Passport privilege and borders are something we rarely think of in the West. We don’t need to when visas are seldom required and our migration and movement is not looked upon with suspicion upon arrival.
Of course, this issue has been catapulted into global consciousness since Brexit and the rise of neo-nationalist groups, especially during the Trump presidency. Yet while it is more fraught now than ever before I can still gallivant around Europe for three months without a visa and effectively travel anywhere I like on an Australian passport, unless the country is deemed too dangerous by our government. But were I from certain Islamic-majority countries banned from entering the United States, or even just a Middle-Eastern looking man travelling through customs, I would lose out on my relatively free and easy passage.
Beyond this, even a privileged traveller must contend with new language, culture and bargaining norms. Sometimes they are fun, other times they are tedious; but they remind us that we are not the centre of the universe. Having a different skin colour to the majority in the country of travel usually makes you an obvious tourist target but having the same is sometimes worse.
When I travel in countries with a spectrum of brown and darker skin I lose out on the privileges that come with being ‘Western’. Yes, I hold an Australian passport, have an Australian accent and grew up with it as my first culture but for some reason people can’t accept that. It is not simply ‘No, but where are you really from?’ – that is common no matter where I am; it is the ever so subtle disrespect or lack of deference that is not shown to Western travellers.
Take India for example. My family is from there, I look like a Western-born Indian and every time I have travelled there I have always felt that my experiences were different to my non-Indian friends who had been there and ‘loved’ every minute of the country and culture. I was never sure of exactly which world I belonged in. I would still be ripped off and had to ‘shut my mouth’ during transactions so they wouldn’t charge us even higher. But I also knew this was surely not the India and the treatment my non-Indian friends had experienced. Was it that my friends did struggle in the same ways I did but that I was just hyperaware of what was actually happening, given my language abilities and the stories my family had told me?
It was not until I first backpacked there without my family, with two non-Indian friends, that I could finally pinpoint what the difference was. The automatic conferral of respect by way of having an Australian passport diminished when it came to me. I was not Indian but I was definitely not Western and so there was no need to impress me to the same degree as my friends. Yet I was still afforded more respect than when I was with my Indian family. It was as if my friends’ passports bolstered the legitimacy of mine.
This sort of treatment is nothing short of internalised racism. The view that Westerners need to be put on a pedestal, that they are more powerful and deserve more respect and the fear of what the loss of their tourism would do exists because of a complex hierarchy of race, culture and borders. It is also inextricable from a capitalist system that compels locals – in this case, Indians – to keep up with mechanisation and the influx of global investment and enterprise. They are beholden to foreigners in many senses and beyond just the parochial. Not only can fruit sellers make more money off foreigners in daily transactions, workers rely on foreign investment and thus, the ‘West’ must be attracted to the people and country. So a sense of the foreign being somehow superior may inevitably be accepted by the locals.
Naturally, it is those from Western countries, where incomes are higher, that do the most travelling. Beyond the initial signal of privilege, this carries more serious implications. The sharing of knowledge, which results in outside perceptions of a country, is controlled by these travellers who share their stories back home, stories that make their way to influential people who can in turn influence viewers and listeners. So the world is learning about a country from outsiders, who themselves may carry biases and have little local knowledge. Essentially, what we know of India is what others tell us of India. This is a responsibility that Western travellers are not always best equipped to carry.
There’s more. While I am a woman that often looks like the other women in a conservative country, my being there, travelling, Westernised, actualised, is a problem in itself. The expectations of that conservative culture are thrust upon me and further disrespect follows if and when I do not conform. For example, travelling with men, not covering up, being ‘too assertive,’ these aren’t simply ‘accepted’ as being ‘Western’ in my case. This is the inexplicable tension I feel that my fellow travellers will not see until I point it out to them. In some cases, I just seem paranoid. This freedom from paranoia, from the balancing act, is a privilege my passport does not always afford me.
Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies. She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.