Racial Privilege on Full Display in NY Times’s “Why We Travel”

By Guest Columnist Apr 10, 2009

Click to enlarge. by Ian Lovett The New York Times Travel section’s most recent slide show, “Why We Travel,” adds 13 new slides and captions to last year’s slide show of the same name. Unfortunately, “Why We Travel” conveys the very worst of Western attitudes about travel, developing countries, and Otherness. Of the 62 travelers featured, 57 hail from the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. And of the other five, three now live at least part-time in the U.S., while the remaining two are the only travelers shown on religious pilgrimage. The “We” of “Why We Travel,” then, refers to Westerners…and white people. 55 of those same 62 travelers are white. One slide, in particular, epitomizes the show’s disinterest in people of color. It shows two white American women in a Tokyo metro station, separated by one seat from two Japanese men. “Amanda Barden Stradling, 25, right,” the caption reads. Except she’s not on the right; the Japanese men are—she is second from the left, right only of her sister. Such active blindness portrays travel as a privilege reserved for a specific class of people. The many shots of white vacationers luxuriating in developing countries with no locals in sight reinforces this interpretation. As does another telling slide, which depicts a white Australian man photographing a young Pakistani girl in a dress traditional, calling her a “sort of tribal people.” That is, Westerners partake, while people of developing countries are partaken of, just like the landscapes and architecture shown in other slides. The even more insidious subtext of featuring white people almost exclusively in a show titled “Why We Travel” is that, "This is how and why We travel—They must travel differently." Although a majority of the Taj Mahal’s visitors are, in fact, Indian, this slideshow profiles a young Danish woman’s trip to the famous tomb, while the only Indian traveler profiled is shown on a religious pilgrimage, not visiting the Taj. All of which reinforces an idea of the Other that travel can, at its best upend. Ian Lovett is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.