Monday Postcard #12 – The Privilege of Travelling with a “Good” Passport
This week, I am going to travel to Asia again. I always consider travel something exciting and fun. I love airports, the feeling when you hold your boarding pass and do not know yet what to expect from your next trip. This is pretty much everything we, speaking of usually white people with a passport ranking among the top 10 of the world, really have to worry about.
It might come across as ignorant, but for the longest time I was travelling carefree, mostly making good experience with the people I met travelling. I actually never thought about how privileged I am and how difficult travelling can be for others. I thought racism was a thing of the past. (Note: This was well before recent political developments in Austria and across the whole of Europe.) However, when I started travelling with my boyfriend and friends who do not have this passport and skin colour privilege, I was shocked to realize how discrimination is still daily occurrence. From being asked to step out of the queue to be searched in front of everyone, to constantly being questioned why they travel to that certain country, to difficulties getting a simple tourist visa to visit the Schengen zone for a few days.
I feel really ashamed when friends ask me, “Is it still OK for us to travel to Europe. You know, with our skin colour.” But I have to admit, looking at the world as it is at the moment, there is reason to ask that. And if you are constantly being questioned anyways when you travel somewhere, even more. But very often when I tell my Austrian some travel anecdotes about racism, they smile and say something along the lines of, “It can’t be that bad, you’re exaggerating.”
But, unfortunately, I am not. One of the worst experiences lately was when we travelled to a South-East Asian country for a weekend. At check-in, I was not asked any questions, they just wished me a nice trip. Even though they should have asked me for my next flight due to the fact that I could only stay for a month in the next destination country. But as I mentioned above, nothing unusual when I travel. However, there was a completely different reaction to a “not so good” passport and a darker skin colour. The questions started immediately, everything was checked a thousand times (do not get me wrong, I do think checking is important but this was clearly too much). And still, despite – or maybe because – of all the investigating, they missed that all the necessary documents and visas were there. There was clearly no need to just assume that there was a possible trouble maker checking in.
I do not mean to write an outcry about racism in the world here. I know that security standards had to be changed due to recent events. Nevertheless, blank racism should never be something justified. The reason why I decided to write about this topic is the following: I recently attended a seminar about art in Brazil. And due to Brazil’s history as a former colony and its involvement in the slave trade from Africa, different cultures and races contribute to Brazil’s identity. We discussed one case of an art event, where the black community of Brazil had strong hopes for a coloured curator to take over the directorship. But even though there was a strong lobby, a white curator was chosen instead. To be fair, this person did address topics of race. However, I think I don not need to elaborate here why a coloured curator would have been the appropriate choice. I thought it would be more than clear for everyone.
However, some participants then started arguing: “But that’s really unfair how they discriminate the curator because of his skin colour.” I nearly lost my sh** when I heard this. I could not believe it. But then I put myself into the participants’ shoes: the majority were Austrians, white like me. Most of them have travelled a lot but probably the careless way I used to travel. Obviously, they had a similar view that racism was a thing of the past. When I told them some travel anecdotes they were shocked. And I do think that they soon realized that their argument needs to be reconsidered. “We thought in a world like today, we can all just live and work wherever we want.” Well, I am sorry, most of us cannot.
What I do try to achieve here is to ask you for the following: Firstly, if you have the chance to travel with little barriers, please use that privilege. Travel with open eyes and an open mind. Not a lot of people have the same privilege as you do. Secondly, put yourself into the shoes of others. Do not assume certain things just because someone looks a certain way.