I never really had trouble “physically” fitting in as I grew up. I am a tall white female who grew up in a mostly white middle class neighborhood. And attended a Catholic school from 1st- 8th grade that was about 98% white.
I was blind to understanding what it meant to be a minority because I was very rarely surrounded by many. The idea of different races or understanding the positives or negatives of “looking different” never crossed my mind when I was in grade school, because I was never confronted with it. All of my friends looked like me, because those were the only kinds of girls that were in my class, and let’s be honest… Boys still had cooties at that time.
It wasn’t until high school that I was finally around people who looked very different than myself. Even though I was still at a predominantly white school, at least now there was much more obvious diversity than before. And to be honest, I looked at the kids who were from minority races and minority religions and remember thinking, wow it must be so cool to be different. I was even a bit envious, but I had no idea what it was like and what kind of difficulties came your way when someone is a minority.
One of the best things about traveling is, if you allow it to, it can transport you to feel what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. I will never forget the first time I was really put in the position of a “minority” and it didn’t take long to feel the negative affects of being a visible minority. My most impacting memory is when I spent some of my college study abroad time in Dakar, Senegal. I remember a specific day when we were assigned to go out to the markets and ask locals about their lives. There was a man there that made a few comments about me being a white American and didn’t hide that he viewed me as spoiled and arrogant, without even having a conversation with me and getting to know me. He also insinuated that because I was white I must think I was better than him and everyone else with darker skin than myself. There were a handful of other times in this city, when I had people make comments or give me looks that made me uncomfortable about my skin color and I wished so badly that I didn’t stand out so much and that people didn’t automatically assume that the negative stereotypes about my race included me.
This experience and other experiences I have had like this while traveling, have allowed me to see how difficult it is to be a minority and I now look up to people who are the minority in their own society because they have so many more things to deal with, every single day. Now, I’m not saying I now know what it’s like to be a minority in a majority world. I never had a talk from my mother telling me to be careful of police or teaching me how to respond to a racist comment toward myself. But thanks to travel I can now understand that it’s not easy to be a minority and I will never truly know how difficult it is to live as a minority in a majority world.
But travel can also transport you into someone else’s shoes in a positive way. When I was spending time teaching English in a small city in the far Northeast part of China I was lucky enough for my boyfriend to visit me. Just to help put a picture in your head, he is a 6″4′ African-American college football player. So naturally it was very easy for him to stick out. I was very nervous about his visit because it was his first visit out of the country and as a tall white foreigner, I already stuck out like crazy. This city barely receives any foreigners so where ever I went people would stare, point, take pictures, and talk about me. So, I had no idea how people of the city would treat a black man and probably the only black man they have ever seen. Now, I don’t know if it was because everyone there loves NBA or because he was so big or just because it was exciting that he looked different, but everyone we met loved him, even before they started talking to him. It was the first time he ever had a positive experience because of his physical appearance but more specifically, his skin color.
If you stay in the society you grow up in, your whole life, you can start to think that the world is like a puzzle and everyone fits perfectly in their own place. Travel shows you that the world is not so black and white and as you visit different countries and cultures, it becomes difficult to see what is right, wrong, normal, and different. Being a minority in your own society, and then traveling somewhere else and seeing that your appearance doesn’t hold you back is such a great way to re-motivate you and remind you how much you are worth. And as a majority from your own society, travel allows you to understand how truly difficult life is for most of the population on this earth and you should always think twice before staring or making assumptions. So get out there and travel, because everyone should know what it feels like to be a square peg in a round hole because I promise you, it will completely change the way you perceive your surroundings in your own society.