Traveling While White

Blogger’s note: I have received some good feedback and pushback from this article – always good when you write a piece like this. Based on the feedback, I realize that it’s is not necessarily the simple black and white issue I have made it to be. I still hold to my original premise, that many, if not most of us, do benefit from the privilege of skin and perhaps passport color, but I welcome your feedback. It is important to note that this is in no way designed to be a political piece. It is an observation while traveling. 

I arrive in Auckland, New Zealand at six in the morning, bleary-eyed with little sweaters on my teeth. It’s been a long flight from San Francisco.  
I am tired but excited as I go through passport control. Exiting the desk, where uniformed women and men look down through glass windows from places of power, I see a family pulled aside. The family looks tired, exhausted really, travel weary and ready to settle. 

Four kids of different ages and stages sit, stand, and lie across chairs. A man with passport control has their passports and is talking on the phone. I don’t recognize the color of their passports, but from the color of their skin I know they could be from any of a number of countries. The father is clearly worried, the mom looks resigned– resigned to wait, to be patient, to accept whatever will come. 

In these brief moments, as I take in all that I see, I realize all over again what I’ve known all along: traveling while white is a privilege. This family is traveling while brown, while I travel while white. 

In all my years of travel to over 30 countries, I have never been detained at an airport. I have never been subject to extensive searches. I have never been suspected or considered suspicious. I carry stamps in my passport from countries that are on the State Departments “no fly” list, I have been to places considered dangerous– yet I have never had any sort of difficulty going anywhere. 

Because I travel while white. I have done nothing to deserve good treatment, but I do receive it. It is not my birthright to be able to walk out of and into countries freely, but I get to anyway. 

I travel while white. I am part of the privileged minority of the white. 

I can deny it all I want, but it is still the truth. Traveling while white is a privilege that I’ve done nothing to deserve. 

This is part of what it means to be aware of one’s own privilege. I need to own that privilege and realize that it is not like this for everyone. 
Traveling while white means: 

1. I’m never detained

2. I am welcomed to almost everywhere I go

3. I am considered safe, not a threat

4. I am treated with respect

5. I can express anger without getting in trouble.

6. I can make a fuss and not be reprimanded.

7. I can treat others poorly and not be confronted.

8. I receive smiles and nods, rarely stares and auspicious glances. 

9. I usually get my own way.

10. I receive apologies when things don’t go my way. 

I sigh as I look back at the family, wishing I could help. But I’m a stranger to Aukland, I don’t really know what is going on. All I know, is that I’m white and I’m really tired. 

13 thoughts on “Traveling While White

  1. I really appreciate the comments and perspective – and I’ve thought a lot about what people have said. But, I still think I am correct. While I think the experiences that have been shared are absolutely valid, as a general rule, at least in the western world, it is easier to be white. I talked this over with the folks I am staying with in New Zealand and we all agreed :)
    But I love the other perspectives and feel free to keep them coming!

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  2. I agree that white skin and an American passport help in general. There are times it can work against one (as a badge that says, “I don’t know the system here so please try to take advantage of me.”) I have found that traveling with kids helps smooth things over with airports and customs officials. :) My babies are all growing up, though.

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  3. Hi Marilyn,
    Unfortunately I (white) have been detained more than a few times while traveling internationally. This has happened with my white husband and other times with our children. Although I’d say the children helped speed things along! We’ve had our bags gone through, important items thrown in garbage cans, our passports scrutinized, lengthy stressful delays. This in spite of our being polite to customs officials and having all necessary documents on hand. I think it’s your sweet nature and your smile, dear friend :)

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  4. I was detained in West Africa because I was white. A Customs agent tried to steal my computer printer out of the trunk he was searching, but I had it packed in so tightly he thankfully gave it up. It was because I was white and assumed to be rich, possibly also because of being American, but I believe more because of my skin color, I was the only white female there. I am not fond of airports, I had my luggage broken into and things stolen by baggage carriers, and I will never, ever fly Cathay Pacific again after they refused to load my bags on to their plane in Hong Kong until I paid DOUBLE the excess baggage fee I had already paid at the start of my trip. I was traveling with trunks of books and school supplies, I had a fever and was exhausted, and this was before cell phones, and I had no options.

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    1. Could very well be. I have stamps from Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey etc… Watch me write this post and then be detained. I still think brown people have it worse though.

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  5. Marilyn, though not as many miles as you, I have had the privilege of world-wide travel. I don’t recall at any time preferential treatment because of color. On the other hand, While others sailed through the process, I’ve been patted down, taken my shoes off, emptied contents of bags, given a restricted visa, kept waiting in line unnecessarily, etc. Sometimes attitudes spoke more loudly than incidents. Perhaps it was not my color but more than likely my origin. Way back in the 60’s and 70’s air travel was really great and the airlines competed for business, treating all passengers with courtesy, delicious cuisine, free cabin accessories and helpfulness in every way. Nowadays, with more passenger traffic creating endless lines at every counter and especially so at security, I get the idea that personnel is in short supply and they work under enormous stress. Diverse languages, many not understood by airline personnel, is also a stress factor. To end this comment I will admit that a few times I have been given preferential treatment. My grey hair, wrinkles, slow gait, and needing help with carry-on baggage has brought out the best in people. I think I would have gotten this care regardless of my color.

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  6. In general I agree with you, Marilyn. We travelled to the Holy Land once with a person of a different color, and different national origin. It was astonishing the different treatment he received than we did.
    However, we have been detained at airports, and my husband was denied entry into the country we were living in, and had a valid visa for. It happens to everyone sometimes!

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  7. Yes, you are correct in most every case Marilyn. I often wonder what life would be like were my skin a different color. God made us all equal but society has created prejudice and suspicion.

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  8. I’m white. I’ve been detained by US Passport control. I’ve been told I’ll never be allowed in. I’ve had my passport taken from me into some mysterious office behind a closed door. I was interrogated by four different immigration officers. Each one questioning and double questioning me. I was held for four hours. That time I missed my flight. Another time I was told to stand, approach the desk, sit, stand, approach the desk—I was rudely questioned. I had my own words hidden somewhere in the computer system misquoted back to me.
    Perhaps it’s “travelling while white American”? — My experiences have made Afghani friends cringe…. !

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  9. “With little sweaters on my teeth.” Awesome word play there. (We’ve just been studying similes and metaphors so I especially noticed :) )

    As to the content here — it’s sad. I know it’s true, but it’s still sad.

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