TRAVELLING IN COLOUR
“Are you afraid of flying?” It might seem like a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, but for many, there’s more to fear than take-off or occasional turbulence. In Royal Jordanian Airlines’ powerful, minute-long ad, one Muslim’s unease at the accusing looks he receives from other plane passengers reveals how the public’s anxiety surrounding terrorism – and the stereotypes pinned on certain minority groups – is taking a toll on the world today. “The people around me are afraid of me”, the Muslim passenger realises. Here – in moments like these – is where the problem starts: while travel is, theoretically, an industry that flies the flag for freedom and diversity, in reality it remains tainted by widespread discrimination.
“While travel is, theoretically, an industry that flies the flag for freedom and diversity, in reality it remains tainted by widespread discrimination”
For Muslims have reported being tormented by paranoid stares – and worse – on their travels ever since the events of 9/11. Terrorist attack after terrorist attack later, and the likes of Al-Qaeda,Boko Haram and ISIS have given Islam a bad name – so while carrying a Quran and a prayer matin your hold luggage should not be a cause for concern, too often Muslim travellers are singled out and demonised for simple acts of personal or religious expression. “I am this guy. I fit every cliché: I am the abstract villain of your imagined anxieties”, says Muslim American and CEO of Skift, Rafat Ali, in his article on his experiences as a Muslim traveller.
Ali is not the only Muslim who has felt discriminatory eyes upon him since the threat of terrorism clouded the world’s better judgement. In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 75 per cent of Muslim-American adults said there is “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the US – an opinion shared by almost seven in 10 adults in the US general public. Combine this with the distressingly regular, worldwide reports of verbal and physical abuse directed at women in headscarves, men with beards, or anyone displaying overt signs that they might be a follower of Islam, and no one should have a problem understanding what Ali means when he describes his post-9/11 experience as a Muslim traveller as “a sociological condition I carry with me all the time”.
It’s not hard to spot a similar trend in tales of black travellers’ experiences of racial discrimination. Just take a look at online forums like The Travellers of Colour Collective, which provides a safe space for travellers of colour to voice stories of their encounters with racial prejudice: among them, founder Kiki Nartey describes an instance where she was told by a stranger on a train that her “different appearance” had triggered his three-year-old son’s crying outburst. With encounters like this an all-too-regular reality, it’s easy to see why travellers of colour might take the view of Eritrean-American writer Rahawa Haile, who confesses in an interview with VICE: “I plan my trips based on how much time I feel comfortable being othered.”
Evita Robinson – founder of NOMADNESS Travel Tribe, a Facebook group turned award-winning lifestyle brand that organises trips for black and ‘brown’ millennial travellers – delves deeper into the consequences of the ‘othering’ of travellers of colour. In her TED Talk, she refers specifically to the “silent burden” every black traveller bears: the responsibility they have to “set the record straight” and diffuse the warped perception of black culture appropriated by the mass media. “There has always been a stereotype that people of colour don’t travel – or if they do, that they’ll go to the Caribbean or Miami”, Robinson observes; “it’s not them – it’s what they’ve seen of us.”
But there’s more to it than that. So societally embedded is this notion of otherness that it has given rise to financial and psychological barriers preventing people of colour from travelling at all – barriers that black travel pioneers such as Robinson are working tirelessly to break down. “What I found”, she explains, “was that the mentality that travel was something that ‘black people don’t do’ or that ‘black people can’t afford’ even existed in the black community, so it took some internal unravelling to get people to wake up”.
So while forums like the Travellers of Colour Collective provide a place where minority travellers can voice their struggles, NOMADNESS Travel Tribe – along with others like Travel Noire, Up in the Air Life, Bucketlist Beasts and Tastemakers – have gone a step further, creating communities that allow travellers of colour, often haunted by a long history of discrimination, to counter their own stereotypes and find refuge both at home and abroad. Thanks to her work with NOMADNESS, Robinson has been dubbed ‘the mother of the black travel movement’: a growing band of travel agents, social networks and lifestyle brands caters to a demographic that the wider travel industry has, so far, overlooked.
“Most [travel] narratives are from a white, Western perspective, which essentially nullifies the very purpose of travel”, Nartey points out. She’s right. From travel marketing full of beaming white faces; to guidebooks and online travel advice written predominantly from white perspectives; to the distinct lack of racial diversity in the travel industry’s workforce, people of colour are not only flying under the travel marketer’s radar as potential customers: they are noticeably underrepresented in ‘mainstream’ travel in most capacities.
“While the travel industry can’t escape the moral dubiousness of failing to cater to – or, at worst, actively excluding – entire groups of people, it’s not too late to make amends”
While the travel industry can’t escape the moral dubiousness of failing to cater to – or, at worst, actively excluding – entire groups of people, it’s not too late to make amends. Their bottom line would thank them for it, too. A report published in October 2017 by Mastercard and Muslim travel website HalalTrip revealed that young Muslims between the ages of 18 and 36 are expected to spend more than $100 billion annually on travelling by 2025 – a figure that’s more than doubled since 2016, making them a target market that’s hard to ignore.
