In 2015, I was standing in an elevator with long golden-brown braids down my back, silver dangling earrings, a nude lip, and thrilled about experiencing my first night out in Dublin, Ireland, as a college student.
However, before I could even step outside of the elevator, my mood shifted as an older white man began to yank on my braids, pulling my head into a backward motion. I looked at him puzzled, as he continued to tug on my hair. He said very little, and I quickly shrugged him off and walked away.
It wasn't the first time a white person invaded my space to touch my hair without permission, but it was the first time I experienced racism abroad, and it wasn't the last.
Later that same night, a woman working at the bar asked me where I was from. "Ohio!" I said, excited to chat with a local. She gave me an odd look, so I followed up with, "Oh, I'm from America." Still she appeared unsatisfied with my answer. I soon realized she wanted to know where I was "really" from and expected me to say a country in Africa, even though, as a Black American, I could not pinpoint this exact destination. As the only Black person from my university on the trip, these experiences were met with more frustration as I didn't feel comfortable to confide in anyone.
While this is one of several experiences I've had, my love for traveling has not changed. Like most avid travelers, I had a full itinerary of trips on the books for 2020 from London, to Bali, to Curacao—all halted by the coronavirus pandemic. As I was forced to slow down, I began reflecting more on my travels, and the deeper meaning of them.
Within the Black travel community, the experience I've had is not unique. As the world was hit with one pandemic, another one was brought to the forefront: racism. Currently, Black travelers are using social media to share their personal stories of racism while traveling and working with travel companies. The racist reckoning of 2020 has hit nearly every industry from media, beauty, to tech—and now major travel brands and destination management organizations are being called out for their lack of diversity and inclusion efforts from every level within their organizations. According to Mandala Research, Black people spent a collective $63 billion on travel in 2018, yet travel companies have yet to hire, engage, and market towards Black travelers sufficiently.
In response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, companies flooded social media with graphics of black squares to show their support for the Black Lives Matter Movement. While posting a square is a nice gesture, it's not comparable to ensuring that Black lives are actually represented.
To see lasting change, Black travel professionals formed the Black Travel Alliance. In one of their first initiatives, the Alliance created the #PullUpForTravel campaign to challenge travel brands to take a hard but necessary look at the numbers of Black creators they hire.
With their "Black Travel ScoreCard," the Alliance publicly called on brands to report the percentages of Black representations within five main categories including employment, conferences & tradeshows, paid advertising/marketing campaigns, press, and philanthropy.
"The mission of the Black Travel Alliance is to support Black content creators around the world and increase their representation in the travel industry, including but not limited to employment, conferences, and media," founding member and board officer Martina Jones-Johnson told The Daily Beast.
As a result of this social media campaign, multiple brands have pledged to do better. A few brands that have committed include TBEX, Traverse, Travel Massive, Wanderful, Women's TravelFest, Bermuda Tourism Authority, Discover Toledo, Travel Portland, Airbnb, Tripsavvy, The Points Guy, and several more.
"We have a long way to go—as a company and as an industry—and we're committed to doing better and bringing about real change. This includes incorporating more diversity and inclusion within TPG and using our influential platform within the travel industry to lead by example," The Points Guy wrote in a social media post.
There is a misconception that Black people don't travel. Along with the Alliance, several Black-owned travel brands are dedicated to dispelling these myths by developing Black travel communities, hosting curated experiences, and showing consistent images of Black travelers through their social platforms. A few of these popular brands include Dipaways, Las Morenas De España , and Wind Collective.
With the success of their #PullUpForTravel campaign, the Alliance is creating ongoing initiatives and strategies to hold brands accountable for the long-term by developing a yearly diversity report that will outline the different KPIs reported by each brand, as a way to monitor and track progress.
"A lot of times the brands will say, 'Oh, well, I didn't know, I was looking for a Black person in this niche, and I couldn't find them.' So we're building a campaign. Do you want a traveler from Vegas? We got you. Do you want to be a traveler who does luxury? We got you. Do you want a traveler who likes to hike? We got you. So no one will have an excuse as to why they don't have a Black person at their conferences or on their press trips anymore."
Travel brands can no longer ignore Black travelers' impact and value or pigeonhole us into a single category. Historical and systematic oppression has been used to mitigate and restrict the movement of Black people; therefore, anytime we travel, we are creating a new narrative. Travel companies are notorious for sending all-white writers on press trips to cover Black destinations, who often struggle to cover the region ethically or with a nuanced perspective.
When companies work with Black travel creators, they are also gaining insight and perspective that they can't get anywhere else, because our stories on how we move, interact and impact the world, need to be shared through our lens.
While the racist interaction I experienced in 2015 was uncomfortable, it showed me the power I have as a Black traveler to dismantle stereotypes. Often, Black travelers are the first person of color many have ever met. The interaction can lead to genuine connections, resulting in erasing myths, and changing perspectives with an open mind.
When Black people travel, we break barriers and break the bank. Our economic impact, as travelers, aids the global economy. Travel companies need to throw away the narrative that they can't find Black traveler professionals to work with—because, at this point, it's just a tired excuse for the lack of work they're willing to do.
I think there's room for all brands to do better. So let's start here. If you're a Black travel creator, here's a travel editor you can reach out to get you started: firstname.lastname@example.org
The way you see and write about the world matters. Don't ever silence your voice. Ever.