As a Caucasian male, I’ve never really needed to worry about being discriminated against based on my physical appearance. Unfortunately, researching the topic of how being a BAME individual can shape your travel experiences has highlighted how the colour of your skin can still affect the way you are treated when travelling.
The experiences shared by BAME travel writers online indicate a theme of ignorance more commonly rather than deliberate discrimination. Some cultures and places simply have not, or rarely ever, encountered BAME people, leading to casual racism, or to a curiosity on the part of host nation citizens as to how someone can look, which borders on harassment. The latter instance I can to a degree directly relate to, as Caucasian male though I may be, having ginger hair is certainly something some Asian cultures may not be used to, based on my own experience on a couple of occasions of undesired attention. As flattering as such attention can be, it can also be somewhat discomforting to become the tourist attraction or exhibit for others.
Alongside these milder, although still hurtful, forms of discrimination based on ignorance sits overt racism, ranging from racist language to being barred from entering or leaving places due to your ethnicity, or worse. Adapting to countries known to have higher rates of racist behaviour seems an unfortunate requirement to ensure travels are not irrevocably marred by such encounters. For instance, the numerous videos on the internet of inappropriate force used against African-Americans by white police officers in the USA may make it wise for BAME tourists to be especially wary in cases of interaction with the police there.
In some countries, certainly, the risks may be greater – travelling solo across Russia as a BAME woman may be more liable to enduring uncomfortable situations than travelling with others, for example. However, racist attitudes can be encountered anywhere. For example, a travel blog written in 2014 by Travel Channel host Oneika Raymond relates her experience of racial and sexist discrimination in Dublin, a city hardly known for racial prejudice. Similarly, racial discrimination can typically be endured before exploring a country at border or airport security checks – the FCO’s travel advice for Tanzania for example, warns of complaints made to the British High Commission about ‘additional levels of harassment‘ by immigration officials towards BAME British passport-holding travellers, while an article by The Guardian in 2016 underlined the frequency of racial profiling at British airports.
The message that BAME tourists could experience racism anywhere is not reassuring, nor are egregious cases like the Asian traveller refused accommodation in an Airbnb in California, receiving a message saying ‘One word says it all. Asian’. Surveys suggesting racially discriminatory attitudes in societies, like a third of young people in a report in Australia in 2016 asserting experience of race-based mistreatment, further paint a bleak picture.
Perhaps ironically then, the fact that racial discrimination can potentially be experienced anywhere makes a strong case to be as uninhibited as possible in travelling, for being reluctant to travel is not a solution necessarily to avoiding racial discrimination.
Clipping your travel wings and restricting the destinations where you travel based on more stories of racial discrimination at one location than another could therefore not be a self-imposed restriction worth instigating, unless there’s clear, systemic maltreatment and threat to life. Although researching the prevalence of racial discrimination in areas, being aware and accordingly preparing and planning for possible incidents is a precaution worth taking, the world is still there to be explored, regardless of racial unpleasantness along the way.