Traveling Well: Owning Privilege

So, this post is a little different, and a lot more philosophical. Stick with me.

This week has felt discordant. If you know me, you’ll know that I’ve spent the past four years delving deeply into questions of racism, injustice, multiculturalism, and privilege in Chicago. My previous job had me working intensively with college students of the African diaspora, both at the University of Chicago and at Malcolm X College, so my daily conversations centered on power, structural injustice, and poverty.

Now I find myself working with college students who are studying abroad. Don’t get me wrong – it’s amazing, and I love it, and it’s the perfect job for me. But it’s drastically different – I’ve gone from working with urban commuter students to working with students who have the money, access, and opportunity to study abroad.

So, when news of the Zimmerman verdict came down, I felt…conflicted. Last year, I would have known exactly how to handle it – which students and administrators to call, which conversations to facilitate. I knew exactly how it fit into my overall purpose, and what my role was in the story. Now, though – how does this story, which brings pain (caution, adult language) and fear and anger to people I love*, and which is another piece of evidence of systemic injustice – how do these things, which I care about so deeply, effect my life now? What do I do now that I’m no longer on the front lines of this battle?

I’ve felt a lot of things over the past few days. I’ve felt like a cop out. I’ve felt ashamed. I’ve felt impotent. I’ve felt irrelevant.

More than anything, I’ve felt the weight of my privilege. Because I got to choose, this week, whether or not I joined the discussion. I got to choose to be involved. I could have stuck with planning my next trip, pinning fairy-tale images of Barcelona.

What I realized is that, not only do I carry the privilege of my skin color and my nationality, I carry the privilege of education, and of access – I carry the privilege of travel. I have had the opportunity to visit far-flung places, to meet people, and to encounter things that the vast majority of people never have or will. Regardless of your skin color or your nationality, the experience of travel puts you into a position of privilege.

This is privilege that I need to own, so that I can carry it responsibly.  This privilege brings with it a choice – how will I carry it? It can’t be gotten rid of, nor should it be.  But it should be wielded wisely.

A few thoughts on what that looks like:

Owning my privilege means treating the people I meet and the places I see and the cultures I experience with dignity and respect. Travel is wonderful, but traveling turns selfish when we treat it like visiting a theme park – a purely commercial experience to be consumed for our own entertainment. Traveling brings us into contact with other human beings who have stories, and lives, and cultures – and, regardless of your religion or philosophy, human beings are fundamentally worthy of dignity and respect, even if you don’t understand them or agree with their ideas.

Even when they make you mad. Even when you’re infuriated at the waiter’s apparent lack of helpfulness. Even when you’re offended at their racial insensitivity. Even when they disparage your country. Even when you’re tired and hungry and can’t find the right metro stop for the life of you and you can’t handle another gaggle of kids asking you for money.

Owning my privilege means intentionally growing in empathy.
When we travel, we have the awesome privilege of stepping into another person’s world.  We have the opportunity to confront something radically different from what we see on a daily basis, and we can choose to seek to understand it. We get the chance to see, taste, and feel another kind of life, and we get to extend our imaginations to think what it might be like to live it. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with or approve of what we encounter, or the decisions that are made by the people we meet, but it does mean that we can understand them more fully. This is more than tolerance (which is a tepid value) – it’s growing our ability to love beyond the bounds of culture and upbringing.

Owning my privilege means being changed by my experiences, and bringing a transformed self home.Traveling and encountering new things gives us the immense opportunity to broaden our frame of reference, to become more empathetic. We can learn how to communicate across differences. When we choose not to just consume travel, but instead to be changed by our experiences, we can bring that home.  We can learn to flex the same muscles in our own culture – whether it’s crossing a political divide or a racial one.

There are about a million things to be said about how to carry your privilege and travel well while you’re overseas, so I’ll save those for another post (or maybe a series?).

But now I’ll come back to the Trayvon Martin case. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching the news coverage, it’s that we’re living in a country where we don’t understand each other, where we stay in our own siloed communities, where we speak in echo chambers. This is especially true of people of privilege – white people with money and education, who travel. People who study abroad.

This is why I’m doing what I’m doing. My experiences overseas changed me. They broadened my understanding of the world, and taught me how to relate to people who are different. They taught me that injustice can be way bigger than I ever thought it was. When I moved to Chicago, these are the experiences that brought me to work on an urban campus.  The principles I learned traveling are the ones that came into play when I intentionally moved into a low-income black neighborhood, or why I lived with college students on Chicago’s west side for seven weeks last summer. Traveling taught me to hear the pain of people for whom the Zimmerman verdict was personal.

So I hope that, through my work, and maybe through posts like this, we will learn to travel better. We’ll come back better people. We’ll be better at crossing cultures and extending empathy. And maybe, we’ll make a difference.

Summer on the West Side, 2012

Chicago Urban Program – Summer on the West Side, 2012.  Photo Credit: Barnabas Lin

*The articles I link to express some of the same feelings that I’ve talked about with people dear to me… I’m not personal friends with Questlove (BUT THAT WOULD BE AWESOME IF IT WERE TRUE. QUESTLOVE, CALL ME).
**Edited for a typo. Thanks, Doug.

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