Sojourner White of the Sojournies is an international social worker, a Fulbright alum, has lived and worked abroad in Spain, and is a travel blogger and educator. Her work’s been featured in Buzzfeed, Fodor’s Travel, Blavity, Thrillist and many others. Read on to learn about different types of privilege in travel, different travel perspectives and how to travel more consciously.
Wider Worldview is a new live podcast hosted by Color & Curiosity founder Megan Zink that explores the power of travel – how it can change the world: spark new ideas, foster different perspectives, catalyst curiosity and lifelong learning. Join her for interviews with entrepreneurs, educators and explorers and get inspired to tap into travel as an experiential learning and empathy building tool.
Head over to this link to catch the full audio recording on Fireside with Sojourner White of The Sojournies – but in the meantime, here’s a snippet of the conversation. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Sojourner, can you share a little bit about your background and journey for the audience – the evolution of your site, what it is today, especially in covering some of those less-talked about and frankly hard to talk about, but very important topics like privilege in travel, conscious travel, etc.?
Yes. So in 2015, I decided to study abroad – my undergrad background is psychology and Spanish and a minor in women’s gender studies, so all the liberal arts. And I took some lit classes my second semester of freshman year, and was like, ‘yeah no, this is not going to work for me. I do not want to read any more literature. I want to use my Spanish.’ And I ended up going abroad when I found out I could use my federal financial aid for a semester through my university – I went for a semester – that’s really the main reason why I was able to afford it.
And that’s how I ended up in Spain, and how the journey started. I did not intend for it to become what it is, I really just kinda happened in a whirlwind when I studied abroad. I maybe blogged twice, because I was so enthralled with being in southern Spain. I was in Granada, which has my heart forever; it was the first country and first city I ever went to outside the US. I went from no international travel to five months of international travel. So it escalated quite quickly. And then after that, I realized I liked writing, but didn’t really do a whole lot with it. I did know I wanted to travel and do more after graduation, hence Fulbright.
So I applied for a Fulbright, not fully understanding how prestigious it was, I knew it was a good program, but then, after I applied and did the essays (which were super intense) I realized it was really prestigious in that people from Ivy League schools are typically the ones who get them and I was at a mid-sized liberal arts school in Illinois. So imposter syndrome definitely crept in after I submitted the application and I was on edge for months because you submit them in October and you find out in March. So it’s a very long process.
I found out about the first round in January and then on St. Patrick’s Day of 2016 I found out I got the Fulbright. So then I moved to northern Spain for a year – and that’s really when my writing developed the most. I started writing for a website that I believe changed their name now, but it used to be called Las Morenas de España, so literally Black women in Spain, and that’s kind of how it morphed into me becoming more of a travel blogger and a travel writer. And once I came home, I decided to buy my domain, and it’s only grown and evolved from there. And then documenting my travels when I was in grad school, in Berlin, and trying to make it part of my career – I did not want to quit my job to travel the world. I have loans, okay.
You and I are really passionate about – and we connected on the fact that – you don’t have to quit your full-time job to go and have all these adventures where sometimes I think that that may be a little bit of a misnomer.
I’m a planner, I’m into organizing – I work with a team of strategists in my current role, so just up and going somewhere is not in my nature – so I wanted to find a way to make it part of my life. And so that’s how the international social work came to be, and then later, Let’s Unpack That, then the responsible travel stuff.
That’s a perfect segue – I’m glad you mentioned Let’s Unpack That because here on Wider Worldview, we believe travel can change the world, and be an experiential learning and empathy building tool, which I think you embody so well. And I think empathy and privilege are definitely tied together, and empathy can potentially even help us be aware of our own privileges when we travel. So, can you share a little bit about some of the privileges in travel that you cover in your Let’s Unpack That series, that may not be as widely thought of or understood? And then tips for how we can check ourselves and become more aware of the privileges we carry with us when we travel?
Yeah – so I always say that the things I talk about are not new, it’s just my turn to talk about them – because people have been talking about them for a long time. And I’m just one of the people now who is hopping into the conversation. But I learned them, or I have the language to talk about them now. For example, passport privilege is something that I heard about a few years ago. But then from there, and through my work as a social worker, and studying international development and understanding how the world is laid out, and systems are laid out, I started applying a lot of that to the privileges in travel.
So passport privilege, and language privilege – learning English, and how English is widely spoken everywhere – even my Fulbright experience was teaching English abroad, and how easy it was for me, even though I didn’t have a background in education – like a formal degree. I did have teaching experience due to the psychology work that I’d been doing, but it wasn’t formal. But even then, there’s a lot of privilege in that kind of opportunity. So a lot of the pillars I talk about I finally have the language to explain it in the context of my own experiences first before I apply them to the public. So passport privilege, language privilege, accessibility – there’s a lot of privilege in that, not worrying if I need an elevator, or to call the staff and make sure the whole building is accessible. Those are a few, there are so many more. We can go on and on – because there are just so many layers and different identities that people have and they all work differently and intersect in a lot of ways. I know as a Black woman, the things I have to deal with are very different from a white person or even a brown person. And there’s so much nuance in travel experience.
