23 RACIAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE THROUGH THE BLACK TRAVEL MOVEMENT – Contributions by Alana Dillette with Stefanie Benjamin
As I sit down to write this piece, I find myself questioning whether I even have the ‘right’ to write what my contribution to knowledge has been in my 5 short years as a member of the academy. Have I published enough papers? Presented at enough conferences? Is my name known “well” enough within the academy? I pause. These thoughts are exactly the reason I will continue writing. To break this pattern…to let it be known that ‘contributing’ should not be measured by how much or how long, but that we all play a role in the advancement of our society and our field, no matter how large or how small.
In short, I would say that my most significant contribution to date has been interweaving the current global fight for racial justice into the throws of tourism education and scholarship. By no means have I done this alone. Throughout this reflection – you will learn of my collaborators and the importance of those relationships in advancing this area of tourism scholarship. When I began my career as a tourism scholar, this was not the path I expected to take. Like many of us, I was predominantly educated with the colonized mindset that I must quantitatively explore research problems using, quote, “rigorous methods”. By and large, I was taught not to question the system, but to work within it.
However, on the cusp of graduating during the Summer of 2016, a hike up a mountain at a tourism conference in Colorado would completely change my trajectory. Insert Dr. Stefanie Benjamin, the woman who would become my dear friend and scholarly partner in crime. In between our gasps for breath in the high-altitude air, Stefanie & I got to talking. At first, just the usual, getting to understand each other’s background – she had just begun a tenure-track position at the University of Tennessee, and I was on the cusp of starting one at San Diego State University. Once we got past these casualties, we got to talking about the current state of the world and the extraordinarily heightened emotions surrounding racial justice at the time. To give this moment some context, the Summer of 2016 followed years of Black men and women being brutally killed (many times caught on camera) by the hands of police.
Manuel Loggins Jr.
… just to name a few.
As a Black woman, who, at the time, was living in the (formerly) Jim Crow south state of Alabama – constant news of these brutalities was disheartening, maddening and downright frightening. Although not Black, Stefanie, a White Jewish woman, also living in the South, shared the same anger and disgust about these instances. We bonded over this fact and once past the initial connector of this emotion – we both asked ourselves, why is this not being discussed more in our discipline?
This is the question that sparked and subsequently led to what would drive the next five years of my life as an early career academic – Black travel, a moment, or a movement?
As a researcher, thus far, my scholarship has predominantly drawn on the use of critical race theory to dissect and understand the inequities still existent in travel for marginalized people within the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community. More specifically, my research has focused on drawing a sturdy bridge between academic research and industry practitioners within the Black Travel Movement (BTM). In fact, I might even venture to say this has been one of the most valuable outputs of my work, especially recently.
Following our discussion in 2016 – Stefanie & I got to work. We decided our first piece should venture to understand the ways in which the Black community was expressing their travel experiences on the popular social media platform, Twitter. At the time, this approach to collecting data was somewhat novel, but nonetheless insightful. We delved into the world of ‘Black Twitter’ to uncover the stories behind the hashtag #TravelingWhileBlack (see Dillette, Benjamin & Carpenter, 2019). Along the way, we invited Chelsea Carpenter, University of Tennessee undergraduate student who provided invaluable insights from a different generation (Generation Z) and a different eye to our thematic coding and analysis. Results from this work revealed significant systemic issues with racism and cultural misunderstandings being experienced by current day Black travellers. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this paper would later go on to be recognized at one of our premier tourism conferences – the Travel & Tourism Research Association (TTRA) as ‘best paper’, a recognition rarely given to qualitative and racial work up to this point. One that allowed our work to be seen by audiences that may have otherwise not paid attention.
If this were a movie, this would be the turning point at which the dominoes began to continue falling into place, one by one. After this recognition, we sought to take this work a step further and connect directly with the Black travel community as opposed to speaking for them. Reflexively, we both realized the positions of privilege we sat in – Stefanie, an educated, White cis-gendered woman, and myself, an educated, Black, but light-skinned cis-gendered woman. We understood how these characteristics got us access to places and spaces others may not have so easily gained entry into (see Dillette & Benjamin, 2020).
Our work, from this point on, focused on authentically gathering and amplifying the voices and stories of the Black Travel Movement. We did this by simply reaching out to the founders of various BIPOC focused travel organizations for interviews. Through this, both Stefanie & I got opportunities to support an organization on the ground, in the flesh. Stefanie as a volunteer along with some of her students at the 2019 Audacity Festival – a festival for travellers of color and allies, and myself in 2018 on a Traveling Black trip to Ghana with a Black travel group based out of Oakland, California. In this way, our work moved beyond the pages of an academic manuscript and morphed into real relationships and connections with the people whose stories we were sharing. This, I believe, is what makes our work and contribution to the discipline important. From these partnerships, continued work emerged.
