It’s no secret: people of different color are treated differently when traveling. And while some bloggers focus on traveling while black or traveling as a minority or LGBT travel, the only time white people talk about traveling while white is to complain.
I’ll admit it, I may be a bit of a hypocrite here. I’ve bitched many times about how tiresome it is to pay over-inflated tourist prices at UNESCO sites or how every street jockey assumes that you want to buy drugs solely because of your pale skin. But no one ever talks about all the ways white travelers have it good.
Presenting the good, the bad and the ugly truths about traveling while white:
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Visas & Immigration
The Good What’s a visa? As a white traveler, the doors to most every country on earth are wide open to us. We just have to buy a plane ticket, arrive and say, “Hi, I’m here.” Pretty sweet, you have to admit.
The Bad Sometimes we get detained by immigration officials on our way out of less fortunate countries. Officials who may have a legitimate reason to hate our government/military/nation, or may just have a stick up their ass for any one of a hundred reasons. I’ve been detained at border crossings, thoroughly searched and taken into questioning at airports more times than I can count. Whether it’s because of the number of stamps or the countries those stamps are from, we constantly have to explain things like “why did you spend more than one year in Muslim countries?” Because we have the ability to go anywhere, we often get questioned as to why we went there. And unfortunately customs and immigration are not as found of the phrase “Because I can” as your friends are.
The Ugly The western world shapes politics and politics dictate visa policies. If you are a long-term traveler, at some point you most likely will be denied entry to a country solely because of something stupid one of your politicians did or said. Or because this nation is fighting with that nation and you just so happen to have their stamp already in your passport from a trip several years ago. This puts us in an awkward situation. Which side do we take? Do we offer fake compassion or feign ignorance?
Inflated Prices & All Things Money-Related
The Good As a white traveler, people just assume that you have money — this even extends to immigration offices. Ever been asked to provide bank documents or proof of income? Yeah, that’s what I thought. NEVER! Ever tried traveling with someone of a different color, or someone from a third world nation? The forms and questions never stop. You cannot begin to grasp what a privilege it is to travel white until you go through the process of trying to get your Filipino girlfriend an American tourist visa, or go through the hassle of trying to find a hotel room in a Muslim country because you are traveling with an unwed female.
The Bad Because I am traveling while white, people just assume that I have more money than those of a darker skin. Even when they are clearly dressed better and don’t reek of whiskey and/or weed. Apparently there have been too many rich white douchebag characters on TV and movies (and probably traveling as well) that this image has become accepted. Kind of like those 70-year-old men in Asia with wives who are barely 20. You don’t agree with it, but you see it so often, you just sort of come to accept it as a necessary evil.
The Ugly This one isn’t exclusive to white people. Depending upon where you are traveling, all foreigners regardless of color pay inflated prices. Whether it be for rickshaw rides in India or street food in Vietnam, not being from around town means you will pay more. Where white people have it worse is locals just assume all white people are rich. We’re not. They just assume our bank accounts limitless. They’re not. Sure, he may have a fancy watch on, but it was a gift from a relative. That iPad and laptop he carries around? Well they are for work, because even though you think he’s on vacation, in reality he is still hard at work. Oh wait, look, he’s staying in a $10 hostel. Would he be doing that if he could afford a $100 a night hotel room?
My Indonesian friend visited Kathmandu and when shopping for trekking pants was consistently quoted around 2,000 NPR ($20 USD) shop after shop. He eventually haggled it down to 1,400 and purchased them. I went to these same shops and prices for me started at 4,000 NPR — double what they quoted him. I tried haggling it down to 3,000 but they wouldn’t go for it, not one single shop. They were happier watching a white man walk out that door with his money than accepting twice the price of what a brown-skinned person paid just a few hours earlier.
Where I Draw The Line I’ve long since come to accept inflated fees for foreigners at UNESCO sites. After all, the maintenance and preservation has to be funded somehow. Foreign tourists make up the largest percentage of visitors, pay no locals taxes, and sometimes even stand the opportunity to profit from their visit (possibly in the form of selling photos). But I draw the line at sites with western entry prices and then a local price that applies not only to citizens of said country, but other nearby and neighboring countries as well. Those foreigners are still tourists yet just because their skin color matches the locals, they suffer no prejudice. And that right there is the definition of racism.
