I’ve gained nearly 200 followers on Instagram in the span of two days. If you know anything about the IG algorithm, you know that’s the equivalent of 2,000 (ha). What a week. I didn’t expect the huge response to this post I shared two days ago, in collaboration with pal and colleague Lola Akerstrom, on racism in the travel and publishing industry. I’m stunned. The positive messages, the story sharing, and the discussions spreading from there over to Twitter, Facebook, and all the way to my email with a message from the founder of a major travel brand.
I didn’t post those slides to get attention or to use this time to bring attention to my work. Anyone who knows me knows this. I posted it because I am fed up with a capital F, as are my colleagues. We’re fed up of the racist violence and incarceration of Blacks everywhere, fed up of the discrimination in our industry. We’re fed up of being passed on for bigger opportunities or being scrutinized at a deeper level.
A week of raw emotions with the George Floyd protests brought it all to the surface again. It’s not new. This issue has always been real and many of us have said it out loud in the past, whether it’s murdered Black people by police or discrimination in the travel industry.
We live it every day.
I choose not to be skeptical about the “bandwagon” effect – though it is real in a few cases. I believe that sometimes, the message resonates widely because people are finally ready to grow, and the current socio-political climate is ripe for it. Or because the reckoning time has come and people are being smacked into consciousness by force, not by choice.
For now, since the idea is to get to know each other and I’m your “new Black colleague,” here’s a little bit of my story for my new friends and to keep the conversation going, to break down those “perceptions” we have of others based on the color of their skin.
1. I’ve always had diverse followers and readers. I’m not saying that to sound “cool,” but to explain that that’s also how my personal life is. I have and love my friends of all races and backgrounds. What’s new, is the sudden amplified attention to my work since my post, which has been around for a long time. Whether you’re a White editor or White writer or any White creative: when the pandemic is done, find a way to build friendships in real life with people from all racial backgrounds. Social media should be a virtual extension of your reality.
2. “Lebawit:” what kind of name is that?! It means “a person who is a thinker” in the ancient Ge’ez language, the pre-cursor to Amharic, which is Ethiopia’s official language. I’m a third culture kid – born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but raised in Cote d’Ivoire. I went to England at age 14 for boarding school, before reaching the USA at 18. I became a US citizen after many years of immigration filings. I remember being so proud raising my hand, taking my citizenship oath in a room filled with all races and former nationalities. Traveling with ease with my blue passport. But no one seems to care about my US nationality when it comes down to it; in the end, we are seen in the US as “immigrants.”
Studies have shown that people’s inherent bias extends to foreign names. When “Lebawit” lands in the inbox of a White senior editor at a prestigious publication where everyone is White, will they put aside their bias and respond as often as they do to “Karen”? Some will, but most won’t. I’m not speculating here, I have lived it.
3. I graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, where our class was, unsurprisingly, majority White. Yes, I was a lawyer before I decided to redesign my life and become a travel writer and photographer. When I was an attorney, White folks I met at events would ask me where I’d studied. I’d reply UVA Law, and it was always met with “Reaaally? Wow.” Imagine if I’d added that I was awarded a 50 percent scholarship grant. The same happened when I answered the name of my firm, Skadden Arps. Today, it’s when I say I’m a guidebook author, a travel writer, or a certified advanced diver.
4. But you know what’s ironic? I never grew up around that kind of persistent, structural undermining of the Black race. In West Africa, I had friends from all over the world, from France to Lebanon and Madagascar. I loved it. I took it to mean this was how the world looked and this is the way I wanted to live my life. I spoke four languages by age 12. I was oblivious to race issues until I went to England, and later to the USA.
5. At 18, adjusting to life in the US was rough. Why was everything seemingly “segregated,” I wondered, noticing the way the neighborhoods were mapped out in the DC metro area. I’d go to a movie theater in X neighborhood and it would be either majority White or majority Black. Then I noticed the police violence. The marginalization of people of color. The prejudice at work. The glass ceilings.
6. Over the years, I kept traveling around the world whenever I could. It wasn’t a trend to me; travel was/is my life. Solo. With friends. As a travel writer. On press trips. As a guidebook author. I fell in love with the Caribbean. I spent winters there, while transitioning out of my legal career. It was so nice to live in relative peace of mind, compared to the US.
7. Working remotely as a travel journalist, I dealt with similar issues. Seeing mediocre White counterparts get the gigs. Seeing the feature articles and cover stories on my Caribbean region almost always assigned to White writers, even when I’d written for that editor before and she’d praised my work. It didn’t matter how often I asked for features, or that I’m based in the region. Seeing the influencer campaigns inviting White-only or mostly-White bloggers. Not being notified of important media briefings for my destinations, despite repeatedly asking to be placed on mailing lists. Not being invited to speak on panels on a destination or topic in which I specialize, because the same White speakers on the same topics get chosen every single time. Being bumped from a confirmed conference panel on travel photography for a White man, at the last minute, even though I flew in for the event.
