Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

My parents thought I was asleep. The family was, for the first time in my life, staying in a motel room, and I was lying in bed with my eyes closed, but too excited to sleep.

My father, thinking that my sister and I had already drifted off, began telling my mother about something that upset him.

I lay still and listened.

We were three weeks into a classic Western camping road trip. I was 11, and it was the first time I had been out of the Midwest. We had already been to Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, L.A., San Francisco, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe and were heading to Yellowstone.

Before we had set off to cross the desert in northern Nevada that morning, my parents, worried about breaking down and not having drinking water, loaded the car's trunk with gallons of it. That weight, added to the labor of hauling an overloaded camper trailer, was too much for our poor Dodge Dart's rear axle. It broke in Carlin, Nev., where we found the motel.

As I lay in bed, my father was telling my mother that, as he had walked into the motel's office, a black couple was walking out. While he was registering, the woman behind the desk said, "If those people ask you any questions, tell them that you had a reservation."

The implication was clear: The motel had told the black couple that they were full, rather than rent them a room. My father was troubled and wished there had been another place to stay.

And so I learned that discrimination and racism never take a vacation and that travel, which I was experiencing in an extended fashion for the first time in my life, would likely have been a very different experience if my family and I were African American.

In the travel industry, we take pride in our role bringing cultures and people together. We often quote Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

But his is the point of view of the enlightened traveler, one who is well-received by welcoming hosts. I learned from that early experience in Nevada that Twain's charitable view may have been shaped by what would now be called white privilege. The quote is taken from one of his nonfiction books, the ironically titled "Innocents Abroad," but it reveals that the typically insightful Twain was nonetheless a man of his time.

I do believe that, on the whole, the travel industry includes more well-intentioned, culturally open-minded, curious, tolerant, accepting and thoughtful people than any other sector of the economy. We enjoy finding ourselves among people unlike ourselves, reveling in what is foreign while recognizing commonalities among peoples.

But if the most recent ugliness that has surfaced during this nightmare year -- watching the slow killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man -- has taught us anything, it's that it isn't enough for those in the travel industry to simply point to our own positive experiences in other countries and cultures and feel satisfied with our contribution to promote understanding.

We do know the spectrum of bigotry that may confront African Americans does not magically cease while they're vacationing in America. That's something to give thought to when reading predictions that domestic travel is likely to be the first to rebound. As an industry, we have been sparing no effort to reassure all travelers that we have state-of-the-art sanitization and health procedures and protocols. Perhaps it's also time for tourism promoters to likewise work within their communities so they can reassure black travelers that they will be welcome, accepted and safe when visiting.

At an event at SXSW last year, I was happy to see the T-shirt, "Y'all means all. Everyone's welcome in Fort Worth," being handed out at an event sponsored by Visit Fort Worth. We know it will take more than slogans on T-shirts to resolve our racial problems, but affirmations like that can crystallize the message of a multipronged campaign of tolerance focused first on one's own community and later, if successful, redirected to attract visitors. Local and regional destination management organizations, perhaps working with chambers of commerce, may be in a unique position to develop and launch such initiatives.

As the Groundhog Day-like repetition of senseless deaths of black Americans plays out, it surprised me that the seemingly far less dramatic instance of racism that I overheard in childhood resurfaced in my mind. Did the couple turned away from the motel in Carlin when I was a kid suspect that there were rooms available? I would think so. It's this grinding combination -- affronts to dignity and still-shocking threats to black lives -- that has led to the unrest we see today. There may be things the industry can do to be among the catalysts for change.

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