Petra for example charges 50 JOD ($70 USD) for a single day entry pass…unless you are Jordanian or a member of the Arab Nations (the 22 Arabic-speaking countries)
Safety & Security
The Good Immigration just waves you in, no questions asked. Ever taken a bus trip in Central America or Southeast Asia? At rest stops they kick all the locals off so that the driver can lock it and keep the bags safe. But if you’re white, they’ll let you stay in the bus and sleep because they automatically know you won’t steal anything.
Security at malls and on the metro and in hotels and even at border crossings just wave you through, whereas that local behind you gets the full treatment: x-ray the backpack, metal detector, full body pat-down — even extra questioning at certain places, such as expensive hotels or border inspections. On the flip side, this does make smuggling for white people much easier — as long as we’re not smuggling anything home, but rather to some other non-white country.
Not sure if these guys were there to protect the tourists or keep them in line… either way, I’m glad I never experienced firsthand why they carry an assault rifle.
The Bad As a white person traveling in a non-white country, you are never technically 100% safe. There is always some local eyeing you and thinking “that rich bastard” even if they aren’t voicing it, or acting on those thoughts. Often we fail to remember that even this modest DSLR we have is worth more money then they will earn in an entire year. Then when you see that guy walking around with two DSLRs around his neck and one in his hand (I saw it again just yesterday) you start to realize why pickpockets and local criminals target white travelers over all others — particularly those who appear to be from one of the richer “white” countries.
Being halfway smart and using common sense will help avoid this, you’ll never truly not be a target. Hell, after 7 years as a nomad I was just robbed for my first time ever on the road — and it was in Nepal no less, one of the friendliest countries in the world!
The Ugly Because you are white, you’re right. At least in many countries. Ever get into an altercation with a local and have the local police show up? Unless they are in on the extortion, they are always on the side of tourists. After being hit on repeatedly by a drunken, gay, off-duty police officer in the Philippines, things got so heated the bartender called the police — and they took the drunk cop to jail. He tried to run too but was so drunk, he didn’t get far. Was quite entertaining too. However it gets even better: I sent a hooker (not mine, although I feel that I shouldn’t even have to say that) down to the police station to file the report for me while I stayed at the bar enjoying my beer. Welcome to Southeast Asia.
Where I Draw The Line It’s one thing to assume the foreigner is right. It’s another thing to arrest locals without just cause. Unfortunately around the world there are countries where local authorities have no problems arresting and even beating local citizens just based off something a white traveler says, rather than any actual proof or independent witness corroboration. Other times they will just lock up all the locals involved until the whole affair is sorted, as was the case after I was robbed in Nepal. They locked up my two Nepali friends, the same two who had initially called the police officer over.
26 thoughts on “Traveling While White: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”
Hey hey Nick, be back in a couple days. Still in Cambodia.
hmmm, I don’t know how to travel any other way!
Neither do I lol
Some one these things are shocking! I wonder how this differs from white female. Women are still second class citizens in many third world countries.
I am also a travel blogger and have traveled to 35 countries in the last two years and been to 11 countries this year, but I have never experienced any discrimination other than paying a different price than the locals! I do, however, travel differently than Derek, so that may make all the difference in the world. ie I am not a young backpacker, but an older, luxury traveler.
That’s a good point Cacinda, travel style also affects how the locals perceive you and therefore how you get treated. I do have my bouts of luxury but primarily I travel like the locals would. I take the public buses instead of taxis. I eat street food and at places that are packed with locals, instead of the expat-owned French bistro or whatever place TripAdvisor says is the best food in town. I rent an apartment in a local, non-touristy neighborhood instead of a hotel. Or I stay with a local family temporarily. I often find myself in slums for no reason other than I wandered there myself. In order to understand a culture, I feel like I have to experience it as the locals do, rather than as the tourists do. While this might not be 100% possible, you have to at least try.
Derek Freal it is certainly one way to do it.
Well it’s been 7 years now Cacinda I’m easily bored by travel. Turns out living as a local makes things more interesting.
Derek Freal yeah, I finally am getting a little bored myself… so who knows what the next chapter may bring.
Interesting idea, but unfortunately the execution reflects the level of privilege I think the concept was meant to address head on.
I’m not trying to solve or change the status quo here Robert just offer a look at the differences (both positive and negative) that we face as a result of our pale skin color.
