Privileges of a White Traveler with a Blue Passport

I’ve been in Cambodia for over a week now and have started volunteering at an English program in Kratie, a bumpy five-hour ride from Phnom Penh.  More about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a post about a topic that’s been on my mind for awhile.  
It happened again while we were shopping for shoes.  The friendly “Can I help you sir?” from the clerk in the crowded shoe store.  The problem was that McTery’s aunt was standing right in front of me and the clerk ignored her to see what I needed.  I have found this type of behavior to be quite common, especially here in the Philippines.  
Sometimes I am asked to cut in front of others when I am waiting at a store, other times a taxi or tricycle will pass by locals and pick me up.  Many places I’ve traveled require baggage checks upon entering malls, supermarkets, the metro and other large public places.  I am often greeted by the security guard and waved through while others are stopped and have their bags inspected.

Funny, the candidates for Miss San Fernando don’t look like any of the dark-skinned people I met there.

The security guards at 7-11 and McDonald’s hold the door, smile warmly and greet me when I approach, but I notice that not everyone gets the same treatment.
This doesn’t happen all the time.  The other day I waited patiently for ten minutes without being helped at one store, until I finally interrupted one of the clerks to ask a question.  Sometimes I do have to open my bag for the security guards as well.  Still, more often than not, I am the one given privileges that often go unnoticed.
Why?  The reasons could vary.  Some shopkeepers or taxi drivers may just assume they could make more money off of a rich Westerner.  Maybe others just want to be extra hospitable to a guest.
I suspect that most of the time, however, the reason is simply because I’m white.
There is an obsession with white skin in the Philippines and in Vietnam (and elsewhere).  It is hard for me to find a bar of soap that doesn’t claim to whiten the skin while cleaning.  TV, billboards and other media clearly portray light skin as being more desirable.  Sun is avoided not because it could lead to skin cancer, but because it will darken your skin.

Mannequins at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh are very white.

This is not a new experience for me.  I remember taking my maid’s son and nephew to the mall in Brazil when I lived there many years ago.  Each time we went, security guards followed the boys until they realized I was with them.  This was especially true when they carried packages for me as we left the mall.  I was never followed when I was alone.
And these privileges are not limited to when I travel overseas.  They’re not as obvious to me when I am at home, but they exist and are prevalent nonetheless.  

How do the Jollibee characters stay so white here in the Philippines?

Privilege is not just about race.  The US passport is considered one of the most privileged passports in the world, providing visa-free access to 174 countries.  That’s not true for most of the people I’ve met in my travels.  Access to the US is not an option for many as visa fees are too expensive, or visas are denied altogether.  There may be reasons for this, but I think it’s good to remember that our blue passport gives US citizens greater access to the world than most people would ever dream of having.  
There are many other parts of my identity that offer me privileges not available to everyone:  being male, a native English speaker, middle class (or extremely wealthy compared to most of the world), Christian, a college graduate and more.  
Traveling is another opportunity to step outside myself and see the world from different perspectives.  Hopefully, this will make me more understanding of people from marginalized groups within my own country.
It is also a reminder to me of the power of having role models for children who represent the child’s own identity, whether it is their race, religion, sexual orientation or other aspects of identity.  When children are denied this, they grow up thinking they are “less than” and cannot achieve the same things as those in the dominant culture.  The US and the world have a long way to go in achieving this.

A more typical Cambodian complexion (trying on Teacher Tim’s glasses)

Comments (17):

  1. Rosie

    April 24, 2017 at 06:33

    Good morning Tim,
    It’s a beautiful spring morning, just enough crispness that promises warm weather today!
    Your post reminds me we have so much to be thankful for and how we take so much for granted. Last week I had to make a call and the person on the other end was responding to me from the Philippines. This usually frustrates me but that day I was determined to listen more carefully and talk more slowly. My patience was garnered from reading your posts so thank you. You are teaching so much to so many. Good job!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:44

      Hi Rosie, Thanks for the comment. I’m glad that what I’m learning on my travels is helpful to you. I’m writing about it not only to share with others but to remind myself of everything I’m experiencing so I don’t forget these lessons.

      Reply
  2. Sara

    April 24, 2017 at 06:37

    Well written. I often think about this topic too. I always find it interesting that most white skinned people want a nice tan and most dark skinned people cover up to stay as light as possible.

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:45

      Thanks for the comment, Sara. That’s so true!

      Reply
  3. Lori

    April 24, 2017 at 06:41

    Excellent post, Tim……certainly gave me much to ponder……..thank you for your insight….

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:45

      You’re welcome!

      Reply
  4. Elaine Temel

    April 24, 2017 at 07:32

    Certainly gives a lot to think about. Are white women treated the same way? or just the men?

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:46

      The white women I’ve spoken to have had similar experiences, but there are also many things women travelers have to deal with that I haven’t.

      Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:48

      Hi Linda, I realized your comments are sometimes going to my spam folder, so I’m checking that every time for them just in case. This one came through as blank, but I know you took the time to write and appreciate it!

      Reply
  5. Julie Aquilizan

    April 24, 2017 at 22:36

    I appreciate your insight and your ability to communicate it so eloquently!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:49

      Thank you, Julie. See you soon!

      Reply
  6. Vicky Ann Deledda

    April 24, 2017 at 22:39

    Sad in some respects that there are inequalities everywhere..
    I need to practice not judging others

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:50

      Thanks for your comment. I think we all need to practice that – it’s just part of human nature to judge each other.

      Reply
  7. Marcie Stutzman

    April 25, 2017 at 10:29

    I am appreciating some of the same things here in Morocco. Thank you for writing so well about it.

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      April 29, 2017 at 09:50

      Thanks, Marcie. Hope your project is going well in Morocco.

      Reply
  8. Marcie Stutzman

    April 25, 2017 at 10:30

    I am appreciating some of the same things here in Morocco. Thank you for writing so well about it.

    Reply

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