by Lola Akinmade
Your friend just returned from the trip of a lifetime – traveling around remote regions, being invited into homes of locals, feasting on ethnic spreads, and immersing in centuries-old cultures.
Seething with travel envy, you sign up for your own life-changing trip, only to arrive there and find your reception quite different from that of your friend’s.
You’re not readily welcomed with open arms and you’re constantly being gawked at. At that moment, no one can understand the level of dejection you’re feeling.
Though travel is spiritually and emotionally rewarding, it is important to note that beneath every exotic culture and tradition, you will find fundamentally similar human beings. And we human beings share the same natural flaws which include susceptibility to bias and prejudice.
As avid travelers who frequently move between cultures, you’ve probably heard some of the stereotypes below:
Agreeable Asians. Aggressive Africans. Feisty Latinos. Rude Francophiles. Chilly Scandinavians.
Stereotypes are born when we apply the personality paintbrush to an entire culture based on our experiences with just a few individuals. We predefine our views of a people or culture before fully immersing ourselves within their culture.
When that paintbrush extends beyond character to touch on areas such as religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other personal views, it morphs into prejudice.
THE DANGERS OF STEREOTYPING
The problem with predefined stereotyping is that your travel experience becomes tainted even before you embark on your journey. Your travels no longer become organic and you cheat yourself out of an enriching experience.
Stereotyping can also leave you unprepared. When you’re faced with an “Aggressive Asian”, you’re left vulnerable because you presumed they would be agreeable. With preconceived notions of aggression, you approach that African with a defensive stance. When you find out they are mild-mannered, you end up looking like the jerk.
DEALING WITH HOW PEOPLE SEE YOU
As an African woman who travels a lot, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of bias borne from stereotyping. I’ve traveled through regions where I’ve been treated poorly as well as regions where I’ve been embraced warmly – both receptions solely based on stereotypes of black women.
Too few visas in your passport and you’ve pulled aside for possibly wanting to defect. Too many visas in your passport and you’ve pulled aside on trafficking suspicions.
So how do you influence how others view people like yourself?
For starters, seek out opportunities to educate and inform without chastising. On a trip to Nicaragua, I was innocently yet ignorantly asked why Africans were violent. Without being defensive, I explained the intricacies and complexities of Africa – from over 3,000 distinct languages to the 50-50 split along with Christianity and Islam within the continent.
Another way to break stereotypes is by controlling your emotions and choosing your battles wisely. Some comments and actions are better left unacknowledged.
Always look for a positive angle in all situations. Being served that Dutch pastry lasts even though you were clearly first in line means you got to sample some scrumptious traditional dessert instead of being upset the rest of the day.
DEALING WITH HOW YOU SEE PEOPLE
We’ve all fallen into the pit of stereotyping at some point during our travels. Even the most intrepid of travelers morph into creatures of habit, reverting back to their comfort zones and inherent biases when faced with challenges.
Instead of writing that woman off as a typical rude French woman, ask internal questions about her. Was she having a bad day? Was she in some sort of pain? Maybe a warm smile and eye contact would lift her spirit?
Breaking your stereotype about a certain group or culture starts with questioning all generalizations about that culture. Once you stop asking questions about others, you become complacent and ignorance seeps in.
Travel is such a profoundly personal journey. The world remains unforgiving in terms of how we perceive each other but by not engaging based on our predefined views, we miss out on some truly enriching and amazing experiences.
So on your next trip, engage that “Agreeable Asian” in some lively debate, and you just may enjoy an invigorating discussion.
Approach that “Chilly Scandinavian” and ask them to take your picture, and you just may make a new friend.
Lola Akinmade is a travel writer and photographer who has written for many publications and received numerous recognitions for her travel photography. She also volunteers as a photojournalist for some nonprofit organizations.
— Originally published on 31 July 2011