When I travel I try to take nothing for granted. I try to be open to experiences that are alien to my cultural heritage — be it in what I eat, what I drink, where I sleep or in cultural norms that I wouldn't accept in my own society. That's often harder than it may sound. Although my serious traveling started as soon as I reached adulthood I had already been conditioned by eighteen years of growing up in one country and one culture. That culture included elements of racism.
While I would like to think that the world is a different place today I still experience racist attitudes and I have been a victim of racism. I don't pretend to have the solutions to eliminate racism but I believe that first-hand experiences are a better teacher than any text or speech.
I had such a first-hand experience in the Lao People's Democratic Republic. In that country, as in most of mainland Southeast Asia, the indigenous population lives mainly in the highlands. In the Lao PDR this means the far north on the Chinese border. I was based there in a small, mainly ethnic Lao village that sees few visitors — western or otherwise. I'd visited a few nearby indigenous villages when, one evening, I met a couple of other western travelers who planned to spend the whole next day hiking out to more remote villages. I decided to accompany them.
At the time their skin color was not relevant or significant.
One of the last villages we entered that next day was an Akha village. The villagers were immediately apprehended by the sight of a person with black skin. As we entered the village one young boy ran away from us crying, clearly in distress. Eventually some of the older villagers approached us albeit with trepidation. Perhaps because the black-skinned person was accompanied by slightly more familiar, white-skinned people they were willing to accept that she posed no risk to them. The black-skinned person allowed them to touch her skin and her hair. Then some of the village children followed their elders' lead and also began touching and feeling her. A few minutes later everyone had become comfortable in each other's presence and we all fell about laughing almost hysterically at the situation.
Was this racism? The context of the encounter was that the village had no electricity and very little contact with the outside world. They had never seen black skin before in real life or even on TV. Akha heritage includes a strong belief in the spirit world. Although I know of no Akha-specific folklore on the topic, it is common for such peoples' folklore to include the arrival of a being — or other manifestation of a spirit — recognized immediately by its 'other-worldly' appearance. With such an upbringing I know I would have reacted the same way.
Would this be racism had the visitor's skin been a color other than black that these villagers had also never seen?
Later that day, back at our base, I asked her whether she'd experienced such a reaction before; she hadn't but she told me that she had experienced racism against her many times. I wasn't surprised to hear that but I was surprised to hear her assessment of the experience: if it was racism then it must be the only example in history of racism that was overcome in just a few minutes.
The Akha are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: Southeat Asia.