I’m considered exceptionally beautiful in Southeast Asia. Multiple local men stare at me as I walk down the street, and I have been propositioned by men several years older than I. My Thai cooking teacher referred to me as a “supermodel”, because I have the long legs that Thai women do not. I don’t attract this attention at anywhere near the same level at home in Australia. I get it in Southeast Asia because I am white. This is a characteristic of my white privilege; I am the beauty ideal because of my skin colour.
Pale skin is one of the biggest markers of beauty in Southeast Asia. You have to be careful when trying to buy skin products in supermarkets, because a large quantity of them have skin-whitening chemicals in them. Billboards of celebrities are whitewashed beyond recognition. If you have darker skin in Southeast Asia, it generally means that you are of a lower social class that has to spend time doing manual labour in the sun. In the same way that being tanned is associated with leisure and wealth in Western cultures, pale skin is a status marker in Asian cultures.
Whiteness is not just associated with beauty in Southeast Asia. The Western world in general represents knowledge and power. This study on volunteers working in Vietnam identified that many of the organisations looked to Western university students as the pinnacle of knowledge, regardless of whether the locals had more experience in the project. It outlines that the local workers believed that because the volunteers were from an Australian university, that they were associated with ‘an image of advanced Western knowledge and education’. It can be seen that whiteness is equated with both beauty and knowledge in the Southeast Asian context.
I was vaguely aware of these attitudes towards white skin before travelling to Asia, but it took that experience for me to open my eyes and fully realise how I am perceived in the world because of my skin colour. I fully realised how deeply privileged I am.
What is white privilege?
The theory of white privilege is that people who are white, or appear to be white (white-passing), are granted a variety of opportunities in life that are not afforded to people of colour. This can range from being the accepted standard of beauty, to having most positions of power in mixed race countries, to not being the subject of repeated patterns of police brutality. You can see a more comprehensive list of the characteristics of white privilege here.
White privilege within the travelling community
White privilege is rampant in the travelling and blogging spheres. The majority of hostels are full of white, Western travellers, and some establishments even go so far as to discriminate against guests based on their race or ethnicity. This popular hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, even states on their Hostelworld page, that they ‘are only able to accept online bookings based on availability and discretionary basis, which may exclude bookings from Malaysia, India, Africa and Middle Eastern countries.’ This is clear racial discrimination, showing the kinds of backgrounds that they want their guests to be coming from. I am certain that this isn’t the only hostel that uses these methods.
I know that it also makes things so much easier to be a white traveller. My friend with South American heritage is constantly stopped by airport security and heavily scrutinised, despite being an Australian citizen. He is given the kind of treatment that I, as a white traveller, would never have to endure, unless I showed physical signs of carrying drugs or weapons.
White travellers also dominate the blogger sphere. Although there has been an increase in the number of diverse bloggers, there is no avoiding that the most successful are white, and usually male. Bloggers of colour face unique issues that white bloggers could never understand because of our different lived experience. It is important to amplify the voices of bloggers of colour and contribute to the diversity of the market.
Although not restricted to white travellers, English-speaking travellers have the most privilege. In hostel environments, English is usually the go-to language for groups, even if it is the second or third language for many travellers. If you can speak English, it is almost expected that you will be able to talk with travellers no matter where you go. Many travellers are also conceited in their unwillingness to learn any of the local language and will expect that locals will have some level of English to understand them. The tourism industry in Southeast Asia, for example, is so established with locals that have learnt to speak English, that learning any of the local language is barely needed. This is true privilege.
White privilege in Australia
I think it would be wrong and short-sighted to draw attention to my white privilege as a traveller, without acknowledging how it impacts me at home in Australia.
I was quite frankly embarrassed when a Colombian man asked me to explain our relationship with the Indigenous people of our country. I was embarrassed, because the Australian government, and so many Australian people, are deeply prejudiced against our Indigenous Australians. Few people outside of Australia seem to realise how truly racist we are in our policies and our attitudes.
Indigenous Australians are incredibly marginalised, in ways ranging from a far shorter life expectancy to much lower rates of employment. A more comprehensive analysis of the different statistics between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can be found at this site. To be white in Australia means that you are far more likely to be employed, have better access to healthcare, and an overall better quality of life.
Many Australians also hold the attitude that our Indigenous people are welfare-bludgers, alcoholics, and abusive towards their families. These attitudes seem to ignore that colonisation completely stole all the land and rights from the Indigenous Australians, and rendered them second-class citizens. To be Indigenous in Australia is to be at a great disadvantage compared to white Australians, and to not have the same opportunities available.
So what does this all mean?
If you have white privilege, that doesn’t mean that you are inherently racist or that you will never struggle with anything in your life. It just means that you were born with a set of characteristics that give you leverage in many aspects of society. Unfortunately, white skin is still associated with status, power, and knowledge, both implicitly and explicitly.
It is important to recognise the privilege that you hold, and act as an ally to communities of people of colour. You should focus on listening to their struggles and concerns, and amplify their voices when possible. When it comes to travelling, it is important to act inclusive towards travellers of different backgrounds and languages, without making assumptions. If we want to move towards a more equitable society, then we need to do it together.