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7 black voices on what needs to change in the travel industry

In their own words, travel professionals share their calls for accountability, transparency and true representation.

(Illustration by Richard A. Chance/For The Washington Post)

“Traveling while black” used to be downright deadly. Not wanting to subject themselves to a racist, segregated public transit system, many black travelers historically got around by car instead, relying on “The Negro Motorist Green Book” to know where to stop safely. Still, safety wasn’t guaranteed and threats were present everywhere.

But while much has progressed over the years as travel has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, for many, traveling is still mired in racism and a legacy of exclusion persists.

This exclusion manifests in many ways: from flight attendants enduring verbal abuse to influencers being passed over for major campaigns, to representation in marketing and at all levels of businesses.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, many are fighting for real change within the industry and demanding accountability, transparency and true representation. In their own voices, seven black travel professionals discuss where they want the industry to go from here.

(Editor’s note: Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.)

Brian Oliver, founder of travel website Beyond Bmore

I was born and raised in Baltimore, and I first fell in love with travel as a young kid. I’d go on road trips with my grandfather, and I always enjoyed the excitement of seeing new places and new people. Once I learned how affordable it could be, I decided to do it more. I don’t think a lot of black people realize that [travel] is within their grasp, too. Of course, it doesn’t help that we don’t see ourselves in this industry.

Brian Oliver, the man behind Beyond Bmore. (Courtesy of Brian Oliver)

When you see an ad for a hotel, you’re more than likely going to see a white businessman or a young, white family. However, just social media will show you that we are out here. A recent study found that [black travelers] spend more than $60 billion per year on travel, and it’s a missed opportunity that these tourism boards and the marketing teams don’t reach out to this audience. That number could be even larger.

They must reach out and include our stories and experiences as well. There’s no reason a tourism board can’t include darker faces in their brochure. For example, with the novel coronavirus, road tripping and RVs are the new trend — but who do you think of when you think of an RV? We have to be included in these campaigns. You shouldn’t watch something and wonder: “Where are the black people?”

Jeff Jenkins, founder of travel website Chubby Diaries

Jeff Jenkins, the writer behind Chubby Diaries. (Courtesy of Jeff Jenkins)

Travel has always been a hobby of mine, but after a mission trip to Rwanda, I knew I wanted to pursue it as a career. It’s not easy. The industry as a whole is, for the most part, anti-black, especially when it comes down to the media and what voices are actually portrayed in campaigns.

The travel industry only shows white people traveling, and you never see people like myself (a big, dark-skinned guy) represented consistently. You don’t see a lot of people of color, period. That’s a systemic issue; these systems have been put into place and only white people benefit from them. Many are just going with the flow and allowing these systems to oppress black voices.

I do believe things are changing … just slowly. I was on the phone today with a large brand, and this was the first time people were actually listening. We want them to understand that we’ve been discriminated against in many ways: in the hiring process, who gets picked for influencer opportunities, in advertisements and marketing, and major wage disparities.

Overall, we want representation at every level: conferences, trade shows, workshops, panels, pilots, flight attendants, you name it. Black people travel, and we need to see people who look like us. You can help us by reaching out to your favorite travel brands and seeing what they’re doing to end racism.

Flight attendant Keith Golatt. (Courtesy of Keith Goleitt)

Keith Golatt, flight attendant for a major airline

Being a flight attendant has exposed me to so many places, and I really love my job. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough black attendants, and many of us who are in this industry deal with microaggressions, racism and even discrimination. It’s honestly the issues we’re seeing all over the country as people fight for representation, their voice and equity.

It’s rare, but sometimes we do get all-black crews, or “ABC’s” as we call them. When that happens, we take a lot of photos and just enjoy each other’s company. Even if you don’t work for the same airline, there’s a great sense of unity among black flight crew members. We nod to each other in passing.

But I think every black flight attendant’s worst fear is to be called the n-word. On a flight, everyone can hear it, and you’re basically forced to address it. How do you even do that? If you get angry, to them, you’ve validated the slur. When you’re already dealing with stressful situations (delays, cancellations, etc.) you often see people projecting onto you. Our policy is to ban someone like that, but since airlines heavily rely on loyalty, many of us wonder if our employers would actually back us when it comes to a loyal member or someone with status.

