Travelling while White – ideas for dealing with privilege on the road

“Sir, I can check you all the way through, but your Indian companion will need a visa to transit in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t allow her to board the plane.”

“But she’s literally only there a couple of hours, she won’t go through immigration, has no checked baggage and already has her boarding pass printed out for her connecting flight.”

I had spent time reading up on the rules and knew she had a legal right to passage.

I whispered a prayer and turned to my Indian co-worker apologetically. “Let’s go talk to the supervisor, otherwise you will be stuck here in Indonesia.”

Eventually, with some strong and persuasive words from me, the supervisor relented and allowed my friend to board. We both breathed a sigh of relief.

As a white man, with fluent English, a Canadian passport, a New Zealand passport, and plenty of self-confidence, the world is my oyster. I can move quite freely around the planet, without too many issues or suspicious glances.

But my Indian, Filipino and Cambodian friends face multiple challenges when moving through airports. They are often treated as second class citizens, criminals and terrorists.

One Indian pastor told me he makes a practice of arriving at American airports many hours before his flight, assuming that he will be detained and questioned.

Getting to know people in a Burmese slum.

Getting to know people in a Burmese slum.

The Apostle Paul was also a privileged Roman Citizen and he called on his Roman Citizenship at times to get him out of trouble. Rather than deny his privilege, he used it to help others and serve God.

Likewise, there is not much I can do about the White Privilege I have while travelling. But my dream is that everyone would be treated with the same respect. I want to work towards that ideal.

Until that day comes here are a few ideas for responding. They are loosely gathered around the great challenge of Burmese democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, “Use your liberty to promote ours.”

How to use your privilege to promote our well-being

  • Remain prayerful as you move through a country – ask God to show you what you have to learn in this place and from these people.

  • Learn some local language (beyond just “Can you give me a cheaper price”)

  • Listen to local stories – from cleaners, taxi drivers, waiters and street kids.

  • Buy a meal for a beggar and get to know them, even if you are reduced to hand gestures because you can’t communicate verbally.

  • Notice injustices and ask thoughtful questions (for example, ask about how corruption affects locals and what they would like to see happen to address it.)

  • Don’t seek to come as a White Savior and jump in with quick solutions and money.

  • Instead promote local initiatives to address injustice – post their resources and stories on social media for others to become more aware.

  • Ask them how your support or solidarity might be helpful – for example as a Human Rights Monitor at protests (because local police will often be reluctant to target foreigners in crackdowns in that same way they would target locals).

  • Notice when fellow travelers are being mistreated because of their passport country or skin color (or turban) – and stand up for them in wise, respectful and loving ways as the Spirit prompts.

  • Don’t assume that English should be spoken everywhere.

  • Cover up and don’t dress like an idiot in countries where modesty is a cultural practice.

  • Ask before taking pictures of people.

  • Keep your temper, remain calm, even when things are slow, or different or frustrating – you are a guest.

  • Promote rights for immigrants and asylum seekers in your home country.

I'm still figuring this out, and I'd love to hear your comments and thoughts. What ideas or experiences do you have that you could share with others in the comments section?