Let’s Unpack That: Social Identities in Travel

by Sojourner
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Let’s Unpack That is a travel series to process and unpack our baggage of social identities, and understand how they impact our travel experiences. We’ll be covering everything from race and ethnicity, to passport privilege, fetishes, voluntourism, and more. Each post focuses on a topic, concept, or phrase in order to dig deeper and reflect on our travels in our own countries and abroad. 

Here is the first installment of the series where we’ll be breaking down the concept “social identities.” By definition, social identities are labels attributed to your sense of self based on membership in a social group. They also affect how you relate to others in society, which can come from your culture and experiences. Whew – it’s time to unpack that y’all!

Let me set the scene…

It’s summer 2019 and there is not a peep of the words “coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” “Ms. Rona,” or the phrase “unprecedented times.” I’m finishing up my internship in Berlin and looking forward to solo trips to London and Amsterdam. I start googling things to do, places to eat, and sites to see. I’m tryna live my best solo travel life that everyone on Instagram raves about. Don’t we all want to live our travel dreams? I know I did.

I also wanted to connect and understand how Black people in Europe live. Race, ethnicity, culture, and identity have always been fascinating for me to understand. I was curious about how Black people’s experiences in Europe compared to mine in the U.S. I searched Facebook for travel meetup groups and found the Amsterdam Black Women group. Coincidentally, they were having a meetup during my visit. 

Tapping into Instagram, I met up with a few more Black women travel bloggers during my time in London. Eating delicious food at Black-owned restaurants in conversation with Black women was just what I needed to truly live my best, solo travel life. Swapping stories and laughs was just what I needed after a hectic internship in Berlin. My mission felt complete and I felt seen and heard amongst Black women I just met. 

Connection between social identities + travel

So, what does this have to do with social identities? Well, being a Black woman impacts how I show up in the world, whether I’m in the U.S or abroad. By intentionally searching for Black women travelers to connect with in both Amsterdam and London, I was using my social identity as a Black woman to guide my adventures. 

Social identities shape and influence how you see and move through the world. We use them to label who we are, what we believe in, and even how we perceive other people. We also live in a world where society tells us to put people into boxes, which can be reflected in various categories of social identities. These categories include: Race, Ethnicity, Nationality, Citizenship, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, Language(s), Religious Beliefs, Ability, Socioeconomic Class,  Family Structure, and more. 

Now – write yours down! Here are mine

My race is Black.

My ethnicity is African American or Black American.

My nationality is that of a U.S. National.

My citizenship status is that of a U.S. Citizen.

My gender is a cisgender woman and my sexual orientation is heterosexual.

My age is 25 years old. I am considered a young person or a young adult.

My religious beliefs can be aligned with Christian/Lutheran upbringing, even though I’m more spiritual.

For languages, I am bilingual as I speak English and Spanish. With English being my first language.

For ability status, I do not live with a disability.

My socioeconomic class is middle class.

My family structure is that of a single person with no kids.

How does it make you feel to see your social identities written down? Think about which ones are easy to identify and which ones were more difficult and why. Is it because some identities impact you more than others? Though that list may be a little overwhelming to understand at first, throughout the series we’ll go through each one and the many constructs within them – including the much talked about word “privilege.” Stay tuned. 

How family structure affects your travel

Whether you are single, in a relationship, married, have kids, or don’t have kids, all of those categories can be lumped under family structure. Every situation is different, however more often than not someone who is single with no kids, or dependents of any kind, can move more freely than someone with kids. This also makes it cheaper for single people to travel since they don’t have to book multiple flights, buses, trains, etc. or ample accommodations. 

It’s also why someone like me, as a 21-year old single college grad, dipped and moved to Spain to teach English abroad with the Fulbright Program. My family structure of not needing to take care of anyone besides myself made it easy. And many fellowship or teach abroad programs often prefer a looser family structure, providing more access to travel for people with looser family structures and less obligations. 

How race affects your travel

Some people will say that they are “colorblind” and “don’t see race,” but that is a lie. Race and racism are built into how the world was designed. Race impacts how each and every one of us is socialized. As a Black woman, it is something I’m hyper conscious of as I travel. This is why I intentionally connected with other Black people across the diaspora in London and in Amsterdam.

Someone who is white does not have this same point of view. We all move differently as we travel based on our race. However, talking about race and acknowledging our differences is not divisive. These racial differences are to be celebrated as they make our experiences unique. Even within the same race, we have distinct experiences. 

In conclusion…

I could go on, and on! There are so many more social identities to unpack than I listed above. If you’re looking to read and learn more about your social identities, check out “This Book is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell. It will allow you to further process how you’ve been socialized. The book also provides more insight into how social identities were created to systemically benefit some, and oppress others. You can find lessons to help you take action in real life too.

However, the bottom line is that we ALL have these social identities. They ALL influence how we show up in the travel space whether we realize it or not. Multiple identities show up at once as well, especially in travel. So, the next time you’re exploring that castle or on a walking tour, here are a few things to fully unpack what’s going on around you.

3 ways to unpack your social identities in travel:

1. Think about who is included in the travel experiences around you and who is not. Why is that?

2. Have a journal nearby to document and write down what you’re feeling and experiencing in relation to your social identities. If you don’t have a journal, get a napkin or even your notes app!

3. Engage with locals to understand more about their experiences. Through conversation you can gauge more about the social, economic, and political environment that probably offers some insight into #1.

Want more? Click to check out the video version of this topic below and tune in every Tuesday on IGTV for a new episode (that normally comes before the blog post) for further unpacking!

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