2019 Spring Cahleb Derry Temple Rome Temple Semester

Brown Spaces, White Faces

“Be careful!”

“You’re going there for..spring break?”

“..Why Morocco?”

“I’d be afraid to go to there—good luck!”

Those are some of the myriad of weirdly negative responses I received when I informed friends and peers about my plan to travel to Marrakech, Morocco this spring break. In my head, I was partially excited because I knew I would perhaps even feel safer in Marrakech—or at least I would feel a sense of security and sanctity on the African continent, and a break from constantly being “the other.” I was unsurprised but still disappointed to learn that, based on absolutely no concrete knowledge or experience, many of my peers understood Morocco as an unsafe place to visit. Furthermore, traveling to Marrakech with a predominantly white group—and specifically as the only visibly black person—made the experience a very complex, mentally taxing one. For so many of my friends, this was a scary, risky decision, and for me, it was a breath of fresh air from the many beautiful yet taxing European cities I had visited prior that brought numerous run ins with racism and discomfort. This led to conflict that I largely ignored, but I could not help but wince every time someone in our group spoke with fear about simple activities such as taking the bus, or contrarily, traveling to the country in general. At some points, I felt as if our trip was being framed in their heads as a trip to a war zone. It was a uniquely intense form of gaslighting—I had to ask myself if I was being unfair to them or romanticizing the place to which we were headed, but I soon realized the very opposite was happening.

Boarding the bus in Marrakech each day to ride from our AirBnB to the medina revealed the extreme ignorance that bred such a perception of the country as necessarily more dangerous than our origin city. Upon getting on the bus, we received the same blank, perhaps confused stares that Americans in a primarily Italian area would receive in Rome. However, a smile and a “Bonjour” to some of the locals who sat in the seats prompted some of the warmest smiles I have ever felt from strangers while traveling. Before boarding the bus, we spent almost 40 minutes in a handmade jewelry shop, drinking tea, crafting our own jewelry, and chatting with the store owners. We were welcomed into every space with open arms, fresh mint tea, and anecdotes. Almost everyone, even those who did not speak English, made sure they knew the phrase “You are welcome in Morocco.” That phrase seemed ingrained in the culture of the city folks. Ironically, much of this warm welcoming probably stemmed from the fact that many of the folks we were traveling with were white, and what made me most angry was how ungrateful so many of my friends were for that warm welcoming. Even after such a fulfilling, eye-opening, and welcoming experience in Marrakech, our return to Europe in Barcelona during the second half of our stay was met with folks expressing some sort of newfound returned sense of comfort and safety in the city. I could not wrap my head around it—how could one’s bias and racism so deeply warp their perception of a place, and allow them to so profoundly disrespect the warm welcome it gave them? Who decides what safe means? The likening of their fleeting, five-day experience of difference with a greater sense of vulnerability for all of us felt so unmistakably misplaced and erroneous because that was their experience and would never be mine.

 Perhaps what frustrates me most is that I did not feel empowered enough to say anything.  

This is not to create some sort of safety war between predominantly white and predominantly non-white countries—there are obviously countries of all kinds that because of civil unrest, political warfare, and various other issues, Americans should not visit at this time, and some of those happen to be predominantly POC countries, rife with issues that are connected to the damage that larger, older, white regimes have done. However, dictating what countries are in that category solely based on the people that are there and how they look and live is profoundly unfair. The idea that we should have our guard down in Europe yet assume some sort of new, heightened sense of alert when we take a two-hour flight to North Africa is rooted solely in racism—and only puts the folks who decide Europe is innocuous in more danger. I have heard countless stories of my friends being brutalized, mugged, attacked and targeted in Europe, during our time in Barcelona—the sense of security I felt in Morocco, especially when compared to some of the European countries and cities I have visited, simply demonstrates that safety cannot be quantified by proximity to color or a country’s GDP.

Thus, the takeaway here is that bias is so incredibly restricting — if you’re afraid to travel somewhere because of your bias, you are denying yourself of an experience. One would hope that you would be deterred from self-governing via implicit bias solely based on how harmful it is to the people or place that is being stereotyped. However, if such an ask is too troublesome, perhaps one can at least avoid bias by seeing how it hurts themselves and denies one of opportunities. Treat each place as individual and you will gain access to so much more knowledge—social monolithism is rarely an effective framework in practice.

3 comments

  1. Caleb, what a very poignant post, thank you. We create these barriers by assuming labels such as “safe” but, you’re right, there is the reality and perception. I am delighted to hear your stories about exploring (and examining) so many places and events while you are here in Rome.

  2. I love the topic of this posts! It’s different and refreshing from the usual things people talk about on here!

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