I recall being asked by White colleague, “So why are you here?,” at a trade conference on the Caribbean, despite it being my region of expertise and despite being invited along with a small group of media by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
8. Through it all, I stuck it out, even when I wanted to quit. I think it’s my third culture upbringing that keeps me going. It’s also my passion for immersive travel, my faith in the power of tourism for good, and my purpose of using my voice to benefit those who need it in the industry. I made advances and had numerous successes, as well, thanks to those White allies colleagues who saw me for my potential and didn’t overlook me for my race. Those who were conscious of the systemic racism in travel publishing. I worked triple the hours to be where I am today, with major anchor clients in tourism. During this pandemic, one hired me for a multimedia writing project that a great majority of people in the industry will learn from and listen to about the destination.
I remain confident in my identity, my heritage, my God-given talents. Imagine those who’ve been even less lucky than I have? People of my race who were stripped of their heritage, kidnapped from their native lands, snatched from their parents and spouses, then beaten down daily, berated through generations, murdered for no reason by police, and left with no opportunities nor access to a better life for decades. The United States, Europe, South America, the Caribbean: perhaps, finally, the reckoning time has come.
9. Diversity not just a statement for the sake of optics. It’s about values and integrity. To all the brands out there posting statements to “look good,” or reposting the one-off article that a Black writer penned for your outlet – about being Black, of course – we’re not impressed.
You might be hoping that no one notices your all-White board of directors, and majority-White editorial boards, but our White allies are seeing it now as well.
It’s no longer enough to hide under a veil of words, or to hit likes and follows on Black writers’ pages. It’s not enough to create a diversity committee, or to publish a call for writers and speakers of color for the optics (when most of you who do this don’t actually mean it nor assign).
10. As I said in my IG post, we ask that travel brands and fellow White creatives step up and DO.
a. For the brands and publications: Begin to assign features to experienced Black writers, reach out to them, answer pitches, hire people of color and send them on press trips. Do not pigeon hole us into topics of race, natural disasters, and pandemics. Don’t seek stories from us that are about our suffering. Don’t assume we don’t dive or don’t hike forests or don’t climb mountains or that we don’t travel solo.
Launching a diversity podcast, travel campaign or other initiative at this time – a time demanding justice for Black Lives and the murder of George Floyd – does not impress us, nor does the tokenism of Black talent. We’ve got our eye on the lack of diversity on your board of directors and editorial leadership.
b. For the conference organizers: Invite us to speak on your panels – and not on diversity for Christ’s sake. Pick people of color for important topics like sustainable tourism or responsible travel and climate change – because these issues can’t be discussed without people of color anyway, who are the most affected.
Quit the diversity panel scheduling, no one is buying it; instead, show it in your speaker line up beyond the few five or six out of 30 White speakers. Don’t think of us after the fact, when you realize your event is too White and you might face criticism so you scramble through your directory for any brown face you can find.
c. For destinations and their majority-white led public relations firms: Stop sending all-white journalists/writers/bloggers, with the occasional single BIPOC on your press trips or influencer campaigns. Do the research you’re paid well to do. As a destination, I would never allow a firm to present an all-White writer or blogger group, thus creating stories that will be one-dimensional on my country – often a destination that is made up of diverse ethnic groups (I’m looking at you, Caribbean tourism boards). I’d send the PR or influencer firm back to the drawing board, regardless of their chosen White participants’ perceived high number of followers.
In a nutshell, if you’re in a leadership position, it’s time to chip away at your ingrained subconscious discomfort with issues of race. Get over the awkwardness you feel and that we’ve shouldered for you for years. Put Blacks on the same pedestal on which you hold your White counterparts, because we are just as talented and knowledgeable and human. (It is astounding to me that I am having to say this in 2020.)
Show us that you mean it and that you’re ready to learn and listen. Because we’re not going anywhere and the world is not letting you off the hook this time.
In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “do the best you can until you know better,” but “then when you know better, do better.”
Actions speak louder than words.
If you’ve read this far, you must’ve joined me for the long haul. You can keep supporting my work by subscribing to my blog stories, reading my articles or guidebooks, and viewing my photography and videos. Share our work with your editors and encourage them to include diverse voices.
You can also support the work of my talented colleagues such as Negra Bohemian, The Sophisticated Life, The Traveling Island Girl, JetSetSarah, One Girl One World, and many more; plenty of lists are circulating on social media this week. Don’t make it a temporary follow or a trend. Engage with us.
You can also share this post on your channels and keep the conversation going in your circles. You can demand change for us as White allies.
Cheers to following each other’s journeys and hopefully, to seeing the beginning of the end – from systemic police violence against people of color to structural racism in the travel industry and beyond.