In 2020, I ventured along this path solo to tell the story of the Black roots tourism trip to Ghana (see Dillette, 2021) along with highlighting the importance and development of Black travel tribes for a tourism book in 2021 (see Dillette, 2021). Forthcoming in 2022, I also worked on an auto-ethnography that unpacks the nuances of Black bi-racial and bi-cultural identity through roots travel (see forthcoming – Dillette, 2022).
In collaboration, Stefanie and I continued this work through an innovative paper published in Annals of Tourism Research using a collective storytelling method (see Benjamin & Dillette, 2021) along with a paper in the Journal of Travel Research analyzing whether Black travel can be a catalyst for social change (see Dillette & Benjamin, 2021). Unequivocally, the answer was yes. What we found throughout both these published works, in addition to current ongoing work, is that travel, and in this case Black travel, moves far beyond the confines of tourism as purely a leisure pursuit, but into the realm of activating meaningful equitable change within social justice movements.
In the past, the mere act of movement amongst Black people in the United States was a mechanism for freedom. Today, though much beyond the confines of Jim Crow segregation – we find that travel continues to provide this platform for freedom of historically marginalized and oppressed BIPOC. This is the meaning of the work. Additionally, with the recent societal pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside the global uprising against police brutality and racial injustice during the Summer of 2020 – this work is certainly nowhere near over. In many ways, I wish this was not the case, but so it is. Leading up to 2020 – which also happened to be my 4th year on the tenure-track, my work in this space was really just beginning to take hold. I was hopeful to continue the partnerships we had begun the previous Summer, but unsure of what that next step may look like. Que a global pandemic and a global racial justice movement, and all of a sudden, the groundwork we had laid became extremely relevant. This is when the sturdy bridge between industry and academia, that I mentioned earlier, began to take form. Today, I am proud to share that this work has moved well beyond the confines of academic publications into mainstream travel media publications like AFAR media, podcasts like the Trip Doctor and Inside Events and in collaborative academic-industry research partnerships that have led to major accomplishments.
Our work as Co-Directors of Tourism RESET (a multi-university and interdisciplinary research and outreach initiative that seeks to identify, study, and challenge patterns of social inequity in the tourism industry) helped us curate essential projects through partnerships with NOMADNESS Travel Tribe and the Black Travel Alliance. Through these collaborations, we helped to contribute to the first ever History Of Black Travel guide with the Black Travel Alliance and the first BIPOC Travel Consensus with Nomadness Travel Tribe. These relationships were fostered through years of rapport, trust, and our scholastic reputation as a pair of academics whose passion and perseverance toward social equity was becoming well-known. Under the umbrella of Tourism RESET numerous opportunities to present, lead workshops, and facilitate difficult dialogue has helped us infiltrate spaces that were previously closed off.
As I write this – I am affirmed to the fact that this work is truly just beginning, but this does not make the contribution thus far any less important. It has been a truly enriching journey and I have many mentors and peers to thank for support and encouragement along the way. If nothing else, what I hope you take away from this is to follow your deepest passion and plant your seeds there. Though the timing may be unknown, they will begin the sprout if you continue to water them.
Written by Alana Dillette, San Diego State University, United States
Read Alana’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
Benjamin, S., & Dillette, A. K. (2021). Black Travel Movement: Systemic racism informing tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 88, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2021.103169
Dillette, A., & Benjamin, S. (2021). The Black Travel Movement: A Catalyst for Social Change. Journal of Travel Research, https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287521993549 https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287521993549.
Dillette, A. K., Benjamin, S., & Carpenter, C. (2019). Tweeting the black travel experience: Social media counternarrative stories as innovative insight on# TravelingWhileBlack. Journal of Travel Research, 58(8), 1357-1372. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287518802087
Dillette, A. (2021). Roots tourism: A second wave of double consciousness for African Americans. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 29(2-3), 412-427.
Dillette, A., & Benjamin, S. (2020). Living in a Black and White world: The value of reflexivity in social equity research. Conference proceedings TTRA International Conference, 16-18 june, Canada.
Dillette, A. K. (2021). Black travel tribes: An exploration of race and travel in America. In Consumer Tribes in Tourism (pp. 39-51). Springer, Singapore.
Dillette, A. (2022 Forthcoming). Exploring biracial identity development through roots travel for African Diasporas. Tourism, Culture & Communication.