I’m Fortunate to be White While Travelling

brad white while traveling post

Today’s Culture with Travel guest post is by Brad Stuart

What I Learned Traveling 100,000 Miles in a Year: #62- I’m Fortunate to be White While Traveling

I’m on a solo trip in Hong Kong, and I’m out in the Lan Kwai Fong district with three friends from my hostel. We’re drinking pints from the 7-Eleven on the street, right outside tons of bars.  It’s apparently the thing to do. It’s a nice night out, and we decide to walk back to our hostel.

A few minutes in, police approach us and calmly motion us to one side of the road. Welllll, not exactly all of us. They forcefully grab my friend by the arm and push him up against a building. He tells us very carefully, “Guys! I need you to focus! Make sure they don’t put anything in my pockets!”.  Dumb. Founded. He yells, “You have to make sure they don’t plant drugs on me!” Wait, what the Lan Kwai Fudge is happening? Then, OF COURSE, it dawns on us.

He’s black. We’re white. It’s China.

After a full morning of seeing the majestic Taj Mahal in the sweltering Indian heat, I’m sweaty, I’m nasty, and I’m in a t-shirt that I probably wouldn’t mop up a bathroom floor with. We leave the Taj and our driver takes us to a restaurant for lunch. It’s nice. Very few tourists. Everyone is dressed well, except for me.  I frankly have no business being in that restaurant, but hellllooo there’s the waiter, smiling and taking my drink order.

2) The breathtaking Taj Mahal just after sunrise.
2) The breathtaking Taj Mahal just after sunrise.

I’m white. It’s India.  I got a Coke; no problem.

My friend Mehdi has said he’d like to travel together for a long time. I invite him on my next trip to Sofia, Bulgaria.  He says, “oh man, I’d really love to go, but I’m not sure how safe I’d feel.”

……………What.

“Yeah, My ex girlfriend is from Sofia.  She said it might not be safe for me to go to Bulgaria. I could be mistaken for a gypsy and there’s a lot of animosity towards them there.”

A woman fills a water jug at the natural springs in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria.
A woman fills a water jug at the natural springs in downtown Sofia, Bulgaria.

Wait, seriously?

He’s Persian. I’m white. It’s Bulgaria.

Listen, I can’t claim to know everything about race relations in every part of the world, but I do know this: at its worst, my skin color is a neutral trait almost anywhere I go. At best, it probably lets people that look like me get away with a lot more shit than other people.

I interviewed a girl this year who, as an experiment, travelled through South and Central America for 300 days this year with one simple rule: she can’t take in or spend money at all. She instead offers to work for locals around the house, cook, do odd jobs, or professionally style locals’ hair in exchange for a place to crash and some of the food she’ll probably be cooking.  I truly give her a lot of credit, she took responsibility and put her money (or lack thereof) where her mouth is, spending a lot of hungry nights sleeping in tents if she couldn’t barter for a room.

But at least some of the time, she was knocking on restaurants’ doors, telling them about her project, and leaving with a plate of food they were about to throw out that evening.  Or meeting locals who would take her home and give her a couch or a floor to sleep on. She had a litany of legitimate and, dare I say honorable reasons for doing this: She wanted to challenge people’s conceptions of money, learn more about herself, and connect with others who are different from her, which, god knows the world could use a little more of these days. But the one fact that I can’t seem to overlook is that a local knocking on a restaurant door asking for food gets shooed away, and yet a pretty white girl from Belgium leaves with a doggie bag.

3) My travel partner Isabelle being asked to take a photo with a family in Delhi.

As the Guardian noted in their article Why Are White People Expats When the Rest of Us are Immigrants?, it’s clear that this double standard permeates many aspects of not just our own culture, but that it’s pretty much everywhere.

It’s true that expat is a term usually reserved for Western white people going to work abroad, and yet Latinos, Arabs, Asians, and Africans are colloquially referred to as immigrants, even if they’re working in highly skilled jobs.  It’s very unlikely that I will ever be referred to as a migrant worker except maybe on the most esoteric governmental forms, and it’s equally unlikely that I will experience much difficulty getting a cab,  a table, a room, nearly anywhere in the world.

I wish I had the answer here.  I wish I could help figure this out, even just in my own little way when I’m out there, but I spend a lot of time in different cultures with only a loose grasp of what’s going on there in the first place.  I can’t really say “oh, I shouldn’t go to this restaurant, I feel underdressed and besides there’s a FAAABULOUS place around the corner, and the chef is just a GEM!”

I was just happy our driver took us to a place with food.   Or I can’t say to the officers in Hong Kong “Excuse me, gentlemen. This is clearly a misunderstanding. Pursuant to local code 4-2, article 6, you need a search warrant to detain anyone “OH WAIT I’M IN JAIL NOW BECAUSE FUCKED WITH HK COPS.” Half the time, I’m just lucky to know where I am, and where I’m going. How can I hope to change decades or centuries of this stuff, if I can hardly find the metro station?

I know there’s a heated and necessary debate here in the US about white privilege.  This post isn’t about that – plain and simple. But, I do think that privilege is borne out of people being accustomed to a certain type of treatment, and changing that treatment causes a negative reaction.

When I travel, I’ve never grown accustomed to being treated in any particular way in the first place, which helps me see things for what they are.  And, my unfortunate conclusion is that, in many places, light-colored skin and European ancestry is placed on a pedestal. If you need me, I’ll be over here, feigning shock.

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