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Black Travel Is Not a Monolith

By Dr. Alana Dillette and Dr. Stefanie Benjamin, Tourism RESET

Feb 12, 2021

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Travel companies need to be transparent about their commitment to Black representation and racial equality.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Travel companies need to be transparent about their commitment to Black representation and racial equality.

Travel as a transformative form of escapism is not something afforded to everyone, and intersecting identities only make it more challenging for members of marginalized groups.

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In September 2011, content creator Evita Robinson founded Nomadness Travel Tribe, which centers on Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BI-POC) and was born in response to the severe lack of representation across the travel industry. Nearly a decade later, Nomadness has an active membership of more than 25,000 people across the globe, serving not only as a space for travel but as a community for connecting. What began as one womxn’s vision to shape shift the landscape and representations of BI-POC in the travel industry has grown exponentially: BI-POC travel is a movement. 

But it wasn’t until May 25, 2020, that the travel industry started to truly wake up from its whitewashed slumber. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the world witnessed yet another brutal killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police. In response, many travel brands posted a black square onto their social media accounts as a part of a solidarity movement—“Blackout Tuesday”—to signify allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement. This sharp turn in discourse from brands that were previously silent regarding systemic racism, now showing their “solidarity,” reeked of performative allyship. Beyond the confines of Blackout Tuesday, what are travel companies really doing to take action and provide transparency about their commitment to Black representation and racial equality?

As codirectors of Tourism RESET, an initiative dedicated to promoting social equity in the travel and tourism sphere, we partnered with Nomadness Travel Tribe to create and disseminate the 2020 BI-POC Diversity in Travel Report: Trends + Insights. The largest of its kind to date, this report included both qualitative in-depth interviews and a quantitative survey of more than 5,000 travelers to better understand the real experiences of BI-POC travelers, influencers, and community leaders. In order to “tell a story with the numbers,” we focused on Nomadness members who identified as Black and interviewed several Black travel influencers, bloggers, and community leaders, all of whom shared one thing: the message that Black travel is not a monolith. 

Black travelers are seeking authenticity, not only in their experiences while traveling, but also in the depth of representation across media.

This concept of true and honest representation is essential for creating equitable travel landscapes. In fact, more so than ever before, Black travelers increasingly express their dissatisfaction with tokenism and the performative nature of checking the “diversity box.” Black travelers are seeking authenticity, not only in their experiences while traveling, but also in the depth of representation across media. It is no longer enough to simply show a light-skinned Black woman or an interracial Black/White couple in advertising. Destinations, travel brands, and tourism companies need to further explore the intersectionality of what it means to be Black. For instance, that being American and Black, while also identifying as a womxn, poses several threats around safety, acceptance, and belonging. 

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Nicole Griffin, a member of Nomadness Travel Tribe, relayed her concerns traveling as a Black American womxn: “I am cautious about what I do, where I go by myself, especially after dark in certain countries,” she said. “I would like to try to blend in and experience as much of the culture as I can, as opposed to sticking out as a sore thumb as a Black American woman.”

Joshlyn Crystal Adams, CEO of Urbanista Travel, a travel planning company, shared how the extra layers of gender and sexuality contributes to the challenges of traveling safely: “It’s definitely more than being Black, it’s also—as a woman, where do I feel safe going? I’ve seen, especially in [Nomadness] tribe, where it’s like, if you go to this country [for example] as a gay person, just be mindful that if you get caught doing this or that, you can be arrested. So it spins far beyond race.”

Adams, an LGBTQI+ ally, is far from alone with her concerns around race and sexual orientation, as LGBTQI+ people have few, if any protections while traveling. It’s still illegal to be queer in around 70 countries, regardless of the more than $100 billion annual economic impact of LGBTQI+ travelers in the U.S. alone. Christopher Carr, chief diversity officer with Consider Confluence, a collective that works to diversify collegiate demographics, questions the acceptance of queer culture before he travels: “If I’m not going to be gay bashed, am I going to be able to thrive there? Will I be able to be my authentic self?”

For Black LGBTQI+ travelers, acquiring extra resources and researching safe destinations is essential. To help ease this burden, Ronnell Perry, founder of Afro Buenaventura, suggests that the people creating acceptance campaigns need to be directly from the communities. “They need to be Black and they need to be gay. If companies want to understand how to be appealing to those communities, they should go directly to the source,” Perry says. Gaining these perspectives assists in promoting compassion and empathy, which in turn can promote inclusive tourism.  

Fletcher Cleaves, paralyzed from a tragic car accident in 2009, travels the world as a motivational speaker with Rollin’ on Faith and shared his frustrations around accessible travel—specifically accessible public transportation and accommodations. “The money it would cost to make all those vehicles accessible to somebody is not worth it,” he says. “We don’t want to necessarily do it until it affects us or someone we know.”

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Globally, 1 billion people experience some form of disability, and this number is increasing due to an aging population, the spread of chronic diseases, and improvements in measuring disabilities. Adults with disabilities in the U.S. spend $17.3 billion a year on leisure and business travel. However, there are numerous challenges facing this group while traveling, including untrained professional staff; inaccessible booking services and related websites; lack of inclusive and accessible airports, restaurants, hotel rooms, shops, and public spaces; and unavailable information on accessible facilities, services, equipment rentals, and tourist attractions.

Fletcher highlighted an important distinction: that even when destinations say they are accessible, they are not always inclusive. This is amplifying a systemically whitewashed and ableist tourism industry that hinders what travel should feel like—transformational experiences that help to support the Black travel community. Despite needed legal interventions like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the social inertia against the inclusion of people with disabilities remains in many aspects of daily life. Inclusive tourism overcomes barriers to enable people with disabilities to participate meaningfully in tourism as producers or consumers. It challenges stereotypes and calls for appropriate representations, as well as facilitating mutual understanding and respect. 

“There are some real powerful levels to our self-identity as humans but also as a community of color that we definitely need to explore, and want to explore more.”

Exploring marginalized identities enhances the complexity of the BI-POC travel movement. As Robinson says: “There are some real powerful levels to our self-identity as humans but also as a community of color that we definitely need to explore, and want to explore more.” While the tourism industry starts to wake up and work toward diversity, we encourage them to invite Black leaders who also identify with other marginalized populations beyond their race. Kellee Edwards, adventure travel journalist and the first Black woman to land her own travel TV series, Mysterious Islands on the Travel Channel, says that change needs to happen at the leadership level.

“They [travel brands] don’t have anyone at the top to make changes. They need people in corporate, in the C-suite, and on the boards. That’s where the change needs to be,” she says. “It’s the marketing head, it’s the VP of marketing, it’s the VP of communication. Until you get people who can say, ‘Hey, this is my community, and I know something,’ it’s not going to change.”

Creating an environment where tourism stakeholders understand what it means to be truly inclusive means moving beyond the performative black square on Instagram and toward a deeper sense of belonging in the tourism landscape. As authors Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy explain in their book No Hard Feelings: “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” But in order for that voice to be heard, there need to be people in power to create that space for those voices to be heard.   

Dr. Alana Dillette is an Assistant Professor in the L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University. Dr. Stefanie Benjamin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management at the University of Tennessee.

>> Next: What Traveling to Every Country in the World Taught Me About Race

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