Years ago there was a pretty good movie that came out entitled “The Accidental Tourist.” The movie was about loss, disorientation, anxiety, and above all fear. The main character, Macon, writes guides for business travelers who would rather not be traveling. The travel guides provide a metaphor as to how the main character attempts to live his life by avoiding risks and unpredictable circumstances. Ultimately, he fails, but the guides he writes serve to recreate ‘home’ and all the comforts and familiarity of ‘home’ for the one using them.
When we travel, it is reasonable that we take a guide with us. For the less adventurous, a guide especially provides security, comfort and a sense of control in a strange new environment. A travel guide is a boon for the ‘accidental tourist.’
We depend on our guide to fortify ourselves against the strange language, food, and customs that may upset us. Our itinerary is a masterful work in organization and insurance. We travel a thousand miles in order that we may feel like we never left home. “Do you speak English?” An affirmative answer relieves us as we go, and now we may relax and enjoy the journey.
When we delve into conversations about race and ethnicity – for some of us it is a dangerous trek into a wild and foreign land. It is that far country, far removed from the comforts of our insulated little worlds, routines, and experiences. Talking about race, for many, is disorienting. It is foreign language, it is barbaric; it is unsettling, hostile, and threatening. The water makes our stomachs ache and the heat is unbearable. So our solution is to avoid the journey. Or if the journey must be taken, than we must take a guide with us that allows us to recreate our ‘home’ – that is our safe places wherever we go.
“Let’s make this place like home for us. Let’s civilize and sanitize this place – so we can be comfortable in these spaces. Let us go and tell our stories, promote our causes, and dispose our narratives – after all we have such good stories, no? Before you know it, this place will be just like home!”
I hope I didn’t lose you in my prattling on about the ‘accidental tourist. ’ But I do wonder, how many of us are accidentally racist? How many of us are unsettled and disoriented by what we perceive to be strange and foreign? How many of us, in order to gain control and reorient ourselves, attempt to transform our ‘strange’ environments? How many of us resist and even scoff at the ‘other” but then appropriate bits of culture for fashion’s sake? How many of us, lean on familiar biases and stereotypes in order to navigate these alien lands?
Colonialism and gentrification are two cousins that often possess a similar desire, with an outdated and destructive guide that is hundreds of years old.
When we lean into learning in different contexts and experiencing different cultures there is always the threat of the unpredictable. Traveling, much like reading, fundamentally changes us, but only when we really give ourselves to the journey. By yielding ourselves to experience the journey, there is the uncomfortably rewarding opportunity for growth and expansion in one’s perspective. For the humble and inquisitive, there is a sense of adventure and exhilaration that ensues. For the prideful and less curious, the journey can quickly degenerate into an anxious nightmare.
It’s funny that in our fair city, many good people feel more at ease traveling across the globe to Asia or Africa than they do traveling over the mountain or across the tracks. Sadly, we find common ground in Macy’s, but our sacred places are the most taboo, and most exotic, where boundaries still mustn’t be crossed. Crossing I-65 may as well be crossing the Indian Ocean! And when we do dare to cross the tracks, and venture over-the-mountain, we bear an outdated travel guide. While it makes us feel safe as ‘accidental tourists,’ the travesty is that we are also accidentally racist.
Accidental racists are as dangerous if not more so than intentional racists. Cultures are ruined, ecosystems destroyed, peoples are displaced, by well-intended, accidental racists. More dangerous, I say, because at least intentional racists are sure of their intentions and clear in their cause – they must at least acknowledge those whom they would denigrate. Alas, but the accidental racist must never reckon with her conscience or wrestle with the consequence of their ignorance. After all it was just an accident – an unfortunate misstep – clumsy color-blindness- harmless misunderstanding – an mere (albeit dehumanizing) oversight, or just a bad joke.
Cut them some slack, huh? Everybody makes mistakes. It was an accident.
The unfortunate problem is, however, that the wounds remain the same.
If I get hit by a car, the damages – the long term effects – the consequences are the same whether it was intentional or accidental.