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How Travel Made Me a Better White Person

by Matt Hershberger Nov 10, 2014

WHEN I FIRST STARTED TRAVELING, I wasn’t aware of my race. Not in an “I don’t have a race!” type way, but in the same way I thought about accents. That guy has a southern accent. That girl has a Scottish accent. That guy is from Minnesota. My accent? Well, I don’t have an accent, I’m the one who’s normal. It’s the type of thinking that doesn’t stand up to a second’s worth of scrutiny, but it’s been standing for decades because it’s not given any scrutiny at all.

This is a fairly normal default stance for white people such as myself. None of this is to say we’re evil, ignorant people, it’s just to say we live in a society where people rarely draw our attention to our own race. So when I started traveling, I wasn’t white, I was normal.

Traveling in the non-white world

When I started traveling to places that weren’t predominantly white European, I started noticing something: I had nicknames. In South America, I was a yanqui. In Hawaii, I was a haole. In Japan, I was a gaijin.

It’s not like I’d never been called names before. Outside of the US, I’ve been called a wanker, a cabrón, a cunt, a poofter, and a shite. Those names I can generally brush off, though, because they’re insults that refer to something I did that was probably in my control. The new nicknames, however, I wasn’t used to. I’ve been called an “American” or an “Ohioan” plenty of times, but these new nicknames weren’t all that concerned in where I was coming from, they were more concerned with what I was born looking like. For the first time, a label was attached to me that I was mildly uncomfortable with, and that I could do nothing about.

As I traveled more, I found that the labels, once I started to get to know someone, got checked at the door. But they were still the starting point for all conversations. I had one guy in Argentina who straight up would not believe that I voted against Bush. A rickshaw driver in India was upset that I was anti-Muslim, simply because I said I was American. For once, there were negative connotations attached to other people’s labels of me.

“Shit,” I remember thinking, “This kind of sucks.”

Chinese vs White Dominance

My next lesson was in going to China. In China, most of the political and cultural life is dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Han Chinese. The Han make up about 92% of China’s population, but there are dozens of other major ethnic groups in China. The ones I came into the closest contact with were the Tibetans.

The world is pretty familiar with the fight for Tibetan independence. What the world is less familiar with is the fact that it’s not just a religious struggle, it’s an ethnic one as well. Tibetans are discriminated against in some very blatant ways, and in some very subtle ways as well.

Touring around Tibet, I was shocked to see this. The Han that I talked to thought they were being generous to the Tibetans by introducing them into a flourishing economy and by ending the rule of the at times regressive Lama system. But how could one ethnic group be so dominant over the others without being aware of it? How could they skew the system so clearly against a group that was supposedly a part of their own country? How could they marginalize and criminalize an entire culture without seeing what they were really doing?

I felt self-righteous about it for a few days, and then I went home to the United States. “Ohhhh,” I thought. “Right.”

Travel isn’t fatal to bigotry and prejudice.

There’s a famous Mark Twain quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It’s not totally true. I know plenty of people who have traveled extensively and who have still come home holding prejudices against people of other cultures and backgrounds. But travel does make it harder to be prejudiced and ignorant of your prejudice. It’s an overused word in discussions today, but travel, more than anything else, makes you aware of your privilege.

Travel made me aware of how lucky I am to be white, and how much the culture I’ve grown up in has been built to benefit people who look like me, often at the exclusion of others. It made me aware that I can only see from where I stand. And it introduced me to people who stand elsewhere. And understanding my privilege has put me on the road to becoming a slightly better white person.

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