Does travel really kill prejudice?
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” A life without travel is a life without “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men.” It’s a popular quote, and in a paradoxical way, we travelers like to throw it around as proof of our worldly superiority over you closed-minded stayers.
But in reality, travel alone is insufficient at erasing prejudice. Some 36-million Americans travel internationally to non-white countries every year, and still our people are ripe with hostility toward minorities of color.
Mark Twain should have caveated his endorsement of travel with a warning: you can’t just absorb enlightenment by going from place to place. Enlightenment comes to those who move away from comfort and into the unknown. Travel facilitates this, but the change can also happen in your “little corner of earth.”
Somewhere near downtown Santiago a friend and I were returning to our hostel by way of an unfamiliar street. We were carrying valuables and our arms were full with groceries. We talked out loud and walked with purpose. We dressed and walked like tourists, but this wasn’t a touristy part of town.
The street cornered a dilapidated cathedral. Vines had overgrown the long forgotten building. The brick walls and metal doors of homes surrounding it bore painted portraits of a tough life. The graffiti spoke of hardship and hope within a culture of poverty and disobedience. When there was a door, it wore a lock. Every window was caged. Sharp spikes and razors capped the fences. None of this is unique to downtown Santiago or even to South America. However, all of it is different from where I lived my childhood. All of it speaks of danger, crime, and fear. And all of it makes me uncomfortable.
As we rounded a corner, the street was empty except for two young black men. That’s when I caught myself leading us to the opposite sidewalk. I quite simply changed my path and never missed a step. It was no more a conscious choice than when I dodge a puddle of water. And yet I knew instantly what I had done.
I pride myself with being cultured and open minded. It’s an easy confidence to have after traversing 20 countries and countless cultures. How could I be less open to the world after four years of immersion into the unfamiliar? Isn’t it impossible to be prejudiced once you’ve disproven the biases?
Like a slot machine, my brain replayed the street scene against a dozen other stereotypes: clean walls, open doors and windows, old people, white people, poor people, rich people, women, men in suits, cops, children, one person, ten. Surely I would have moved for these strangers, too!
But it was a lie. My biases became real as the game played on in my head. The very attributes people can’t control significantly contribute to my impression of their ability and intention to harm me. The truth is, I would have shared the sidewalk with the people I think are weak, and I would have felt safest alongside a whitewashed picket fence in Connecticut.
As we came abreast the young men, I tried to recover from my folly. I hoped that a head nod and a greeting — “hola, qué tal?” — would be enough to erase the harm I had done. Do you know what they did? They smiled to each other and laughed. My Spanish must be worse than I think.
One of the young men asked in confident but broken English where we are from. Still walking, my friend and I looked back and laughed with them about New York and Miami, the two U.S. cities they agreed were their favorites.
Experience has taught me to walk toward strangers — not away from them! These encounters have been the most rewarding among all others! So why is avoidance still my default urge? Why is my first instinct to associate risk with people I have no reason to suspect beyond the color of their neighborhood, the color of their skin, and the flesh between their legs?
Ten days later in Viña del Mar, it happened again. The lively drum beats of two street performers had attracted the attention of a white homeless man. The man alone didn’t alarm me. He danced to the music like others in the audience. It was his proximity to the full tip jar that made me uneasy. His disgusting clothes, disheveled hair, and dirty skin spoke of poverty. The tip jar was an unguarded opportunity I fully expected him to steal.
I stopped to watch the performance. And as if to confirm my suspicions once and for all, the homeless man grabbed the jar from one of the performers at the end of the show… only to put a coin of his own into it.
I was shocked. The drummer was shocked. Several other people in the audience looked abashed. How had we misjudged this man? How had I misjudged the young black men in Santiago?
Vernā Myers is a diversity expert who seeks to answer these questions. She recently gave an insightful TED talk about overcoming prejudice, a topic with particular importance to current events in the U.S. She starts her talk with an alarming realization: even the most open-minded of us have biases we don’t realize. She even acknowledges one of her own in a surprising story of self realization about a jet plane with a female pilot.
Vernā stresses that a bias alone is not the problem. It’s the reaction to that bias that creates injustice. In other words, prejudice didn’t kill Michael Brown and others; people acting on prejudice killed them. Those people may not consciously choose their prejudices, but they do consciously choose to act on them.
Clearly I have biases of my own. I chose to change sidewalks whether I like to believe it or not.
There is an alternative, says Vernā. These default reactions to stereotypes are bred into us from childhood. They are hard to shake, but shaking them is not impossible. Acknowledging a bias is the first step. Own it; recognize it. Then, choose to challenge it!
You don’t have to do anything risky or stupid, she says. You just have to shake your default urge and take a few moments to truly evaluate a situation. And if there is no risk of harm, go headlong into your fear with an open heart.
I chose not to tackle the homeless man when he reached for the money. And what I saw next was beautiful — selflessness despite a very apparent need for charity.
Travel can put us into these situations, but so can looking within our own families, our own workplaces, our own lives. Only after we see our biases can we confront them and abolish the insecurities and fears that fuel them.
Watch or listen to the whole of Vernā’s insightful talk at TED.com: How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them