Worried the Van Life Movement is Too White For You? Here's Some Advice from BIPOC Van Lifers
BIPOC interested in van life may be turned off before even giving the lifestyle a try. Luckily, there are van lifers of color paving the way.
The idea of living and traveling in a van may evoke images of long-haired hippies and flower power, but now a new generation is embarking on this lifestyle. From a desire to live as a digital nomad to affordable housing shortages in major cities, there are a variety of reasons why 21st century van dwellers decide to hit the road. This year in particular has seen a rise in the popularity of vanlife as people searched for alternative ways to travel amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
But with increased popularity also comes the reality that the world of vanlife seriously lacks diversity. Take a quick look at the marketing campaigns for RVs and vans, or scroll through Instagram’s #vanlife (a hashtag first used in 2011 that now has over 8 million photos), and you’ll find an image of the movement that’s overwhelmingly white.
And this comes as no surprise as vanlife sits squarely at the intersection of travel, particularly road tripping, and the great outdoors. Historically, these arenas have been dominated by white people and fraught with extra burdens and obstacles for BIPOC, leading to the creation of resources like The Negro Motorist Green Book. Signs of this legacy can be seen not only anecdotally among BIPOC vanlifers who often find themselves in the minority on the road, but also in the statistics on diversity in the outdoors. For example, the 2019 report from the USDA Forest Service shows Black Americans only making up slightly more than 1% of annual visitors, while Asians accounted for about 3% and nearly 7% of visitors identified as Latinx.
Between the anecdotal evidence and statistical data that often get reinforced by images seen through the media, BIPOC interested in vanlife may be turned off before even giving the lifestyle a try.
As vanlifer Alex Ortiz-Phan put it, “Representation matters so much. When you see other people that look like you, you just automatically feel safer being there. There’s this unspoken understanding and connection.”
Luckily, there are other vanlifers of color like him, who are paving the way for both newbies and those still in the dreaming phase of getting started.
Addressing a Lack of Diversity Through Community
For Laura Edmondson, a Black woman with over a year of collective vanlife experience, the lack of diversity in vanlife is something that BIPOC should acknowledge and mentally prepare for without letting it deter them from pursuing this lifestyle.
“I know we’ve all had the experience of being the only [POC] in a myriad of settings, but it’s definitely important to be aware of,” she says.
“Trying to connect with community in that way was something that was definitely on my mind, not only to hopefully increase representation myself, but also from a safety perspective, knowing that the people I may meet on the road are not going to look like me and that may impact my experience,” Edmondson says.
Alex and his wife Luu Phan-Ortiz also found community to be instrumental to their vanlife journey. They bought their van last year, initially thinking they’d only use it for weekend getaways. Later, a two-week trip through Canada opened their eyes to the idea of full-time vanlife. Eventually, they handed in the keys to their apartment and moved into their van.
“When we first discovered this movement, one of the first things we noticed was how whitewashed it was,” Luu says. “We just couldn’t believe it.”
But through social media, the couple found other vanlifers like them. According to Alex, it was another POC vanlife couple that lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area—like him and Luu—that really inspired them.
“Our excitement and confidence in being able to live in the van kind of built up after we connected to communities through Instagram,” Alex says, adding that the vanlife friends they’ve met online have served not only as inspiration, but also as tremendous support.
“The few of us that are out here, that are doing vanlife, we want more of you to join us, so don’t hesitate to reach out to people because we’re hungry for community just like you are,” Edmondson says.
Letting Go of Preconceived Notions
Connecting with diverse vanlifers also helps dispel some of the other common misconceptions that may dissuade someone from pursuing vanlife.
“Sometimes when people discover vanlife, they think you can only be a vanlifer if you’re a nomad or if you quit your job, but I like to point out to people that you can have the best of both worlds,” says Luu who works full-time as a teacher in Oakland, while Alex is a social worker in the area.
Luu also cautions against getting sucked into the vortex of expensive, luxury vans often featured on social media.
“I’m not looking at these $80,000 vans because I know I can’t afford that,” she says. “If you’re only looking at [those vans], that can seem so far from your reality that it makes it harder for you to get started.”
Edmondson agrees, adding that any type of van will do to get started as opposed to holding out to buy a Sprinter van, which is one of the most common vehicles you’ll see in the vanlife community.