First of all I so appreciate the language that even you’re using right now – ‘it’s not that I’m talking about these things first, moreso it’s now my turn to talk about them.’ Or ‘I now have the language to actually apply my experiences to my perspective and share that with the world’ and I think there is a lot to be said for that type of awareness and talking about them so beautifully. And as you mentioned, there are so many. But currency privilege, body size privilege, cisgender privilege, there’s just so many – was there any one that you particularly think is even more important now than before, or that you yourself didn’t really know about and researched more?
Oh yeah, being a Black woman – that is something I could talk to you about for days, that is something so inherent to me. But looking at my ability to travel, understanding the weight of my currency, being someone who has US dollars and where I can go. Like articles about ‘cheapest destinations’ are written by people from areas with strong currency. So when I see privilege in travel, I think about how it shows up for me in other areas. And it’s very complex thing – for me as a Black woman in the US, who is a descendant of slavery in the US, in my eyes, the reason why I have passport privilege is a lot more complicated than someone’s ancestors or forefathers who came here willingly.
And so even within the privileges that I’m finding that I hold, there’s so much complexity and nuance in them, just due to the history – a lot of the privileges are related to history and related to white colonization and how tourism was created and is still perpetuated. And the deeper I go, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna give myself a headache.’ But I would rather give myself a headache than unwittingly not knowing or ignoring it. At the end of the day, travel is complicated – especially now, the way tourism is set up is very complicated. And as a travel blogger, it’s a power thing – the reason I can be a travel blogger is because I have this passport. There’s just so much to unpack.
Do you have any tips for those of us – any sort of way that we can think about these things, is there a way to check ourselves and become more aware of these privileges, or how to build empathy when we travel?
For me, yes, I’ve gone to school, and people love the education part – and I make sure that I explain things in a way that’s not shaming. It’s taken a lot of traveling and a lot of time and reflection and so I think outwardly shaming people – that doesn’t really get us anywhere. You can be mad and leave an angry comment, that happens. But on the flipside we have to educate ourselves. We cannot always rely on other people to do it. I’ve done a lot of Googling and reading and trying to do as much self-education to futher understand my experiences. I think part of building that empathy is taking that next step – now that someone’s called it out, what are you gonna do with it? And I think it’s really easy to get defensive and say well, I didn’t know. Well that’s fine – you don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you do, what’s the next step? I think people get so caught up in the defensiveness that we can’t even get to the empathy. But they’re only lessons if you learn from them.
And so I think to be more empathetic in travel – especially now, people are calling out how horrible tourism is, and how traveling is not as peachy keen as everybody on Instagram in these pretty dresses makes it out to be. And so I think part of the empathy is listening to people, especially locals, in the countries we’re visiting, about their experiences and what they’re feeling and really trying to figure out, okay, how can we do this? Because people are gonna travel – we didn’t stop in the pandemic, we’re not going to stop on a regular day. But it’s like, okay, what can we be doing as people who have currency privilege to think about the people in the destination we’re visiting – we’re there for 7 days, and they’re there for forever. It’s really about listening and self-education and doing what needs to be done and thinking about the people that are in these destinations after we leave. I think this is the most important thing that I’ve gathered, and how I become even more empathetic.
Here on Wider Worldview, we’ve been exploring about travel as an experiential and empathy building tool and how we can make it more accessible. And as you mentioned, travel is so complex. There’s so much privilege in those who get to do it. And I am very vocal about the fact that I had the privilege to study abroad – my parents helped me pay for it. I didn’t have to worry about any of that. But I’m so curious to hear your thoughts and perspectives of how we could potentially diversify and make study abroad or working abroad more accessible to more people – do you have any thoughts on that?
I think first, we need to let those unpaid internships go because that is one of the biggest things that I always get questions on when I talk about interning abroad, during grad school, and that only worked because I did Americorps the year before, which is severely underpaid but I did it just to be at home for a year, but when you do Americorps they give you an education award and I was able to use money from an education award to take a class abroad and do part of my internship. And so when we talk about access, it’s definitely a money issue. It’s definitely a class thing. I feel like it’s gotten better since I even studied abroad in 2015. I’ve seen way more scholarships and money out there – Gabby Beckford is a great resource for anybody listening who is interested in traveling for free in different capacities.
I would say money is always the biggest thing. To which again, it’s gotten better, but people need to see themselves in study abroad. I remember when I was first applying to the Fulbright, I found an article from 2016, so maybe the study was in 2013, that 3-6% of Fulbrighters were not white. And to also think about, how are we recruiting? What marketing tools are study abroad offices in particular using to recruit? I would never have done Fulbright if I had not studied abroad. And I think it’s really about access to money, access to resources, and also knowing this is for you to do. I don’t think I would still be doing Sojournies if I didn’t still get people saying, ‘I didn’t know this was possible.’ I’m gonna keep writing and making the information as accessible as possible because when someone has information, who knows what they can do with it, but they have to have access to it to begin with.
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