Good point Cheryl. I don’t think the street jockeys try to push their drugs on women as much as men, but that’s not to say that (white) female travelers don’t face their own difficulties. Just last night I got into a chat with a Cambodia guy and we got into an in-depth conversation about clothing. In particular the type of skimpy clothing that most women wear nowadays. For him its different and he can’t help but stare or think inappropriate thoughts. For us it’s normal and we don’t even give a second glance to those short shorts.
I agree with some points you make, but not all.
I am white, and mine is one of the most powerful passports one could wish for. Yet, I have been asked to show proof that I’d been leaving the country I was visiting a bunch of times – in Costa Rica, in Panama (and they even have a treaty that asserts very close relationship with Panama and my home country), in Vietnam – just to mention a few. I got questioned, searched, etc a bunch of times. Whenever I entered Mexico, my whole backpack was emptied and checked. Every single time.
And then there are the security issues. There are occasions when being white is a cause of suspicion. My ex ended up in prison in Egypt because he had pissed off a local (and done nothing illegal at all). The embassy had to step in to get him out. And in January Italian researcher Giulio Regeni was brutally murdered in Egypt, after being tortured for days – and the local authorities are unwilling to properly investigate the case. Sure, this is just the tip of the iceberg of a HUGE problem with human rights abuses in Egypt. But Giulio drew attention because he was white. And he was suspected of plotting against the government just because he was there to work.
Thanks for raising this issue Derek. A pleasure to read you, as usual!
Very interesting read as usual Derek! As you know, I spend a lot of my time in India, and I am so accustomed to the country and the culture that I sometimes forget I’m a pale-skinned Canadian of European descent. But then when I get over-charged, I am reminded!
Generally though, I have to say, that most of the time in India, people tend to accept me almost as a local much more than I would have ever thought possible. I think when you immerse yourself in a culture for many years, and genuinely respect it and try to get to know it, people can sense it and they treat you differently. My experience is that I am “judged” much more on my attitude and behaviour than skin colour. Which, thank god, is as it should be.
Good point Mariellen. As you said, immersing yourself in a cultural gives you profound knowledge of and confidence with daily life in said foreign country. It also gives you time for your wardrobe to reflect similar changes. For example, India is a complex and colorful country so these dramatic differences are easy to distinguish. Myself living/traveling in Indonesia and after a year sure I spoke the language decently and knew what was going on, but I still looked just like any normal “bule” (Indonesian for “white foreigner”) and thus was always treated like one until I opened my mouth. Actually, turns out it’s easier to deal with police in Indonesia by pretending not to speak a word of their language. If they think you’re a tourist, it’s most likely a few dollars bribe. If they find out you’re a local, well it just turns into an argument. You’d think they’d be happy to know you love their culture enough to stay there but it’s more like….well, I’m getting off-topic.
You’re right, attitude and behavior are how people should be judged, not just by skin color. Yet everyday here I’m hopping on the Bangkok metro and watching every Thai person have to open their bag/backpack at security, but everyday they continue to just wave me past, no need to check the white man’s bag :/
” As a white person traveling in a non-white country, you are never technically 100% safe. There is always some local eyeing you and thinking “that rich bastard” even if they aren’t voicing it, or acting on those thoughts. Often we fail to remember that even this modest DSLR we have is worth more money then they will earn in an entire year. ”
It’s shocking to think you have traveled for years and came out with this… I am white. I am in asia now. I am treated like a wealthy person. As are you. Because you are wealthy. As am I. Don’t feel wealthy? Then you are failing to see the gap between lives lived by choice versus necessity. Poor white people do not tend to be able to afford the flight to fulfil their travel dreams. So the presumption of white wealth is not just accepted, it is sensible, it is accurate. We are white and priveledged and rich. And we are rich even if .We have maybe 100 times the advantages that a non-white person has, so to focus on some of the woe is me about safety and being expected to be rich… is so blind. Even if your bank account is empty, you as a white person can rapidly fill that bank account in many ways, in a way a local person in india or thailand or nepal simply can’t.
I’m not complaining, John, merely presenting a look at the upsides and downsides of several different angles of traveling while white. I can’t only talk about why it’s good to travel white — who would read that racist article? I had to find some bad things to mention, to show it from both sides. These certainly are not tales of woe or some cry for attention. It’s just me ranting and rambling.
