The New York Times recently reported on the increasing popularity of "Slum tourism."
For North-American and European travelers who want more from their vacations than beaches and monuments, group tours of Brazilian favelas or Indian shanty towns offer access to some of the poorest pockets of the developing world.
The article explored some of the voyeuristic aspects of this trend and cited arguments in favor, like bringing attention and resources to needy communities. Yet, the article missed an opportunity to explore the complex racial dimensions of this type of travel. For white travelers, confronting global poverty often means being reminded of their own privilege. But for African-American travelers, the story is far more complicated. The experience of international travel, regardless of whether it involves slum tourism or not, can serve as a jarring reminder of not only the advantages of being American, but also of the disadvantages of being black or dark-skinned.
As a young African-American woman who recently had to order extra pages for her passport, I have given this subject a lot of thought. For me, travel is not only a source of immense pleasure; it is also my business. I spent most of my twenties in a PhD program in Latin American History, during which time I had numerous opportunities - and obligations - to travel abroad. And, no matter where I landed, my skin tone colored nearly every interaction in every country.
Whether I was greeted by hostile stares in Argentina, friendly faces in Cuba, or a combination of both in places like Peru (my home for a year, thanks to a Fulbright fellowship), I was keenly aware that people were keenly aware of my blackness. That awareness has been both a gift and a curse, making me fully conscious of how I behave wherever I may go. Which is why my immediate reaction to the Times piece came in the form of questions:
Do black people take those tours?
Should black people take those tours?
I ask that as someone who participated in a "terreiro tour" the first time I went to Brazil. OK, it was the second time I had been to Brazil! My first trip in 1998 sparked an interest in candomblé (a tradition of African-deity worship that contains elements of Catholicism) and the subject of religious syncretism in the African Diaspora, and I was deeply curious to experience a ceremony first-hand. Unfortunately, the experience was not quite what I had hoped.
I was part of a large, otherwise all-white tour group, and we immediately stood out from the rest of the attendees. Having grown up in Colorado and attended predominantly white schools, I was used to being the only black person in a room, but this was different. As a scholarship student at private school, for example, I was acutely aware of the layers of class and color privilege separating me from my classmates. It always seemed obvious, to me and to them, that I was an outsider. In a way, I was actually quite proud of that.
As I stood among my white counterparts in Brazil, however, I realized that the way I saw myself was not necessarily how people outside of the US viewed me. While I certainly had not thought of myself as exceptionally privileged in the US, I was still an American, and my ability to travel abroad (even with grant support) signaled a certain kind of privilege. As that realization dawned on me, I began to feel resentful of my travel companions because, though we shared some similarities, we were profoundly different.
As a descendant of slaves myself, I believed that I "deserved" to be there more than they did, that I understood the experience on a more primordial level. I thought that my ancestral ties to Africa somehow trumped my American-ness in that moment, and I wanted everyone in the room to know it.
Ultimately, though, I wondered if my Americaness rendered me just as much of an outsider — an intruder in a sacred, all-black space, in the company of an otherwise all-white group. What did they think of me, those men and women to whom I was connected by the legacy of slavery, but whose rites and rituals seemed so different, so distant from my own?
What would the residents of a favela think of me, rolling into their neighborhood in a big white van with a big, white tour-group?
The fact that so many of Brazil's poor (and the world's poor, for that matter) look so much like me means that, at bottom, I am asking a very simple question: What would I think of me?
Answering this question means putting myself in someone else's shoes, and treading very carefully. We are all entitled to our own choices, but we are also responsible for the impressions we leave behind.
Every single American traveler can do something to help diminish those "Ugly American" stereotypes, but the story is even more complicated for African Americans. U.S. popular culture reaches the farthest corners of the globe, and there are not nearly enough three-dimensional representations of our history, culture, and beauty to balance out the often-negative images prevalent in the media.
Given the increasing global impatience with our country, and the tensions erupting between African-Americans and immigrant communities in the US, there is so much good and understanding to be gleaned from our increased presence on the world stage. But first, we have to acknowledge and embrace our duality.
As I said, self-awareness is both a privilege and a burden.
But we should not have it any other way.
Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.