Check Your Privilege at the Door: Tips for Traveling Respectfully

We’re all human. Sometimes we forget about our humanity. That needs to stop.

Emma Browning

Have you walked into any space, like an airport, and been personally annoyed by the lines? By the people who are in front of you taking longer than you want? The families doing something differently than you would have done? Please, check your privilege.

Have you visited another country and said (out loud) to either yourself or a travel companion “wow I could never live like this” or “this is so weird.” Please, check your privilege.

Now I’m not saying you’re a bad person. Not at all. For some background, I am a 30-year-old white woman who grew up in suburbia. I was lucky enough to be able to travel, and I work my ass off now to be able to travel around the world and experience something new and different. All too often I hear people say these types of things and I truly feel like it inhibits how you experience travel and adds prejudice to your thoughts.

In a perfect world, people would be able to travel where they wanted, whenever they wanted. They wouldn’t be prohibited by gender, war, money, fear, or race. Sadly, this is not the world we live in. I’m well aware that I am one of the privileged few who gets to see the world and I try to act accordingly. Am I perfect? Hell no. Am I trying to be as respectful and genuine as possible? Always.

Here are a few ways you can be on the lookout for ways you can check your privilege at the door. The next time you travel I want you to step out of your door and forget the “normal.” Remember that you are lucky and that you’re about to experience something new, sometimes drastically so. Try not to make others feel bad for the way they live their lives. No one deserves that.

Voluntourism

What you need to ask is, is your work doing more harm than good? You might be asking, well how is me building this house for someone not doing any good? Some (not all) voluntourism has become a multi-million dollar industry. There have been many studies about the impacts of these trips, and they are not all positive.

Several decades ago, the only volunteers-tourism trips available were for medical professionals. Today, anyone, regardless of skill level, can volunteer. Volunteering is an incredible experience that I recommend everyone doing. Voluntourism is a very different animal. You pay a company to let you do a random project in a country of your choosing. You are not trained. You might not have any skills to begin with that are directly related to the project.

These companies often place volunteers in jobs that locals could have been paid for. The money does not go back into the economy and therefore does not really help on a long-term scale. There are even instances where child trafficking has resulted from voluntourism. In areas with high volumes of tourists who visit orphanages, child traffickers will steal children from parents to fuel the voluntourism industry that brings westerners over. The thinking is that if they keep seeing children in squalid conditions, they will continue to donate. And we do.

Authentic Experiences

These “experiences” are more prevalent in developing countries. Are they designed for locals? No. They’re designed for foreigners, and that in itself is not an authentic way to experience a culture. Are these experiences interesting? Most likely yes. The problem occurs when these tours give people a skewed version of what their culture is actually like. The other issue arises when the tour companies who advertise and give these tours don’t give back to the communities they exploit to earn money.

Next time, be careful about whether or not an experience is authentic. Are you touring someone’s home as an example of what a person lives like? Are you being treated to a massive buffet? Or are you learning how to cook a meal with local ingredients with a local chef who also gives a portion of the proceeds to help the community? There’s a difference. Learn how to look for authenticity. Do your research beforehand to make sure you aren’t inadvertently exploiting someone.

How Do You/They Live Like This?

Traveling to a country or area that is less fortunate than yours is inspiring, at least for me it is. I know everyone doesn’t live like me and there are some places and situations that bring tears to my eyes when I see them. Are those people any less than me? Absolutely not.

All too often I hear people say either to themselves or to their travel companions “how do they live like this?” The answer is: the same way you do. When I was in Peru, I was sitting on a comfy bus as we drove to another city. On the way, we passed shanty towns surrounded by huge piles of trash. I know I am privileged enough to live in a country and an area where I am safe and comfortable.

That’s not the case for everyone. There are people from all walks of life living contentedly around the world. More often than not, the people who have less appreciate what they do have more. When we travel we need to remember that there is no wrong way to live a life. People live differently everywhere you go no matter the place but that does not mean they are any less than you or me. We’re all human. Sometimes we forget about our humanity. That needs to stop.

Choose To Be a Better Version of Yourself

The next time you travel, go on a mission to become a better version of yourself. Research where your help is needed most. Choose to volunteer at an established organization that you can extensively research. Check a suitcase full of extra clothes to donate to a charity in need. Avoid tourist trap excursions that might exploit the local culture. This can happen in any country at any time.

Be mindful. Be kind. Think before you speak. Act with respect. All of these things are full attainable if we only choose to put forth the effort. Start changing the world with a small change in yourself. Yes, that’s cheesy, and I am well aware. I’m also aware of its truth. Remember that you are visiting a place someone else calls home. Treat it with as much respect and authenticity that you can.

Leave a Reply