On She Goes

Connecting with Women of Color Travelers through Social Media

Yes, there are travelers just like you looking for like-minded adventurers.

Mary Alice Daniel
Mary Alice Daniel
May 15, 2017
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Whether you don’t yet have your first passport stamp or you’re already exhausting all those “Places You Must See Before You Die” lists, there are travelers just like you looking for like-minded adventurers. As someone who travels several months out of any given year, I can testify that social media travel groups are indispensable—serving as tour guides, support groups, and rich sources of personalized advice for us globe-trotters.

Groups for travelers of color can feel like a family—one spread across the globe that still somehow maintains a strong communal vibe.

While I’ve mostly found groups on Facebook, I’ve also browsed forums such as Reddit and travel websites with lively message boards. Finding the right group is as simple as searching for others like you using keywords like “solo travel,” “women travelers,” and “Black travelers.” Crowdsourcing travel info provides much more current recommendations than can be found in printed guidebooks, which often become outdated the minute they’re published. I’ve asked which Greek islands aren’t overrun with tourists during the high season (Paros, Naxos, Hydra); the most useful travel-related phone apps (Wi-Fi Finder, Google Translate, Jet Lag Rooster); about how to dress modestly in Egypt (loose clothes covering knees and shoulders). After posting my itineraries, I’ve met up with strangers who wanted to split the cost of a taxi across Malta, to stay up through the perpetual twilight of summertime Iceland, and to find the best spot on Santorini to view its famous sunset.

After years of being active in these groups, I’ve noticed racial dynamics playing out in this fascinating corner of the Web. As a Black woman, the groups that hold the most value for me are those with a membership composed mostly of people of color (POC)—especially those geared toward Black travelers. I began to ensconce myself within these minority-majority groups after being turned off by several problems I saw in predominantly white travel groups.

Groups for travelers of color can feel like a family—one spread across the globe that still somehow maintains a strong communal vibe. It is a community that is international, intercontinental, and accessible to members seeking a support network. In groups as populous as Nomadness Travel Tribe (15,000 members) and Black Travel Movement (70,000 members), or as relatively cozy as Black Girl Travel Movement (5,000 members), I’ve noticed these types of thoughtful conversations taking up the most space:

  • Discussions of the various privileges that allow people to travel.
  • Explorations of all the ways non-white travelers are treated around the world.
  • Brainstorming business ideas to serve the needs of POC, who are routinely underserved by the travel industry.
  • Professional networking to navigate working abroad in racist environments. For example, when teaching English abroad, many have experienced hiring discrimination, as companies pass them over in favor of white instructors, who are presumed to know the language better.
  • Support for one another when in need of a safety net: providing housing, legal advice, and emergency aid at home and overseas.

If it sounds like these groups are perfect, they’re not. “Travel snobs” exist in any group: these are those who try turning travel into a competition. Who’s been to the most countries. Who’s gone to remote locations, far off the beaten tourist path. Who took the most epic, Instagrammable selfie near an iconic location. Debates about the “best way” to travel often bring drama, as people can get really defensive about personal travel preferences. However, the overall tone set by moderators and members encourages inclusion and introspection. Meanwhile, in travel groups with a majority white or Western membership the vibe can be somewhat unwelcoming for POC, with many troubling conversations popping up again and again:

  • “Ugly Americanism,” aka when travelers are ignorant or biased about the foreign cultures they encounter. It might be seen in a review complaining that service staff don’t understand English well enough or in a warning about the “dangers” of visiting locales that are actually quite safe if you look at the crime rates but have undeserved reputations, usually because of inaccurate stereotyping in the media. It also includes flouting local etiquette and violating cultural norms, like not dressing appropriately before entering a place of worship or taking flippant selfies at memorial sites.
  • Unchallenged mockery of other cultures, showcased in posts about “bizarre” or “strange” food, dress, rituals, and more.
  • Colorblindness: the insistence that it’s best to “not see race” when traveling. It’s often reinforced by group rules against discussing race and racism because they’re “divisive” or “off topic.” If you can’t see race, you can’t see racism—rules like this only benefit members whose race doesn’t present legitimate challenges overseas.
  • Exotification of other cultures by reducing cultures to a flattened version that borders     on caricature. It means thinking of other cultures in terms of how they can be of use to Westerners. Consider the cliché of “finding oneself” abroad (a la Eat, Pray, Love). In its    nastiest form, it means dehumanizing people—for example, taking pictures of local residents without their permission, as though they’re spectacles in a zoo.

My time spent in these majority-white travel groups was punctuated by drama and conflict. Every so often, an issue concerning race or racism would come up: a member would ask what it might be like visiting a certain place as a minority or report a negative experience in which they felt racial bias. These posts usually got several sympathetic responses but invariably also a few snarky remarks about “playing the race card.” Moderators would routinely deal with these incidents by deleting the post, reiterating the “no politics” rule, and even banning members who complained. Mods framed discussions of race as partisan politics, not as an aspect of our daily lives, our lived realities. There was never any growth or forward progress on these issues, and many of us felt silenced. I often felt discouraged, as I tried to explain, over and over, how ignoring politics, race, and culture would breed a generation of ignorant and insensitive travelers. Still, I stayed in these groups, because they were still chock-full of general travel tips, such as how to find flight deals and affordable housing. Nevertheless, I was looking for more—a sense of actual community.

Above all, it’s feeling like part of a community that recognizes and affirms my whole self that makes all the difference. This affirmation is not a happy accident of majority-POC travel groups; they were designed with this goal in mind. I emailed the founders of a couple of groups for Black travelers about their thoughts on why POC travel groups are necessary. Gabrielle Victoria, founder of BlackGirlFly.com, a website exclusively for Black women travelers, wanted to create “a safe space to exist while in a world that tends to forget that we exist. We have a unique experience while traveling, and in my travel community we can share those experiences without having to explain or minimize. We can just be.” They were also designed to address the problem of a lack of representation: Evita Turquoise Robinson, founder of Nomadness Travel Tribe, said, “This type of space is necessary, because even until today, mass media has never taken the reigns in representing” international travelers. “We look like, sound like, and come from everywhere.”

Above all, it’s feeling like part of a community that recognizes and affirms my whole self that makes all the difference.

Why else do these online travel communities feel so different? Depending on destination, travelers of color often don’t have the luxury of going unnoticed when leaving home—we stand out. I’ve experienced this over and over, not only in remote locations where all strangers attract attention, but also in booming tourist destinations full of diversity. We are hypervisible, always held accountable. Therefore, we must “act right” by knowing and respecting the cultural norms of new places. If we don’t, we’re liable to endure harassment by locals, experience excessive scrutiny by police or immigration officials, and have difficulty finding housing, employment, and a hospitable welcome wherever we go. This reality shapes our priorities in the places we gather to steer each other around the world—encouraging mutual respect and understanding.

Underneath everything is the fact that our bodies do not exist in a neutral space. Merely existing in these bodies is political—sometimes polarizing. Moving these bodies around the globe, across borders—even more so. Within these groups, we create our own inclusive, positive spaces, because no one else will. We’ve learned to thrive, despite being marginalized, by building community so that we can help each other travel more safely across the globe.