Traveling while black comes with a different set of rules

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Margie Jordan at the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. The agency owner and industry educator says she has a love affair with Italy.
Margie Jordan at the Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. The agency owner and industry educator says she has a love affair with Italy.

The Caribbean is where I go to escape. Follow my Facebook page, and you’ll soon discover that the island of Nevis is my happy place.

But even the Caribbean presents a different set of experiences if you’re traveling while black. It’s where white guests often think my brown skin means I’m an employee, regardless of my attire. They’ve asked me how to make restaurant reservations for them. To get them a taxi. One even told me he needed more clean towels in his room.

My response is simple. I don’t work here; I’m a guest. What follows my reply is a look of shock but rarely an apology.

There appears to be an underlying belief that black people aren’t, or can’t be, luxury travelers. Travel brands often exclude brown-skinned people in their marketing photos and videos, leaving their commitment to inclusion open for question. It’s why I and many other travel agents, and clients, avoid them. 

The inspiration to choose a career in travel -- my love of culture and diversity -- started in my own family. I was born and raised in the Midwest, spending my childhood and some of my adult life in Kansas City, Mo. My family embodies the essence of the term “people of color”: black, white, Asian, Mexican, Portuguese and several other ethnicities. All-inclusive, you could say. No one is regarded as any less than the other (except that I’m Dad’s favorite!). Diverse as we are, love for one another is a given.

I travel to places that overflow with culture, often full of brown-skinned people. But I also have what might be seen as an unexpected love affair with Italy. Australia is one of the most beautiful destinations I’ve visited. My best experiences, however, have been in India, Morocco, Africa, the United Arab Emirates and the Caribbean.

Still, before setting off for any travel experience, there are the questions “Will my brown skin be an issue?” and “Where can I go or stay with the least number of problems?”

In 2007, I traveled with a friend to South Africa. We flew to Johannesburg, arriving after sunset to a bustling airport. After a quick taxi ride, we were at our hotel. During check-in, the registration card asked for the traveler’s nationality. Perhaps it was because it’s how I’m identified at home, but I instinctively wrote “Black.”

It didn’t take long for me to realize that everyone walking through the hotel was black. I drew a line through Black and wrote “American.”

The gentleman behind the desk looked for a moment at the card with the cross-out, smiled and said, “Welcome home.”

Everything about my perspective on travel changed at that moment. For once, I was just American. It’s why, subsequently, most of my trips have been to countries with brown-skinned people. They don’t single me out. I’m just me.

I couldn’t visit South Africa without making a trip to the Apartheid Museum. To enter, you choose between the white or the black entrance. After a few moments, I felt as if it were screaming at me, “Make a choice, girl! White or black?”

I’ve been black all my life, so I chose white to see what it’s like on the other side.

No matter which entrance you choose, the experience is the same. I walked through exhibit after exhibit, past photo after photo of unspeakable atrocities. I was raw.

I sat down in the museum’s theater to watch a short documentary on apartheid. A white gentleman asked me to move down further so he could sit where he wanted  --  where I was sitting. The theater was practically empty, but he decided he wanted the one seat occupied by a black girl and asked me to move. I refused.

“Find another place to sit, sir.”

It was my Rosa Parks moment.

Sensing my mood, he took my advice and sat somewhere else. Apartheid may have ended, but it wasn’t over.

Traveling while black in the USA, a country with racism at its foundation, can be even more belittling, sometimes aggressively so. I leave home with the innate knowledge that, because of the color of my skin, I’m not going to be welcome everywhere in my home country.

While I was waiting at an American Airlines boarding gate in Detroit, “Group 1” was called. A white man shoved me out of the way, assuming I wasn’t or couldn’t be in first class. When I took my seat in the row in front of him, the look on his face was priceless. It was enough for me -- nothing else to say.

Margie Jordan participates in a cooking class on a trip to Morocco.
Margie Jordan participates in a cooking class on a trip to Morocco.

At a major hotel-brand property in Fort Lauderdale, a manager simply refused to talk to me. She walked by me multiple times, even though her staff had pointed me out and reminded her that I was waiting to speak with her. She passed me as if I weren’t even there, leaving her staff and me in disbelief. For 20 minutes, she helped other guests who were white, never once acknowledging my presence. I took to Twitter to share the incident. What’s a black girl have to do to get a few extra towels?

Generations of black travelers before me didn’t have the internet or social media. Instead, they took to the highways of America with a copy of the Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide published annually from 1936 to 1967 to help black travelers find hotels, restaurants, bars and gas stations that were safe.

Not that much has changed. We still need a way to know where it’s safe to go, and today, social media groups created by people of color answer those questions. They’ve become touchpoints for information, a way to stay safe and connected while traveling abroad. We discuss everything from cultural and heritage tours to cruises, black-owned hotels, resorts, restaurants, wineries, retail stores and other services. 

As an industry, we’ve perfected the celebration of culture and diversity abroad; we haven’t done so well at home. I believe it’s time to change the game. And if need be, the players. 

Start the conversation about what inclusion should look and feel like at your brand, creating specific action-based initiatives around diversity. Ensure it’s a safe, collaborative environment that respects and nurtures the things that make us different. 

Does everyone on your management team look the same? Historically black colleges and universities are brimming with talent. They’re a fantastic source of well-qualified people of color to bring into the industry.

If you haven’t already, create a travel agent advisory board comprising agents of different ethnicities. Welcome their opinions and ideas on how to become a more inclusive brand.

Sit down with your marketing team and create a content plan that embraces diversity. Travel agents of color will thank you. If you’re hosting events and conferences, scout out keynote and featured speakers of color to share their expertise and knowledge with your audience.

Over the years, I’ve learned that traveling while black comes with a different set of rules. I’m out there with my brown skin and kinky, curly hair, embracing all of the lessons that being a black traveler has taught me. Most importantly, a tolerance for people offended by the color of my skin.
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Margie Jordan is a travel industry educator, speaker and travel agency owner ridiculously obsessed with changing the world.

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