Constant micro-aggressions wore me down like a constant drip wears down stone. But, the straw that broke the camel’s back and ultimately convinced me that this experience was no longer safe for my emotional well-being and mental health was a series of incidents that occurred in November 2018, during what was supposed to be a celebration of my birthday in Bali. I traveled to Indonesia with a smaller group of people instead of spending the month in Malaysia with all of Atlas. Bali has long been in my Top 5 travel destinations, and I was elated that one of my dearest friends was flying from Chicago to meet me. What should have been a happy, life-affirming side trip became a nightmare.
The first week in Bali, one of my white male travel partners revealed that one of his favorite words is “nigger,” (hard R) and that he sees nothing wrong with greeting his white friends with the term and says it out loud when he hears it in songs. I was shocked, but I was more hurt and surprised. He looked me in the face and genuinely questioned why he wasn’t allowed say it even though Black people do. I could barely form the response, “BECAUSE YOU HAVEN’T BEEN, AND NEVER WILL BE, SUBJECTED TO THE TRAUMA THAT COMES WITH THAT WORD.” Another travel companion (also a white male) was with us and tried to explain how disgusting the word was, and why he shouldn’t say it, and even now, I hope what he said stuck, but right then and there, I was finally done being the resident benevolent educator.
Three days before my birthday, I was skinny-dipping in the pool at our rented villa when a lighthearted after-bar conversation quickly became heated when another white male colleague began antagonizing me with statements that implied that First Nations people should be happy that they are mascots for professional sports teams, and that they “benefit” from the exposure. He went on to say that there really isn’t anything wrong with a team named the Indians, or Redskins, because those names pay homage to the people who are victims of genocide at the hands of settler colonizers.
I became visibly upset and cussed at him; his response was to laugh at me and say, “I love how passionate you get about topics like these!” I’m sorry, what? “Passionate?” about racism? Nah. I get LIVID. Keep in mind that I was standing there, naked and vulnerable. I was shocked that no one but my girlfriend (a white woman) who was visiting, dared challenge him and speak up for me. In that moment, every person who was silent and watched this happen became complicit in his overt racism. I was DONE. Not just done with performing free emotional and educational labor, I was done with Remote Year, completely. I threw my drink, stormed off, and cried on the floor in the bathroom for 15 minutes before I got up, showered, and left the villa, for good.
On my way out, I walked past the people still in the pool and hanging around the garden. I heard them speaking about me in hushed tones. They got quiet when they saw me. No apologies were made. There was no attempt to find out how to fix the situation. I left the property and walked around Canggu in the dark for four hours to blow off steam and to plan my escape from the plantation. I returned the next day to get my things and to rescue my friend. After checking into a hotel, I contacted my program leaders to formally exit the program.
The hardest pill to swallow was learning that I am still contractually obligated to pay a $1K/month Opt Out Fee despite the racist behaviors of my travel partners, (which goes against the Code of Conduct), being the reason I no longer felt safe in the program. That night, I was very blatantly disrespected, and I was betrayed. People I considered to be friends sat idly by as he mocked me. They claim to have been in shock and confused, and some say they discussed his behavior with him later, but apparently their conversations didn’t matter, because the person from the pool incident has not apologized, and they all still spend time and socialize with him as if nothing happened.
The person from the pool approached me after a group orientation in Lima a few weeks ago with a half-baked Christian side hug and a “We should talk,” but it felt disingenuous and manipulative. The N bomb lover sheepishly hugged me in the airport on a travel day and vowed to try to stop saying the N word. I was completely put off by both encounters. Why didn’t they reach out to me away from the gaze of the rest of the group with meaningful apologies? I expect nothing less than a full on, “What I did was wrong, I know that because _____, and this is how I will atone for my actions.”
What I will not accept is anything remotely close to “It was a misunderstanding” or “misinterpretation” of the antagonizing, rude and racist behavior, because that is the exact messaging I’ve already received from several people in the group, that if I want people to listen to me, *I* must be gentle, and I need to address the issues from a place of education and understanding. I almost threw my phone the first time I read those patronizing and condescending words.