Lisa Barber the author of the Physical Canvas blog. (Courtesy of Namhee Kim)

Lisa Barber, business owner and blogger at Barbers Go Global

I actually feel better when I travel out of the United States, because racism here saturates so many parts of our society. When I’m in East Asia, people are enamored with my dark skin and my afro, yet for so long, the travel industry has focused on white males, and it’s been made out to be a privilege to travel. You don’t even think of women, or if you do they’re white and blonde. It’s not expected of us to go across the world, and yet many black people do.

It’s important for us to be represented and share our messages because, ultimately, these messages are consumed across the world. That’s how people in other countries will see us, and that image needs to be accurate.

It does take courage to travel, particularly because it can seem so out of reach. But if people get past that, they can realize that traveling is much more affordable than they may have thought. I want to see more black people traveling, and I think fighting racism across the many parts of this industry will help. Overall, we need to connect our pipelines. Brands, employers and companies should have no problem connecting with talented black people. Once we see more of ourselves when we fly or when we land somewhere, I think it’ll help even more black people travel.

(Richard A. Chance/For The Washington Post)

Aleah Coy, co-founder of Black Travel Worldwide

Representation across industries is a problem, but within this industry, it’s really bad. We’re rarely marketed to, from Disney to a Delta commercial. It’s usually a majority of white people. They’re basically saying, “We don’t expect you to be a traveler.”

You also see that when you’re in spaces they think you don’t belong in. For example, if you’re boarding with first class, sometimes someone will stop you and say, “We’re not boarding you yet.” And you have to explain that you have a first-class ticket. So even when you make it into these spaces, you have to explain why you’re there.

As an influencer or content creator, we see issues often. A lot of brands contact influencers for work, but it’s not always fair who gets chosen. For example, Discover Grenada did an event, and Grenada is in the Caribbean with a large population of black residents — yet an influencer event didn’t show that. I even know influencers in these spaces they could’ve worked with, so sometimes it feel like it’s right there and they’re still not prioritizing representation.

Overall, we need to improve accountability. When brands say they will do better, I want to see what they’re actually doing. Without us, they’re not a brand. They depend on us.

Valone Brown, manager of strategic partnerships, Young Black Travelers

This discussion is so necessary, and I think social media has pushed a lot of this work forward. So much of how we see each other, and other nations, is based on what we learn in our schools and from history … but sometimes it’s better to travel and learn a nation’s history within that nation.

I think traveling within this nation would help, too. We exist in silos. White racist people don’t meet black people. How do we bring down those barriers so that within our own nation, people are really seeing each other and learning from each other?

Asshur Cunningham, founder of Young Black Travelers

Asshur Cunningham, left, and Valone Brown of Young Black Travelers. (Courtesy of Asshur Cunningham)

We need more representation, and I would also challenge black travelers to go new places. We sometimes go to the Caribbean or Europe, but we don’t go somewhere like Argentina or African nations, which I think highlights more of the racism we were discussing. Why can I fly to a European country for a few hundred dollars, but cities in Africa can cost thousands? It puts these black countries out of reach. From who travels to who is marketed to and who is controlling your flight and even where you go, you see elements of racism.

We need to have better promotion of African nations, Brazil and these black countries where black people are actually the majority. I would also like more service to these African cities. Most tickets are expensive because these routes are underserved. Did you know of the big three airlines [Delta, United and American], American has zero routes to Africa, United only goes to Cape Town, and Delta has four — for an entire continent. So there’s certainly a lot of work to be done.

(Editor’s note: American announced last year that it planned to add a route from Philadelphia to Casablanca, Morocco, this summer.)

Read more:

America’s protests are making history. Museums are documenting that in real time.

The future of travel, according to ‘Amazing Race’ host Phil Keoghan

Amid the pandemic, a writer finds inspiration in century-old travel stories

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