Hurricane Maria revealed the white privilege in travel groups I followed on social media
I spent a lot of my childhood on a plane flying to see my family in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, or driving several hours out of Queens, New York to see my relatives in Massachusetts. Traveling has always been normal to me, and an exciting trip to Poland during graduate school confirmed that my love for travel isn’t going anywhere. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started thinking about ways to budget money so I can travel more often.
To learn how to save up for trips and travel abroad on a budget, I joined a few travel groups on Facebook, most of which were specifically for women who wanted to travel. I felt empowered seeing so many women honestly discussing how finances make it difficult for them to travel and sharing how they’ve budgeted money.
Then Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean—a natural disaster that killed thousands of people in Puerto Rico, and that the island is still recovering from almost a year later.
I was already nervous for my family in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic when the first hurricane hit. There were power outages that sometimes made it hard to call relatives—but then Maria hit the island and I couldn’t contact any of my family at all. I sent out several messages on Facebook and didn’t receive responses for days. Meanwhile, the few images coming out of Puerto Rico depicted floods, destroyed houses, and fallen trees. I didn’t know if my relatives were alive.
I cried for hours.
My desperation to know if my family had survived turned into rage when I saw how many women in the travel groups posted about being annoyed that, because of Hurricane Maria, they could no longer travel to the Caribbean for vacation.
Many of us in the group who are from Caribbean families replied. We said that we couldn’t believe someone actually dedicated an entire post to not being able to go on vacation in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.
It hurt to see how the aftermath of the hurricane was disregarded by these travelers I’d previously felt a connection with—especially as the United States government also disregarded aid for Puerto Rico. I then angrily wrote an article for Wear Your Voice Magazine reminding people that while, yes, the Caribbean is a popular vacation destination, people live there. There is an entire culture separate from tourism. People, including many of my family members, go to work, go to school, and raise families in the Caribbean. And I almost lost them.
On August 28th, the Puerto Rican government finally recognized the thousands of people who had lost their lives, updating the Hurricane Maria death toll to 2,975 people. But back in May, a Harvard study had already estimated that more than 4,600 people in Puerto Rico had died as a result of the hurricane. The women posting in that travel group had to know this. I didn’t want long, detailed posts about the loss of life—just some perspective and sensitivity; an acknowledgement that several communities were—and still are—in mourning; an understanding of the fact that this tragedy is more devastating than non-refundable plane tickets.
I thought of the time an uncle on my mom’s side became angry with a group of tourists at an airport in the Dominican Republic. The tourists were loud and drunk, spilling their open drinks everywhere. My uncle asked them if they would dare do that in their own country.
“They had the audacity to say no—that they were on vacation and just wanted to have fun,” my uncle told me.
He gets furious every time he thinks about how people treat the Caribbean and other tropical regions as things they can use and throw away. When I saw those insensitive posts about Puerto Rico, I was reminded of our conversations.
Since then, I’ve noticed many more tone-deaf and ignorant posts in the group. One woman of color from the U.K. had expressed her fears of traveling to the United States due to the political climate under Trump. “I just want to know if I’m going to be safe,” she wrote. A lot of minority women, myself included, gave her tips: clapbacks in case she hears nasty remarks during her travels, suggestions for diverse cities to visit, etc. Other group members commented that we were all exaggerating, that everywhere in America is safe. Many women of color in the group explained, over and over, that, no, different people are going to have different experiences.
“Racism isn’t that big of a deal,” I remember a commenter responding. “I mean, it’s just mean words.”
Again, so many women of color in the group explained that, sometimes, it’s more than ugly words. It’s someone calling the police. It’s someone screaming threats. It’s physical violence. Not everyone who travels gets to feel the same amount of safety. Group moderators eventually had to close the comments on that post, delete offensive replies, and even remind people that the whole point of the group is discussing travel—not dismissing other people’s experiences.
These kinds of conversations have nearly turned me off to travel groups completely. I know there are many supportive groups on social media that actually provide helpful advice on ways to save, hostels to visit, suitcases to consider, and places to meet people abroad. There are groups with important posts about how to avoid places that exploit animals and how to disengage from voluntourism that hurts vulnerable people. I don’t want to leave those social media groups, but, unfortunately, some group members don’t actually want to understand perspectives and experiences different from their own. It feels inaccurate—cringeworthy, even— to call those members “worldly” because they’ve traveled abroad, when they’ve posted such ignorant ideas.
I want people to travel freely. I love meeting people who have traveled to N.Y.C., where I live, or who have visited where my family is from in the Caribbean. It makes me happy to hear how much they enjoyed our culture. But people need to remember that travel is a privilege. They need to be mindful of the fact that our identities prevent us from experiencing certain countries with the same ease. Maybe one day we will, but that’s not the current reality. Until then, when you travel, be thoughtful, be respectful of the people who actually live where you vacation, and be aware that we don’t all see the world the same way.