Meanwhile, an online panel study from Mandala Research estimates that African-Americans are already spending a whopping $50 billion on domestic flights annually; the same study revealed that about one in five black travellers are taking at least one international trip each year. It turns out travellers of colour are globetrotters to be reckoned with – and some smart travel brands are starting to reach out to them.
Airbnb was one of the first to try to connect with the black travel movement, reaching out to Robinson’s NOMADNESS Travel Tribe in 2015 – but their name was quickly tarnished after discrimination allegations arose against them. The birth of the hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack in 2016 caused shockwaves as stories of Airbnb hosts favouring white profiles over African-American profiles filtered on to social feeds everywhere. Airbnb reacted in March 2016 by hiring their first ever Head of Diversity and Belonging, David King III – a former Peace Corps and State Department official with 15 years’ experience in the field of diversity and inclusion.
“We will take the strongest actions we can against such abhorrent conduct, including banning people for life from our platform and assisting law enforcement with their investigation and potential prosecution. Nobody should ever be treated like this and it will not be tolerated”, he said in an official statement responding to the scandal. This was the moment when real, positive changes were implemented at Airbnb to deal with discrimination on the platform: from insisting that its hosts agree to a “community commitment” and a non-discrimination policy, to hiring a full-time anti-discrimination squad of data scientists, engineers and researchers whose primary aim is to discern patterns in host behaviour, the brand is making efforts to ensure that its core value of “belonging” applies to all its customers, whatever the colour of their skin.
Also hot on enforcing diversity in travel is Hyatt. Originally airing at the 2017 Oscars, the brand’s advert, “For a World of Understanding”, depicts people from different ethnic backgrounds experiencing subtle moments of understanding, taking a political stand against racial prejudice and celebrating cultural differences as part of a global campaign reaching out to markets in countries such as the US, India and China. It also hammers home one of Hyatt’s fundamental values: “We have an incredibly diverse employee base and are in all these markets, so the whole idea of elevating understanding is really essential to our business”, says Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian.
But, argues Robinson, in order to enforce these outward-facing gestures of diversity with conviction, brands should seek the guidance of minority traveller travel experts. “Linking with relevant influencers who are already trusted [is more effective than] trying to create something from scratch”, she says. “The black demographic is not going to use your services if they don’t believe you. The organisations that have done it right have taken a backseat, allowing people who are already dominating the black travel space to drive the car, which allows us to teach them the best way to go about engaging our community”.
Collaborating with her NOMADNESS Travel Tribe and the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), Airbnb recently hosted “The Evolution of Black Travel” – a panel discussion at MoAD intended to build the company’s understanding of the history and impact of black travel, with participants including high-ranking Airbnb officials, alongside the National President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Robinson herself.
And the conversation hasn’t stopped there: Airbnb has announced that, alongside NOMADNESS and MoAD, in a matter of months they will be launching “a series of new Experiences [that] will shine light on black communities and become a source of economic empowerment for [Airbnb] hosts and their local communities around the world.” Due to take place in London and some of North America’s most densely populated metropolitan areas, one such programme at MoAD will see visitors make art under the guidance of local San Francisco artists representing the African diaspora. As well as being one of a few rare itineraries created with travellers of colour in mind, the hope is that these Experiences will also foster understanding and respect among non-minority travellers.
“Like so many other things, effectively combatting racial prejudice in the travel sphere must start from the inside out”
Like so many other things, effectively combatting racial prejudice in the travel sphere must start from the inside out. Taking action internally to encourage workplace inclusivity and diversify is vital in creating a product or brand that is also inclusive and diverse. “Is [diversity] something that’s embedded in your business DNA? Is there somebody in HR who brings people of colour in, who can check and double-check the content of your marketing campaigns?” asks Robinson.
So determined are they to right previous wrongs, Airbnb has followed in the footsteps of Google, Facebook and Apple by publishing annual diversity reports on their website – there they are transparent about an existing imbalance, yet express an apparently earnest desire to turn things around. At the CU Boulder Diversity Summit, King acknowledged that the shift towards diversity isn’t easy; but Airbnb initiatives such as Airfinity – their employee-led resource groups that “celebrate the individual experiences that make our community great” – are helping to create more awareness and advocacy around important human issues, as well as helping to guide the company’s diversity initiatives in recruitment, leadership, product development, and community outreach.
Similarly, Hyatt’s Diversity Business Resource Groups (DBRGs) bring together colleagues who share a cultural heritage, gender, race, age or interest to create inclusive spaces and support systems within their existing community. Offering benefits like mentorship, internal career opportunities, health and wellbeing support, and an overall sense of camaraderie for new and existing employees, Hyatt is smart enough to know that the positive effects of employee diversity and inclusion will inevitably be felt by guests.
But this is only the beginning. The travel industry – and the world – must acknowledge the wider issue at hand: racial prejudice in travel is affecting ethnic minority travellers everywhere, both at home and abroad. They encounter it and feel the weight of the problem everywhere they go. So while no one single entity can put an end to the racist stigma underpinning the industry, taking action to promote and welcome diversity, as Airbnb and Hyatt have done, can only be a good thing – not just for a more inclusive (and profitable) travel industry, but ultimately for a world liberated from the clutches of discrimination.
[This article was published in Beyond: Human, LE Miami’s print magazine, in June 2018.]