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

This might seem like a strange and controversial topic to talk about, but it’s important to nonetheless, as it affects a segment of the population that’s under-represented in the travel blogging community.

I am writing this in hopes of creating empathy and understanding amongst my fellow travelers. There are a lot of situations and conversations that non-white travelers never face. So (understandably) these situations aren’t even on their radar. This is my effort to bridge the gap of information in hopes that it will lead to fun, better, and safer travels for everyone.

First off, not all encounters are malicious. For every racist act that’s happened to me during my travels, I have had at least 10-20 interactions with people who treated me as people should – a fellow human – and if anything were interested and curious (and often even jealous that I’ve been to India so many times!) about my heritage.


{The Immigrant Story}

My family’s story is one shared by countless immigrants. Move to America to seek new adventures and your own path, work hard, contribute to society, and reap the benefits. My parents didn’t travel while they were growing up in India. It simply wasn’t an option for them monetarily and culturally.

My parents, however, wanted their kids to be the exact opposite. Explore, grow, and learn everything and anything. And for me, my eye first turned to traveling the globe when I was 20. I started off by studying abroad during undergrad (in Adelaide, Australia) and after that I was hooked. I was determined to explore the world.

Growing up in {conservative} Orange County, in the 80s and 90s, I was accustomed to being ‘different’; and my family experienced racism here and there – a store clerk at South Coast Plaza, a teacher or administrator at school, other kids who made fun of my food for lunch, and even ones that were taught by their families to call the handful of black kids at our elementary school (yes I said elementary school) the horrible n-word. I often wondered if they called me that behind my back too. And even racism at Disneyland on occasion.

It was usually subtle and not very often. What was more common was the constant reminder that I was different. Today I look back and proudly say, “hell yeah I was different and I’m glad!”. But in the moment, I remember wanting to fit in, wanting to not be different nor stand out – just wanting to be like everyone else…”normal” – something I think most kids desire.

{Unshared Experiences}

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 on your year study abroad program. Yeah, that happened to me. 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 and finished processing what had happened, while I pulled eggshells out of my hair.

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. It’s all about the context, tone, intonation and non-verbal cues that communicate whether it was an innocent question or a loaded one. And how I respond in each of those situations varies according to my reading of them.


{Assumptions Suck}

My friend shared this story that happened to her:

One of my best friend’s, also Indian-American, met her Caucasian Canadian husband while they were in business school in Orange County, California.

They decided to get married and live in the United States. When they went for their interview to apply for HIS Green Card, the immigration officers automatically started talking to my friend about about policies and paperwork she’d need to complete etc. And she had to stop them and tell them to direct their comments to her fiance. HE was the one applying for immigration, not her. They automatically assumed that she, the non-white person, was the one applying.


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

I was traveling solo and in line at the airport to check in my bag for a flight. There happened to be an Indian family in front of me. As we all approached the front of the line, that family went up to check in and 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.

Instead of him, I walked up to the counter. She looked at me, scowled and rudely said, “Ma’am families need to stick together at check in.” I said, “what family are you talking about?” Again rudely she quipped, “aren’t you with them?” pointing at the Indian family that was ahead of me. I said, “no”. And she continued her rude behavior. But now she was also embarrassed and decided to couple her rudeness with anger in the way she talked to me as she checked me in. This incident happened on an airline that I frequent so I wrote them to complain about it and I got the non-apology, apology.

{Reminders That You’re “Different” Travel Stories}

During undergrad I spent a year studying abroad in Adelaide, Australia. I was insanely excited for the new adventure and practically skipped to my first class. It was a small cohort of about 15 students and 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 to go and when I said hello and introduced myself everyone looked at me shocked and surprised. I was equally shocked and surprised because I had no idea what I said that caused literally everyone in the room to react that way. Especially when no one else was met by the same fate. But I didn’t let my confusion show. I kept going and acted like everything was normal.

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…”

It was not malicious. No one was mean to me. But I never saw myself as different. And that day I realized that everyone else did…see me as different. Things change and places grow, diversify and evolve and I hope that place has as I have not been back there since. This took place in 2001, before 911.


{Arriving Home}

I had just landed at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) after the long trek home from Zimbabwe. My mom was waiting curbside in arrivals, to pick me up and drive us to our home to Orange County. As I exited baggage claim and walked along the curb, scanning for my mom, I put my hand in my pocket to take out my cell phone; and a candy wrapper I had in my pocket fell to the ground. As I bent down to pick up the wrapper – to throw away in the trash – an airport security guy yells at me, “Hey! In this country, we don’t litter”. My heart sank for just a second at his racism and rudeness. I couldn’t help but sarcastically think to myself, “welcome home Samta“. I ignored him – too tired from traveling as well as recognizing that he wasn’t worth wasting my breath on.


{Everything Changed After 911}

I flew from Adelaide to New Delhi, India on September 13, 2001. I had booked my flight months prior as I was meeting my mom there to make arrangements for my brother’s upcoming wedding. We decided not to cancel the trip and I was “randomly” selected for extra security screening on every leg on the trip on the way there and back to Aus. I had never in my twenty years prior, ever been selected for extra screening.

Now my husband gets “randomly” selected for extra screening on every international flight he takes. We’ve come to expect it.


{The Flip Side}

The number of positive experiences I’ve had traveling, far 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. Still others are interested in how I keep my long hair healthy and shiny. 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 culture is known to be very individualistic whereas Eastern cultures are much more family and community oriented. It’s the ‘I’ vs. ‘We’. And having exposure to both has been helpful in understanding cultures and how to navigate those countries in everything from booking accommodation to ordering food at restaurants and engaging in and understanding local customs.

{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 there in the morning and were their first customer of the day.

My two roommates – American and Canadian Caucasian girls – were taken aback when the shopkeeper got mad at us 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 indicates of how well your sales will be for the rest of that day. The first customers of the day leaving without making a purchase is the worst thing that can happen and shopkeepers resort to guilt tripping customers, on their way out. No pressure, huh? I’ve faced the same thing shopping in India, and explained it to my friends so they wouldn’t have to face that unpleasantness again.


{Conclusion}

The objective of this post is to 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 my experiences my fellow travelers will have heightened awareness in their interactions and 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, especially petite women


{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 in California.

During undergrad I decided to study abroad which triggered my travel passion. I lived in Adelaide, Australia for a year and after that, 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 in southern California, and I met my husband. Now we travel around the globe together and often. 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!

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Samta, Founder, PassportPages

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