It is NEVER the responsibility of the oppressed to educate their oppressor. This open letter published by Blavity perfectly encapsulates how I feel about educating white people on their racism.
For hundreds of years, black people have been burdened with the task of educating white people. We have served as the gatekeepers for your ignorance, dangerous lack of racial awareness, and covert and overt acts of racism far too long. There have been numerous times in my life when I have called attention to prejudice and implicit bias only to hear “Wow, I didn’t know that.” “That was not my intention.” Following their come to Jesus revelation, the white person in question often agrees to change their actions and commits to being more “inclusive” … at least until the opportunity presents itself for them to once again say or do something they ‘’didn’t know was racist.”
It is not my job to educate my travel companions about issues of racism nor sexism, or any other societal ill. It is THEIR job to educate themselves. I have previously done so because I had to, not because I wanted to. It is peak white privilege to ask me to make your life easier pro bono while simultaneously occupying my time and requiring my emotional labor.
At multiple points during this Atlas journey, I have had soul-crushing experiences with little to no emotional support from my colleagues, so after a while, I just stopped sharing my experiences with people, altogether. It is rare that anyone would reach out to me unless they needed something from me. I can count on one hand how many times I heard from someone who just wanted to hang out. I cannot count how many requests for emotional labor I’ve had. Have a problem? Go talk to Fernanda. Need relationship advice? Fernanda has awesome insights. Sad? Depressed? Need life coaching? I’m your girl. There have been many highs, but the lows nearly sent me home on more than one occasion. I’ve been robbed three times while traveling on Remote Year, but the fear and sadness that resulted from being violated in that manner pale in comparison to the disappointment of realizing that I had emotionally and financially invested in people who don’t care about me as a whole human being.
I haven’t spoken much about any of this with anyone except my therapist and a few close friends because any time I bring up how I feel with people in the group, I receive temporary sympathy and then everyone immediately resumes their daily lives and returns to spending time with the offenders and then coming back to me to ask for advice. It’s selfish as hell, and much easier for them to keep the status quo and not rock the boat. Burying one’s head in the proverbial sand in the name of self-preservation is preferred over speaking up for what is ethically and morally just.
Meanwhile, I am being emotionally and financially punished. I am now the outcast who occasionally makes appearances at the birthday celebrations of the people who have been kind to me, but only after I’ve asked multiple people “Who all gon’ be there?” multiple times, to make sure that I don’t encounter people I’m not comfortable with. If they do show up, I have to steel my nerves and pretend they aren’t in the room, or I leave, to avoid making it uncomfortable for the rest of the group.
I’ve been branded as the Angry Black Lady Social Justice Warrior who “always brings up race.” But, that label no longer bothers me because I am exactly that. I’m the person who speaks up for marginalized people when no one else does. I recognize the privileges I have and I use them to advocate for others at every opportunity. A lesson for those who fancy themselves “allies”: If you don’t advocate out loud, you are not an ally…you are an accomplice. I refuse to be an accomplice to oppressors AND pay $2,000 per month for it.
When I made RY leadership aware of what happened in Bali, the responses I got were all copypasta, legalese jargon, and I was sent a link to file a complaint with a 3rd party HR organization the company partners with. There have been no public acknowledgments nor apologies about what happened from the offenders, and I don’t expect there to be. That would be too much like right. Their lives haven’t been affected by their actions, and they aren’t paying the emotional toll that I am. They continue to lead carefree, Instagrammable travel lives together while I deal with my disappointments and regrets, alone.
My only hope is that anyone considering Remote Year does their due diligence and finds this essay before they make the mistake of spending $27,000 American dollars on a trip that cost me much more than that, spiritually. I am a fighter, and a horrible quitter, so instead of following my initial instinct to just pack it in and go home, I will spend the next few months reminiscing about the positive aspects of my journey while I travel solo and take advantage of the flights I’ve already paid for, as I salvage what’s left of my dream trip around the world.