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HER WORLD

For Women of Color, Rules of the Road Can by Turns Enlighten, Enrage

As if race weren't enough, gender also comes into play on the road, particularly in traditional cultures like Mexico and India, where women travelers are sometimes misunderstood and mistreated.

March 12, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

I never thought much about how race affects travel until I went to China three years ago. On jammed public buses in Beijing, no one squeezed up against me, children in doorways giggled at the sight of me, people in restaurants grew silent when I took a seat next to them, and I was so often stared at that it made me tired. Still, the trip was one of my most memorable, and not just because I saw the Great Wall. In China I discovered what it felt like to be a minority, which, as a white American woman, was new to me.

Elaine Lee, the editor of "Go Girl! The Black Woman's Book of Travel & Adventure" (Eighth Mountain Press, $17.95), says that white travelers are generally treated well around the world because it's assumed they have money. For women of color, however, a journey is a more complex experience, requiring a thick skin when they encounter prejudice in unexpected places.

Emma T. Lucas, one of the essayists in Lee's collection, found that white tourists were sometimes treated better in Namibia than were African Americans. Lee says she got a less-than-warm welcome in Greece because her skin color and braided hair seemed to make people think she was from Africa. And Surabhi Kukke, a widely traveled young Indian American studying public health at Harvard, got out of Paris fast several years ago because she found it "brutally racist."

As if race weren't enough, gender also comes into play on the road, particularly in traditional cultures like Mexico and India, where women travelers are sometimes misunderstood and mistreated. So women travelers of color can come to feel that they have two strikes against them.

Those who don't experience discrimination are sometimes horrified to see how their sisters in foreign countries live. Many are struck by the way fair skin is prized as far afield as South America and the Indian subcontinent, where, if you happen to be a light-skinned woman of color, you may be treated like a white person. Sumana Rangachar of Montclair, N.J., vividly remembers being called a "white girl" on a visit to India, even though she was born in India and was wearing a sari.

Ironically, several of the women I talked to said that their worst race-related traveling experiences occurred on visits to their familial homelands.

A Chinese American colleague remembers how hard it was to get the attention of postcard vendors at the Great Wall of China, even though the salespeople wouldn't leave her white husband alone. And Harvard student Kukke says she had a harder time during her six-month trip to India in 1997 than white female travelers because she was expected to know and follow South Asian codes of behavior. Waiters responded negatively if she ordered a beer, and walking alone at night was so trying that she stopped doing it.

In other places, though, American women of color report better experiences, partly because the hue of their skin and cast of their features make them hard to place. Rangachar, who attended college in southern France near the Mediterranean, thinks she avoided being treated like just another ugly American tourist because of her looks (though being fluent in French helped too). "They thought I was different there, not a white person or a black. So they couldn't stereotype me," she says.

A Chinese American colleague recalls that she was routinely given menus in Japanese at restaurants in Spain, which amused rather than aggravated her. Adrienne Johnson, an African American journalist from Raleigh, N.C., remembers causing such a stir while touring the Cairo zoo that she felt like an exotic animal.

But Johnson, who loves to travel, has come to embrace the confusion she creates abroad because it gives her a chance to expose other people to something new and different--in her case, her African American heritage. Their puzzlement stems more from curiosity than prejudice. "You think an encounter is going to be trying but then discover that somebody just wants to know about you," she says.

Alicia Dunams of San Francisco found that being half black and half white enabled her to blend in wherever she went last year on an around-the-world backpacking trip.

Dunams, a tall, exotic-looking young woman, said she was mistaken for a local everywhere from Fiji to India and Morocco. In Nepal, where she easily passed for a Nepalese, a white male traveling companion feared eliciting the ire of local men by being seen with her, and in Australia people took her for an Aborigine. One of her favorite encounters was with a Maori man in New Zealand who wanted to know about her background. She explained that she was part black. "Aren't we all?" he said.

It is just such complex interactions as these that enrich the travel experience for American women of color. But for editor Lee, going abroad has even more sweeping benefits. She thinks that when she travels she's afforded more respect as a human being than she is in America. In restaurants and stores, the rule is first come, first served regardless of the color of your skin, she says. When obvious courtesies like are ignored, the result is low-grade pain and anger, Lee believes. "Most Afro-Americans don't realize the pressure discrimination puts on them until they step outside the racist environment," she says. For this reason, Lee finds that traveling abroad can be healing and rejuvenating.

Conversely, it was rejuvenating for me to be in the minority in China because it made me step briefly into the shoes of a woman of color. The dislocation was just another of the unanticipated but enlightening lessons of travel.

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