Landing in Cape Town was exciting. We met each other in person for the first time in the airport, and then learned about each other in a long orientation session. Each of us prepared one slide with photos, sayings, anything we wanted people to know about us. As I listened, I grew more curious to learn about each of these strangers from all over. I have always traveled alone, or in groups of less than 10, so the idea of living, working and discovering the globe with this many new people felt like a great way to grow, personally. What I forgot was that just as society at large isn’t an inclusive, politically correct, polished Instagram feed, neither is a subset of 40 people who come from it. Mistake number four.

No matter how many times you are told that you are part of a “community,” you are not, unless you choose to be, and unless you truly understand what “community” means. Communities are groups of self-selected people who work towards a common goal, who work together for the good of the group, as well as for the good of its individuals. Community is NOT automatic. It is certainly not a group of people who look the other way when its members do, and say, racist, homophobic, sexist shit.

My first week in South Africa was everything I wanted, and more. I snapped at least one hundred photos a day, as I was mesmerized by Cape Town’s people, the food, the wildlife, and scenery. The Western Cape is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in person or in pictures. South Africa is also one of the most racially segregated and painful places I’ve ever been to.

While apartheid has been outlawed since 1994, you can still feel it, everywhere. Most of the Black and Cape Colored people I saw during that month were behind a counter, or wearing an apron, waiting on tables in restaurants. They worked in the service industry, or sold crafts in market stalls, and then made the long journey home to the townships at the end of their shift. They weren’t the business owners, tourists, nor residents in the posh, upper-middle class area where we lived.

I visited Robben Island, the Slave Museum, and Parliament, learning as much as I could about South Africa’s painful recent history. My first week in Cape Town was also when I learned about the casual racism that existed within my travel group. One night after dinner, the Israeli member of our group and I got into a heated discussion about how difficult it is to be marginalized, and I could not convince him that despite my personal, lived experience (and the anthropological studies to prove it), Black women are treated the worst out of everyone else on the planet. He insisted that Jewish men are even more marginalized, and that “Black women don’t own the monopoly on oppression.” I was floored. How anyone truly believes that, let alone say it to a Black woman, defies all logic.

Never, in the history of everdom, is a man more oppressed than a woman, and a man who appears to be white will never be systematically treated more poorly than a Black woman. I was (and still am) beside myself, and since it was apparent that there was no changing his mind, I simply replied, “Okay, you’re right,” to everything he said after that. I soon left the room and that conversation, but have been forever plagued by his comment. In the weeks that followed, I shared what happened with a few people within the group, but I never escalated my concerns. Mistake number five.

I should have immediately brought it up to my program leaders and requested a group-wide discussion on diversity and inclusion, how to talk to, and about, people from different backgrounds and belief systems. I firmly believe that if we’d had an open discussion in the very beginning of the year to set expectations and open dialogue early, I wouldn’t have spent the last nine months exhausted from calling out racism and shaking my head at rampant misogyny and sexism.

I am not naïve enough to think that having town hall discussions would have changed anyone’s beliefs, but I do think it would have made them think twice about being so forward in their outward behavior. At no point in any of the Remote Year participant orientations, onboarding webinars nor ongoing monthly group meetings and trainings were issues of diversity and inclusion explicitly addressed. There is a Code of Conduct that all participants are required to read and sign, but after acknowledging that you received it, there is no followup. Conversations about diversity happen upon arrival in a new city, when the local city team hosts a two hour City Welcome which provides highlights of some of the local food, traditions and tourist attractions. There are no in-depth conversations about difficult social issues, only travel-brochure style presentations.

As we moved from country to country, Remotes got more comfortable and started shedding facades like snakeskin. I quickly realized just how many people reinvented themselves on this trip, but it is always only a matter of time before ignorance and biases reveal themselves. Trump supporters eventually came out of hiding. Apartheid sympathizers slipped up to say things like, “Reparations shouldn’t be rushed simply because apartheid is over,” and comments to the effect, “We’re too big a group to be expected to adjust to every countries’ customs.” “All the men here are short; it’s dirty, and it always smells funny,” start to become common. Instead of the cultures we were immersed in being appreciated, they were appropriated and ridiculed. Halloween costumes included a sumo fat suit and a Native American headdress complete with “angry Indian eyes” sunglasses. 

In addition to the casual racism, there was constant sexism humming in the background. A Slack channel created by the ladies in our group to share tips and recommendations on where to buy tampons, or to find nail polish remover was duplicated by the men in our group, as a joke, but it quickly became offensive when they started sharing porn, gossiping about the women, and posting a bell emoji anytime one of them got laid, including when they slept with one of the ladies in our group. Several men left the channel when it got gross, which immediately created a rift, and the word “snitch” started floating around when the ladies found out about what was going on on the men’s channel. Many of us were offended, and lots of feelings got hurt. It was not my job to educate others on how not to be misogynist pricks, or to be a mediator, but I did. I bore the burden of being an intermediary, an educator, a teacher, an auntie, a shoulder to cry on. In retrospect, I should have immediately reported these problems to leadership instead of taking on those roles. Mistake number six.

Remote Year staff and management were made aware of the Salacious channel, and a few offline conversations took place with a few of the participants, but there was never any public acknowledgement by RY staff that it existed (and that its contents were not sanctioned by the organization). The Slack channel eventually died, but the sentiments and misogynistic attitudes prevail; they’re just not posted in Slack anymore. Remote Year dropped the ball and lost a huge opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about patriarchy, misogyny, and how to not be otherwise offensive when traveling in a group that is 50% women and femmes. [End of Part 2]

Fernanda H. Meier
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