Travellers, Let’s Talk About Privilege
On the 9th of May 2020, I boarded a plane from Quito to Paris in the midst of a global pandemic. It was a ‘humanitarian’ flight organised by the French embassy. Before embarking, its members made a whole speech about how they were basically saving our lives, enumerating all the different European nationalities that were present. And then everybody clapped.
Having an idea of what a humanitarian mission really is, however, I didn’t feel very comfortable with how the whole situation was presented to us. My life didn’t need to be saved. Like most people there, I had been doing just fine, confined with my friends in a cosy hostel on the coast. Sure, those had been stressful weeks, and we all worried about the state of the world and our loved ones. But I also had a nice room to myself, a direct access to the beach, plenty of tasty food, a good internet connection and a stunning view on the most wonderful sunsets.
In the past two months, I had seen my friends leave one after the other to take such repatriation flights. Most of the time, the embassies would take care of all the necessary papers, and a bus would come and pick them up from the hostel to bring them to the airport. A couple of days later, they would be enjoying the luxuries of their home countries again.
We all safely left behind a country that was only just starting to grapple with the true consequences of this pandemic.
Ecuador’s healthcare system was not only unprepared to face the epidemic, but its impact on an already fragile economic system will keep affecting the livelihoods of millions of people who are already struggling to make it through the day.
Knowing all of this, I couldn’t help but feel like I was being treated as one of the ‘VIPs’ of the world. Escaping the sinking ship, like in the Titanic when all the rich people get to go on lifeboats while the poorer ones are left to die.
Global pandemic or not, it’s definitely not the first time I feel this way.
Let’s be honest for a second here. Like so many other Westerners, I’ve been travelling freely around the world for years now. A few months’ salary in my own country are enough to allow me to live comfortably for quite some time on some continents. I almost never have to worry about getting visas. I don’t have to fear not having enough money for food or a place to sleep, and if I ever do get to that point, I know that there is always a safety net waiting for me back in Switzerland.
The whole planet is my generation’s playground, and it’s a lot of fun. But I have done nothing more to deserve it than people who just happened to have been born somewhere else, or in a different family.
I am one of the most privileged people in the world, based on totally arbitrary reasons.
In the light of the wave of protests against racism that are shaking the world at the moment, I thought it would be a good occasion to give my two cents on the topic of privilege and what it means for us travellers, since I am benefiting so much from it.
My privilege has many ways of manifesting itself, and ever since I stepped out of my Swiss bubble, I have been constantly reminded of it. The colour of my skin, the power of my passport, the money in my bank account, the quality of my health care, my ability to love freely, or the fear I don’t have to feel whenever I’m around police officers are just a few examples.
It’s there, it’s everywhere, and pretending not to see it would be lying to myself and to others.
We travellers might not feel concerned by the racial questions that are going around at the moment, because we are regularly exposed to different cultures and we tend to be more open-minded than the average Joe. However, we are just as much at risk of perpetuating racist behaviours as others, if not more.
I should know. A few years ago, I went to West African countries to volunteer with children, thinking I would contribute to ‘saving the world’ while I didn’t have any relevant skills whatsoever. I have since learned that this white saviour attitude is infantilising and wrong, and it can sometimes do more harm than good. There are so many better ways to help, but we must be willing to admit our mistakes and educate ourselves.
In fact, the very reason that I can explore the world so freely is a direct heritage of centuries of colonialism and systematic racism.
Us Westerners get to enjoy the luxuries of travelling in countries that earn a tenth of our salaries and say we’ve ‘done’ them, as we are sipping a cocktail on the beach while the person serving us might have been working 12 hours in a row so that they can go home and feed their family.
We write blog posts about wandering around the world with little money and how anyone who really sets their mind to it can do the same, but we fail to realise that first of all, it is only true if you have the right nationality, and second of all, there’s nothing glamorous about living in poverty.
It’s like we are all so obsessed with showing the amazing trips we go on, that we forget to stop and think for a second about what this means for the people on the opposite end of the balance.
Yes, backpacking is fun. We get to encounter new cultures, make friends around the globe and witness the endless wonders that the Earth has to offer, to name but a few.
It’s not all bad, either. Tourism in one of the world’s biggest industries, and by eating out, buying souvenirs or taking part in activities in the places we visit, we can contribute to local economies and improve livelihoods.
There’s more to it, though. The very fact that we get to do all of this is a reflection of an international system based on deep inequalities which are working in our favour.
While we move to a new country as ‘expats’, many move to ours as ‘migrants’.
It’s also not uncommon to end up engaging in all sorts of damaging behaviours: animal cruelty, environmental degradation, or disrespect for local customs are only a few examples that reflect our sense of entitlement over the planet and its inhabitants.
Whether we tell you about it or not, those of us who have been to any popular touristic destination that fill our Instagram feeds with beautiful pictures and our heads with dreams and illusions know what I am talking about. Fake Western paradises, where beautiful shots often hide mountains of garbage, locals feel like accessories, and rich people go to splurge on drugs, alcohol, gambling and prostitution.
This side of our privilege surely isn’t so pretty, and definitely not the usual kind of blog post you’ll stumble upon when preparing your next trip. It’s a reality, though.
And it contrasts in a very ugly way with the lack of privilege of the majority of the world.
During this confinement, while we are complaining about not being able to move around as freely as before, people are complaining about not being able to pay the rent or have enough to eat. Others are fighting for their lives to matter as much as mine.
All of this interconnects in messy and complicated ways. Your skin colour isn’t the only factor that determines your level of privilege, nor does your gender or the country you’re from.
But I think it’s a good start to acknowledge when we do benefit from these privileges, and try our best not to fuel a fundamentally unequal and unfair system with our words and actions.
Please don’t get me wrong. I still love travelling and everything it has taught me about myself and the world. I know that many of us out there have worked hard to be where they are, and we should be proud of it. However, I believe that it is our responsibility as travellers to be aware of the privilege that allowed us to get there, to be vocal about the inequalities we witness, and to relentlessly question ourselves about whether we are aggravating the situation or not.
We should at least strive not to be part of the problem. And if we all stay brave enough and stand for what we believe is right, maybe we can end up being part of the solution.
We might not be able to change the world we live in, but we can start by changing ourselves.
Because our privilege is also our responsability.
Thank you for reading.