A few months back, a (white) friend of mine enjoyed a weekend getaway in South Dakota and extolled its many virtues as a vacation destination (“delicious food!” “incredible people who welcomed us with open arms!” etc.) That all sounds nice and lovely, I thought… for a white person.
My gut reaction was immediate because my mind is always doing these calculations: sorting the world into places I’d feel comfortable traveling as a Black person and places I might not be so inclined. (You sound lovely, South Dakota, but with a Black population of 1.72%, I hesitate.) The reality is, with my skin tone, I can’t take for granted that I’ll be welcomed everywhere with open arms. And this is particularly true as our country becomes more divided; the question of where I can go, and not just feel at ease but also safe, is all the more pressing. And this isn’t just a worry for Black travelers, of course, but other folks, too. Where can gay couples vacation and be safe holding hands? Where can one wear a hijab at the beach and feel perfectly relaxed? Where can an Asian-American family gather and not risk stares or worse?
These considerations are especially top of mind for people these days, when, finally, after two long pandemic years, we’re able to get out there a little more. But we’re also perhaps warier and wearier than ever (just me?). I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to go where; about what might be called “travel privilege,” or the ability to move freely to different places without a second thought about if you’ll be welcomed; and about what it means to travel while Black.
An early childhood memory came to mind: driving home from my grandfather’s funeral with my parents and two older siblings. We were tucked into a minivan that had a little fridge for ham and cheese sandwiches. Winding along a shortcut through rural Ohio, on a dark night, my dad was stopped by the police for speeding. (If you know John Pride, you know he has never sped a day in his life). But the two white officers didn’t just pull us over for the alleged traffic violation — they also forced us all to get out of the car and sit on the gravel shoulder for more than an hour while they searched the car — our family van — for drugs. I hadn’t experienced such overt racism before (in my bubble in suburban Maryland), and I was too young to fully comprehend what was happening in the moment. I just registered my dad’s disposition: an incredulous anger laced with fear. I couldn’t remember my easygoing father ever being scared, or particularly mad, for that matter; but, when the police finally let us go, both emotions radiated off him and filled the van like smoke.
Now, as an adult, I can appreciate how harrowing this must have been, to worry about having three young kids on desolate roads with gun-toting police officers. A long, lonely stretch where anything was possible, deadly scenarios of which my parents, and many generations of Black travelers before them, were all too aware. It’s why the invaluable Green Book came to exist — a guide for Black travelers about where it was safe to stop for food and shelter in the Jim Crow South.
Today, all these years later, the dangers may (arguably) be more diffuse, but racism remains a vital concern. (Case in point: finding an Airbnb.) Many people, including yours truly, have to find the balance between their desire to experience new places and the reality that travel means caution. And even fear.
This became a sticking point in one of my relationships with a (Black) guy who all but refused to travel abroad. He explained that he already felt unsafe in his own country, where he knew the rules and dynamics, and he didn’t want to have to keep that same guard up on vacation. It wasn’t appealing to him to go anywhere where he’d stand out as 6”2’ man with dark skin. Of course that made sense, and how could I not empathize? But I also knew it would be hard for me to be with someone who didn’t want to see the world with me.
Traveling is my passion, and fortunately during my trips to different states and other countries, the upsides have outweighed the downsides. Granted, there have been many times — during work trips to Provo, Utah, and Crested Butte, Colorado, for example — where I’ve literally been the only person of color I’ve seen during the whole visit. I was once on a flight to Bozeman, Montana, and was — again, literally — the only person of color on the sold-out 737. I didn’t feel unsafe, exactly, but there is a certain hyper awareness in being the only person of color, a certain vigilance that can undermine the adventurous abandon you hope to experience when visiting other places. As does a Confederate flag-laden pick-up truck idling nearby as you have an al fresco meal. When four white guys are glaring over at you, it’s difficult to enjoy the bruschetta, which is something I discovered on a weekend visit to friends in Oregon.
Still, I try to lean into the benefits of travel. And I, personally, also feel that I’m offering something important while traveling: representation. Black people do travel (and ski and horseback ride and swim and hike)! Some people’s only impressions of Black Americans come from TV shows and media, which are rife with stereotypes. The beauty is, the broadening of horizons go both ways when people travel and cultures collide.
One of the ways I’ve helped mitigate apprehensions is to do my homework. I plan an annual trip for one diverse, mixed-race group of friends and always account for places and activities where we’d ALL feel comfortable and safe. This year, we thought about going to Iceland, and one of my first google searches was “Black travel to Iceland.” It helps to see what other people of color have experienced in a destination. Much like the Green Book, social media offers a whisper network of first-hand reports and suggestions for “friendly” lodging, bars and excursions that can be helpful to fellow travelers.
The resources are extremely valuable given that the $5.8 billion dollar global travel and tourism industry continues to wrestle with diversity and inclusion and remains focused on marketing to a “one size fits all” audience of white/European consumers, overlooking huge swaths of travelers who might have different interests and considerations. Fortunately, there are influencers and niche agencies that do cater more specifically, like Muslim Travel Girl, Happy To Wander’s Christine Guan, who’s written about Asian tourist stereotypes, and the Damron Guides for queer travel; plus, inspirational blogs like The Catch Me If You Can penned by Jessica Nabongo, the first Black woman to travel to all 195 countries in the world.
My friends and I didn’t make it to Iceland this summer but instead landed in northern New Jersey. We rented a lake house we didn’t leave except to grab provisions (and by provisions, I mean wine). Sometimes you just need to be still and watch the water lap against the dock with a glass of rosé.
If you travel this summer, I wish for you the restorative peace or raucous adventure you crave, and I would love to hear about it. Tell me about your travels: Are there places you’ve felt uncomfortable going? Destinations that you’ve been concerned about visiting or are dreaming of seeing? Are there travel resources you use to help you feel safe and comfortable? See you in the comments!
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her debut novel, We Are Not Like Them, written with Jo Piazza came out in 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. Find her on Instagram @cpride.