Racist Travellers?

As I opened the blog's dashboard to start writing this post, I tweeted my apologies for being late, and included the good old aphorism “better late than never”. Then I thought “oh, maybe I can blog about that – what is the evidence for late actually being better than never?” The relevant research would be anything I could find on how the delay of a reward influences the enjoyment of that reward (the “late” part), compared to the research on how good we are at making ourselves feel good by devaluing the alternative that we didn’t end up with (when making choices, or having choices made for us).

Since those topics are not my areas of speciality, blogging about them would require that I do some research – just a bit of google-scholaring, to at least point you in the direction of the relevant research. Unfortunately, that kind of research is not possible at the moment – I am sitting on the rooftop of a hostel in Istanbul, the sun is setting over the Golden Horn and the hills on the horizon, and… the wifi internet connection is just toooooo sloooow.

So, given this terribly unfortunate circumstance, this blog post will have to be less research-based, and more speculation-based. Luckily, this unfortunate circumstance also has a rather more fortunate effect – during the two days I’ve spent here in Istanbul, I’ve had a lot of time to speculate. Let my thoughts wander. Eavesdrop on conversations, observe strange encounters, and just generally think about the world and its people.

I won’t bore you by taking you along on every train of thought, but one of the things I’ve thought about is an observation by one of my fellow travellers. She was talking to another American about the differences between culture in the Middle East and Turkey (a bit odd in the first place, but just ignore that for now), and after making a few observations about this that and the other, she said “wow, nothing like a bit of travel to bring out the racist in everyone”.

On the one hand, this was just another expression of that old debate about whether people are “really” being racist/sexist/whatever, if they are “only” making a generalisation about the group of people under discussion. On the other hand, it was raising a specific point about whether travel makes this tendency worse. Could this be true? After musing on it for a while, I’ve decided that I think that given the topics of conversation that tend to be raised while travelling and among travellers, the answer would almost have to be yes: if you’re constantly talking about your travels, sharing experiences with other travellers (whether they have been to the same places as you or not), defaulting to generalisations would be almost unavoidable.

And so maybe, to the extent that making generalisations is racist (whether the generalisations are positive or negative), that means that travel makes people “more racist”.

But. Of course I have to add a qualification to this. It is also true that travel makes people more creative (if the internet was faster I would link to the relevant research). Apparently this effect has something to do with broadening the mind, being open-minded, and if that is the case then maybe there is hope for the “racist traveller” yet. Because, one thing that often happens when people make generalisations about a group of people, is that somebody objects “well not all People X do that…” or “but I know a person of Country Y who is not…”. When that happens, even if it’s not relevant to the main point of the discussion, the person who has made the generalisation may update their stereotype, add a nuance or an exception. And perhaps, just perhaps, that updating, that adding of complexity, is more likely to occur while someone is travelling, if travelling makes people more open-minded in the first place.

If that’s the case – and there’s a lot of ifs here, I told you this was speculative – the net effect of travel may still be that people become less racist. Their pre-existing generalisations and stereotypes may be brought out more, given the nature of the discussions overall (and hence my fellow-traveller’s initial comment), but those very same generalisations and stereotypes may not survive the trip.

… like I said, this is all very speculative – someone should go and do the research! I, meanwhile, should go and have some of my generalisations and stereotypes challenged (or otherwise), by heading downstairs and getting some food at the local Turkish diner. Kebab, anyone?

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