Rick Steves and White Man’s Travel

Y’all, I’m angry.

Today’s anger is rooted in disappointment with the leading voice in the American travel industry: Rick Steves.

I’m angry at the White male privilege that permeates his statements and his business, doubly so because this is a man who prides himself on fighting for democracy.

Let me start by saying that from the outside, Mr. Steves seems to genuinely want to be a part of anti-fascist forces fighting racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia.

The Rick Steves company recently donated $50,000 for the voting-rights organization Lawyers and Collars, and raised an additional $100,000 from his followers. He has declared his and his company’s commitment to Black Lives Matter and has spoken out against racist marijuana laws.

Which is why I’m particularly angry at recent statements Mr. Steves made during an interview with Rewire.org.

In an article titled “Rick Steves’ Guide to Traveling at Home and Fighting Fascism” – which is mostly about Mr. Steves’ personal history and relegates fighting fascism to two questions at the end – Mr. Steves hopes for more “voices of compassion and global perspective” in the United States.

“My whole mission as a travel writer, as just a good citizen, is to inspire people to get out and get a perspective. Not to be afraid.” he says.

“Fear is a big deal in our society. Roosevelt said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and everybody celebrated that until recently. Now, people seem to want to be afraid. We need to get out. Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.”

“If you’re afraid of gay people, you probably don’t know any gay people. If you’re afraid of Black people, you probably don’t know any Black people. If you’re afraid of the Muslim world, you probably don’t know any Muslims.”

Now, people seem to want to be afraid. We need to get out. Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.”

– Rick Steves on travel and fighting fascism

Hmm….

Now see, I have to tell you: I’m afraid of men. White men, primarily. I’m afraid of men because I have been the victim of multiple attempted rapes in addition to other forms of physical and emotional abuse by men.

I am afraid because I do not know a single woman who has not been victimized by men at some point. I am afraid because conservative estimates suggest that one in four women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her life.

You know one thing that’s not a reason for my fear?

Not going out enough.

And I see a lot of other people afraid, too. I see Black people afraid of White people because of centuries of racist violence legitimated by White people’s government.

I see Indigenous people afraid of White people whose ancestors exterminated theirs and who have continued to take their land, even if it means killing them in the process.

I see Latinx people afraid of White people whose government has made it a top priority to tear apart their families, and Arab people afraid of a White culture that has endangered them by suggesting most Arabs are terrorists (and, you know, that whole overthrowing Iran’s democratic leader, invading nations time and again, and generally destabilizing the entire Arab world).

I do not believe BIPOC people are afraid of White people because they don’t know White people. In fact, I’d say BIPOC people are afraid of Whites precisely because they do know them.

It’s also a real stretch to say that racism is fueled by fear. Individual prejudice, sure. But to suggest that the systemic racism people are currently fighting is motivated by fear is at best irresponsible. For a public voice, it’s unacceptable.

Systemic racism is not caused by fear. Systemic racism is caused by capitalist desires to gain more money and more power, even if that means enslaving others (literally or figuratively) in order to do so. Fear has been weaponized to this end.

Case in point: In the years after slavery ended, White male leaders in the Southern United States engaged in a sustained campaign to portray Black people – especially Black men – as fearsome. They did so by promoting the baseless idea that Black men are innate sexual predators who pose a threat to White women.

It’s telling that during slavery, White men had no problem leaving White women unattended with Black men. It is not until Black men were awarded freedom that they were said to be threatening.

White men created this fear of Black men as justification for Black men’s incarceration. Suggesting that racism is fear-motivated is a way of forgiving racists.

(I believe it is Angela Davis who writes about this, with historical evidence, in Women, Race, and Class, but I am without my books, so I cannot verify.)

Fear does not create racism, it justifies it.

White Man’s Fear versus Real Fear

Rick Steves was trying to make a point about a metaphysical fear of the unknown, but only White men have the privilege of reducing fear to the metaphysical.

For the rest of us, fear is a real, lived experience of daily life that is exacerbated when we travel.

I am going to guess pretty confidently that Mr. Steves has not been denied entry to a hotel because of skin color or had anyone try to rape him while they were on vacation.

Non-white, female, non-binary, and visually queer travelers face real, physical fears on every trip. We face them precisely when we go out into the world, and it’s a slap in the face to be told that to combat fear we only need to go out more.

