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What Is Travel Safety for Women of Color in a Racist, Sexist World?

Travel culture must do better for us all.

For better or worse, I enjoy my own company more than others’, especially when I’m traveling. I vividly remember the first time 15-year-old me reconsidered travel safety from the cold shoulder of a road in upstate New York, my thumb stuck up to the night sky. I held no cultural compass to gauge what my destination would look like; I just hoped to arrive in one piece. Safety isn’t afforded to all of us equally—it is always gendered, classed, and racialized. I didn’t have Google at the time, but even now, if I research whether my next destination is “safe,” I know the page of search results won’t be geared toward people like me.

The reality is that safety to white women travelers is not the same as safety to nonbinary travelers and women of color.

Travel safety is simply more of a concern for women, trans men, and nonbinary travelers. But these conversations around safety have long been dominated by white Western women with class and race privilege who color their “advice” with a not-so-coded streak of racism. Safety for white women travelers is not the same as safety for women and nonbinary travelers of color, and when travel media fails to even acknowledge that we exist in these narratives, they strengthen the conditions that make this patriarchal world unsafe for those most vulnerable.

Look up “solo female traveler” and you’ll see links to blog posts featuring a diverse range of beige shades. It’s no coincidence that the places these travel writers, bloggers, and businesswomen identify as safe for travel are white and that the places they generally warn against are Black and brown. Forbes recently ranked my home country of Ecuador eighth in its “10 Most Dangerous Places for Women Travelers,” but as a safeguard, advises them to bring hand sanitizer because “the toilet situation can be, to say the least, unpredictable.” ¿Como, Sway? Every country listed is a predominantly POC one, and every place in its listicle of “safe” destinations for women is either white or a prohibitively expensive zone in POC lands for the wealthy. It’s time to rethink the binary of what’s considered safe and familiar versus foreign and scary, because those are relative notions shaped by power, and not a one-size-fits-all deal.

Bani hitchhiking in central Ecuador.
photo by Bani Amor

Within mainstream travel culture, white girls who take one weekend trip to Cancún end up seeing themselves as experts on machismo and the patriarchal behavior specific to Latin American cultures. It’s one of the many ways in which tourism and gentrification overlap—white women travel writers love displacing us, Columbus-ing our cultures, fearing the men, and erasing the women. Without interrogating their own racist notions, these writers go on perpetuating stereotypes about the dangers of Black and brown men, a dynamic born in the days of chattel slavery that white women still wield to retain a victimhood that others aren’t afforded. The problem worsens when they write about it.

Take this popular blog post on The Ramble that warns all solo female travelers to avoid Colombia: “It’s hard to describe how the harassment here feels if you haven’t felt it yourself. . . . [T]here’s something different about it here, something that makes it more frightening, more intense. . . . It’s an entire culture of men without boundaries, who see women as something for the taking. . . . Here the sheer volume of predators is overwhelming and terrifying.” (Italics mine.)

Here’s the disappointing-but-not-surprising spoiler to her post: When this white woman traveler calls the cops on a white male sex tourist abusing a Colombian woman in the hostel room next door, it’s the victim—not her attacker—who is subsequently arrested. The white woman’s takeaway is to scapegoat all of Colombia when the two people responsible for the arrest of a Colombian woman were both white tourists. The mental gymnastics it took to reach this conclusion are worthy of an Olympic medal.


Due to the overwhelming whiteness of travel culture, people of color—Black women, in particular—have taken to creating their own brands, blogs, and social media accounts to address their specific travel experiences, which often include interactions driven by misogynoir. Sites like Noirbnb and Innclusive rose after the #AirbnbWhileBlack hashtag went viral because the company was failing its Black users. AfroLatino Travel, a collective led by Dash Harris, connects travelers to places in Latin America where the African diaspora is largely represented. Muzbnb is building a community around vacation lodging for Muslim travelers. In a 2016 survey of Black millennial travelers conducted by DigitasLBi, 38% of respondents said that safety with regards to their own race was a determining factor in booking trips, and that number jumps to 43% for Black women. When issues of safety are brought up in these spaces, you better believe that the narrative differs from that of the white world’s.

Hiking with friends in Imbabura Province, Ecuador.
photo by Bani Amor

Where white female travelers are seen as rich and more “exotic” in majority-POC places, Black women travelers are often assumed to be of a lower socioeconomic status and can be policed as sex workers, especially when traveling through majority-white countries. As Gloria Atanmo attests in The Blog Abroad, “Whether . . . in a long, flowing skirt or in jeans and a peacoat, there are just some regions of the world [where people] see black skin on a woman, and assume that the only way I was able to afford to get there and stay there, was by way of selling my body to a local.”

“It’s a beautiful country but there is no peace when you are a woman of color.”

The danger level is often mitigated when the woman of color speaks English or brandishes a navy blue American passport, signaling a closer proximity to whiteness and capital than a local woman of color would have. “It’s a beautiful country but there is no peace when you are a woman of color,” wrote an anonymous Black woman traveler about her time in Italy on the Stop Street Harassment site, continuing, “That is, if they don’t know that you are American. If they look at you and think you are any other type of woman of color, the assumption is that you are ‘working’ the streets.”

 

Walking along the levee in New Orleans, Louisiana.
photo by Bani Amor

We don’t ever see the U.S. listed as a dangerous country for women travelers in these conversations, which makes me wonder what kind of metric they’re using. There is more gun violence in the U.S. than anywhere else in the developed world, with an average of one mass shooting every day. From the day after the 2016 presidential election, when the majority of white Americans voted for Trump (including 53% of women), to February 7, 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center received 1,372 reports of bias-related attacks. And just last summer, the NAACP issued its first travel advisories ever for POC—and Black Americans, specifically—traveling to the state of Missouri and flying with American Airlines. Finally, murders of trans women of color and Black queer people have continued to increase over the last five years.

Within this minority of travelers of color, queer, trans, gender-nonconforming, and intersex travelers have even more trouble finding information around safety but contend with higher levels of violence. The #TravelingWhileTrans hashtag on Twitter is filled with retellings of invasive TSA pat-downs, increased suspicion by border agents, and frequent misgendering. But it’s also a place for folks to find each other and report small victories. “Navigating my personal safety in a culture of travel where the default is cis-heterosexual and white will be difficult but I refused to hide,” writes genderqueer visual artist Ceraun “the DivaNun” in a blog post. “I decided to shine as brightly as ever. My philosophy is that by showing who you really are you will attract the people who are meant to be in your life and repel the ones who don’t.” Indeed, traveling this world safely as a QTPOC is more than a small victory in itself.

Bani in Ecuador. 
photo courtesy of Bani Amor.

We all experience the world differently, and if we are to advise others on how to navigate it, we need to be aware of and address those differences. When the mainstream travel culture—dominated with white voices—deems what’s safe or unsafe, they largely frame themselves as victims and people of color as predators because they are doing so without an analysis of power in mind. White women will never secure safety by continuing to uphold the racist mythologies that keep other women oppressed, and cis folks won’t either if they continue to view gender through a lens of essentialism. It’s by taking steps to decenter cis white women’s safety above all others’ that we can have a real discussion where every traveler is considered worthy of protection, especially the most vulnerable. As I continue to travel alone and write about it as a queer, genderqueer, and disabled person of color, I hope to see that vision come more sharply into focus.

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