Yea being ripped off in travels is definitely not exclusive but in the grand scheme of things, sometimes I need to realise that I’m getting frustrated over pennies. Stress on the sometimes! 🙂
Ohhh I know that feeling. Sometimes when haggling I’m like why the fuck am I even doing this, their currency is shit, they need it more than me. However those times when it’s a difference of dollars, yes, I’m going to haggle for it. Because once you begin living that nomadic life, you start to see money differently. It’s not what you can do with it but how far you can go with it. “Why eat that fancy $10 meal when I can eat $1 street food and then have $9 more dollars to travel with.”
Sigh..’white people first world problems’ is what I’m thinking..
I just can’t be sympathetic to any “challenges” you may have as a white male world traveler, because they are hardly any!
Passport on arrival to all those nations is a huge privilege, try being an African trying to get to a Western nation on his African passport for a three-day conference..the embassies ask you to provide proof of income, of status, or family, of wealth, of association, of friendship etc…, and even after that, the immigration officer will deny you that visa because he doesnt like you..
That privilege alone outweighs any other disadvantage you may face such as safety problems..duh..I also face those safety problems whichever corner of the world I am in, whether at home or abroad..sexual harassment pretty much cuts through every country and society.
Hey Caroline, okay I will honestly admit that #FirstWorldProblems is a guilty pleasure of mine. Don’t judge me too harshly though. I completely agree with you that the privileges far outweigh the advantages. And yes as you mentioned there is also the gender thing as well. Unfortunately none of us can choose where we come from or the color of our skin or the organs we are born with. And while I can’t say I’ve felt you’re pain in full, I am somewhat familiar with them because I have gone through these same situations trying to travel with a my exes who were all of different skin color and nationality. I tried to give a couple examples in the article. All we can do is make the most of the places we can travel to the easiest, and always learn and grow from every destination we visit. If travel has taught me nothing else it’s to learn to see things from both sides. BTW I always thought you were a European passport holder, although I will admit that I cannot recall exactly where. Or maybe I’m just confused.
What I’m surprised that no one has mentioned yet is that there are some less fortunate white nations as well. Look at Kosovo, for example, whose passport is weaker than Libya, Syria and South Sudan, the latter being the world’s newest country and an ongoing conflict zone (aka killing field) since the end of 2013. Anyway I’m getting off-topic now but that’s why this is filed under Rants & Rambles. My apologies if you took any offense (I just couldn’t write a one-sided racist rant) and definitely appreciate your thoughts. Thanks and cheers 🙂
interesting post Derek. I’m considering writing a post about white privilege whilst we travel. Because the perks definitely outweigh the grievances. Simply put, we CAN travel. what a bizarre lot we are with our cameras, our bottles of water and our expectations of how service should be. Inflated prices are annoying, I guess, but when it comes to UNESCO sites or similar, they’d probably like to charge everyone foreigner prices but then none of the locals could possibly afford it.
White people run the world. Mostly white men. Where is the world’s wealth if you went by skin colour? What percentage of people that you pass in the street in India could ever afford to leave India for a holiday? What percentage could afford a guesthouse for a night, the sort a backpacker would stay at? We are incredibly lucky to be born white. It’s a simple truth. Great post Derek.
Yeah, the good far outweighs the bad. However the thing is people never realize how lucky they are UNTIL they travel. And unfortunately for so many of these privileged nations (cough cough Ameri-cough) the majority of the population doesn’t travel and thus never begins to grasp just how fortunate they really are. Damn shame. If you do end up writing a post, keep me in the loop.
This was a great white person perspective to things, and the comments going on here are just as interesting.
As Indians, we had assumed a hard time with the visas before we started traveling. Things have actually not been so bad. But what came as a complete surprise was how fascinated people would be when we told them we were from India. The welcome that we got from them then, far surpassed the troubles the “official” things caused.
Just to say, we got a completely different perspective about being Indian, once we started traveling. Just as reading this post did!
Hey Sandeepa, glad to hear about traveling from your perspective. That is especially cool that others have been so open to you. Having lived and worked in India, I’m well aware how frustrating the bureaucracy there can be.
And you’re right, traveling definitely makes you see things differently — not just about yourself but about the world around you. Cheers to your next trip 🙂