Flip Side}

The number of positive experiences I’ve had traveling, outweigh the negative ones. So many people have never been to India and ask me about it. Others are curious about what it’s like growing up in California as a vegetarian. And my favorite is most people don’t treat me differently. They see a person, not an American person nor an Indian person…just a person.

My mix of Eastern and Western cultures has been immensely valuable in my travels around the globe. Western cultures are known to be individual focused whereas Eastern cultures are more family and community oriented. It’s the ‘I’ vs. ‘We’ mindset. And having exposure to both, has been immensely valuable navigating countries and cultures in everything from ordering food at restaurants to booking accommodation and engaging in local customs. Here’s how:

{First Customer of the Day: A Superstition}

When I was in Bali the shopkeepers would get upset if you entered their store and left without making a purchase. This was heightened if you were their first customer of the day.

My two roommates – American and Canadian Caucasian girls – were taken aback when the shopkeeper got mad as they started leaving without buying anything. I understood what was going on, made a small purchase and we left.  In Indian culture we call this bohni. It’s a superstition that your first customer of the day determines — your fortune (sales) — for the rest of that day. The first customer of the day leaving without making a purchase is the worst thing that can happen, and shopkeepers resort to guilt tripping customers. No pressure, huh? Afterwards I explained this concept to my friends so they wouldn’t have to face that unpleasantness again.

{Conclusion}

The objective of this post is to create understanding amongst travelers by talking about a sensitive subject that few others address. Racism is real – no earth shattering revelation there. I hope that by sharing these insights and experiences it will raise the collective consciousness amongst fellow travelers. And my hope is that will lead to heightened awareness in our interactions to think before making someone feel out of place or different.

{About PassportPages}

I created the PassportPages travel blog, to provide nuanced, detailed travel advice, tips, and hacks for traveling all over the world — from a unique and different perspective than the other popular travel blogs. There aren’t as many travel blogs geared towards:

  • nuanced, detailed travel tips and advice
  • vegetarians/vegan travelers
  • ethnic Americans, Canadians, and others
  • women travellers

{About Samta}

When I’m not traveling and/or adventuring (and even when I am), I operate my tech startup, ShaadiShop. ShaadiShop is a marketplace for Indian-friendly wedding venues.

During college I spent a year studying abroad in Adelaide, Australia which is how I developed my passion for travel. For the next 10 years I spent 1-2 months each year, traveling to various destinations around the globe, on my own while I managed my direct marketing company.

I think traveling solo, prepared me to become an entrepreneur – journeying into new experiences, figuring it out as I went, self-reliance, facing your fears head on, trying new things, and so much more!

Then I decided to get a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and I met my husband. Now we travel the globe together. I love backpacks, vegetarian and vegan cooking and of course planning our next trip. I’m also kinda addicted to blueberries. =p

Check in on the blog or better yet follow PassportPages to get travel info from around the world. And definitely post your questions and comments. I love hearing from our readers! Cheers!

Woman with long hair smiling
Samta, Founder PassportPages, Costa Rica, 2017

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