Dealing With Disapproval
With little diversity in the vanlife community, BIPOC are often likely to face even more disapproval for pursuing this alternative lifestyle as so few people in their lives have probably been exposed to the idea.
“For Asian people, particularly Asian women, it can be really hard because there’s so much pressure on the kind of life that you’re supposed to live,” says Luu who is Vietnamese-American. Being the daughter of immigrants who came to the U.S. to achieve the American Dream only adds to the pressure.
“It’s hard for them to understand because they see this as a struggle where we see it as freedom,” Luu explains.
For Alex, who identifies as Mexican, he sees the doubts of friends and family in a slightly different light.
“We carry this intergenerational trauma that sometimes we’re not aware of, but it shows up in our present lives,” he explains, adding that this underlying trauma is often what puts him and Luu on edge whenever they’d receive strange looks while camping or spending time in the van. It’s also what made their families worry about them so much. “It was this fear that something was going to happen, and that fear comes from a place of not having felt safe historically,” Alex says.
Ultimately, both he and Luu felt it was important and even revolutionary as POC to choose the kind of life that they want to live. They suggest evaluating your motivations to embark on the vanlife and sticking to those convictions when in the face of pushback.
“You have to trust yourself, believe in yourself. No one’s gonna understand the choices that you make,” Alex says. “We got so many questions, and there wasn’t an answer that could fulfill anyone and make them feel better about it.”
Staying Safe On The Road
As a Black woman traveling in her van alone, Edmondson is acutely aware of how the intersection of those identities create a need for increased safety measures.
“There are definitely safety precautions that I take because I know of the dangers that exist in the world for Black women,” she says.
Some of those precautions include storing her driver’s license and insurance in a brightly colored, easily accessible envelope; keeping a taser on the counter by her bed; sharing her exact GPS location with family before sleeping; and leaving the driver’s seat empty at night just in case she has to leave in a hurry. She also travels with her dog Willy, a great companion and unofficial alarm system.
When it comes to choosing where to park, Edmondson takes extra precautions. Her most trusted resource is the iOverlander app, which allows users to read and share reviews and extra details, including safety issues, about overnight parking locations. She also makes sure to park in a way that allows her to exit in both directions, preventing anyone from easily blocking her in. When in doubt, Edmondson says to trust your gut.
“If you feel sketched out, just leave,” she says. “You’re not ever overreacting if you feel uncomfortable. Trust your body. Trust your subconscious that it’s picking up on cues.”
Although Luu and Alex travel together, safety was still a big concern when they moved into their van. As urban vanlifers, the couple is particularly aware of which neighborhoods they choose to spend time in and are also very careful to follow all rules to avoid giving anyone a reason (no matter how trivial) to call the police on them.
“When you look at vanlife, you see white faces everywhere, and it’s always looked at like a choice. But I think when a person of color does it, there’s so much stigma around it like they had no choice, they had to do this. What led them to this?” Luu says. “There’s so many layers that it makes us very conscious of our decision of where to park, where to be visible, and where we have to be super secretive.”
The couple thoroughly researches areas to park, even driving by a few times whenever possible. Unfortunately, despite all their precautions, Luu still had a frightening encounter her first time alone in the van, when she was harassed and intimidated by a white man pretending to be the police. Despite being shaken up in the moment, Luu says she won’t let that experience discourage her from continuing this lifestyle.
For her and Alex, the incident highlighted the importance of having a safety net and a list of parking options in case a negative situation forces them to change locations, or if they simply need a break and want to stay in a hotel for the night.
Despite the extra hurdles and safety concerns, BIPOC vanlifers like Edmondson, Alex, and Luu say that living this alternative lifestyle is worth it. In trying to stay positive, Alex reminds newbies and potential vanlifers to not expect perfection.
“Just like in an apartment, things break and need to be fixed. It’s not going to be perfect, and hopefully that makes you feel better because vanlife isn’t perfect,” he says. “It’s possible to feel super uncomfortable and unsure of how things are going to go and just dive into it anyway and slowly figure it out like we did.”
For Edmondson, she is excited to see in which direction the vanlife community will grow.
“We’re such an innovative community—a lot of times by necessity or unfortunate circumstances—but I’m excited to see how vanlife as a whole, how the narrative and what’s considered ‘normal’ will start to shift as the field is diversifying,” she says.