Unfortunately, I cannot say I’m terribly surprised to find this perspective from Rick Steves.

White male privilege underpins Mr. Steves’ entire enterprise. As a food tour operator, I have hosted about 200 Rick Steves clients in Paris, and countless other adherents to his books. They are generally curious, intelligent, and . . . White, as are the people in every single photo that I’ve seen on the website.

The Rick Steves Europe website includes a page called “Encountering Racism in Europe,” in which this White man gives advice to people of color traveling in Europe, advice supposedly collected from a “wide range of people of color” whom he never names.

So what is Mr. Steves’ advice for when you encounter racism in Europe?

“[B]e careful not to over-attribute grumpiness to racism. . . . No matter your ethnicity, the best advice for any traveler is to have a positive attitude. If you feel uncomfortable or mistreated, head somewhere else.”

Racism is a matter of the victim’s attitude, we are told. I will hold back on my opinion about this, lest my anger really take over.

The article, which is about one page long, does not provide a single bit of actual advice on protecting one’s physical or emotional safety when encountering racism. The article offers only two resources for travelers of color: Rick Steves’ own “Minority Traveler’s Forum,” which has all of two threads in 2020 and two in 2019, and a link to the travel site, I’m Black and I Travel.

I could not find a single article on Rick Steves’ website addressing sexism in travel.

I have to be honest. I haven’t read any of Rick Steves’ books nor do I regularly follow him online. Nothing personal, but I have a general life policy of not investing in the work of White men.

I did, however, spend some time on his site in researching this article. One of the first posts I came across is from June 15th, titled, “Daily Dose of Europe: The Bust of Nefertiti.” The piece opens with a description of, what else, the bust of Nefertiti:

“Nefertiti has all the right features of a classic beauty: long slender neck, perfect lips, almond eyes, symmetrical eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones, and a perfect spray-on tan.” (Emphasis added)

A spray-on tan?!?

Nefertiti was an Egyptian woman with brown skin, so why is she described as having a spray-on tan? Certainly the writer isn’t suggesting that Nefertiti was a White woman who managed an spray-on tan back in those ancient Egypt days.

What the writer is suggesting, though, is that Whiteness is the standard of beauty onto which a darker skin color is added.

I believe Mr. Steves when he says he wants to fight fascism. That is why I am so disappointed in the centering of White men’s experience in every part of his work. That’s fine for Rick Steves in his own White man life, but it is unacceptable for arguably the most influential travel company in the United States.

I hope that a reckoning comes for Mr. Steves. I hope that his site begins to seriously discuss the experience of racism and sexism in travel; that the site’s writers reflect critically on the ways racism and sexism infect their writing and educate themselves in critical race and feminist theory in order to write better; that the Rick Steves company immediately promotes women of color to positions of power; and that the website and guide books do more to promote travel businesses owned by women of color, along with white women and men of color.

But more than that, I hope that the world of travel writing has a larger reckoning. We can do our part by supporting BIPOC and female travel writers and businesses, today. Below are a list of resources to start doing just that.

Resources: Travel Companies and Writing That Aren’t Owned by White Men

Note: I’ve linked to the person or company’s website when possible, but pretty much all have Instagram accounts under the same name

Tour Operators

Black Travel Club, group trip planner

Black & Abroad, travel blog offering organized trips

NATIVEAMERICA.TRAVEL, experiences, itineraries, and tips for traveling respectfully (they don’t offer tours directly, but I put them in this category because of their hyper-detailed itineraries)

Travel Writers

Black Adventuristas, newsletter on adventurous living for Black women

Travel Noire, travel writing with useful city guides

Poor in a Private Plane, “enjoying life experiences on any budget

Chasing Wild Gusts, “Storyteller. Adventurer. Forever Exploring.”

Latinas Who Travel, stories, travel tips, and info on study-abroad scholarships

Based in Paris

Cookn’ With Class, Black-owned cooking school in Paris and the south of France with a lively blog and YouTube channel

Black Paris Tours, group and private tours

Girl Meets Glass, wine educator, tour operator, podcast host

Le Paris Noir/Black Paris Walks: tours and blog on all things Black Paris, in French and English

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