Traveling While White
Her trademark is her constant bleached-tooth smile. Her handle on TikTok, where she has more than a hundred thousand followers and a million likes is “neveraroadmap.” “Neveraroadmap” presents the idyllic terms on which white American women would like to age: with well-toned abs, expendable income, and a performative, exhibitive zest for adventure. In one recent video, “neveraroadmap” is in Malaysia, describing how she was “watching” a harvest offering ceremony being carried out by a group of Malaysians. “I absolutely love the kindness of strangers,” says the text on the video as the montage of edited clips flits by, with “neveraroadmap” describing how the locals “taught me” and then how she was “invited for food.” The whole thing ends with her staring into the camera in triumph. “I’m going to try it all,” she says, holding up her plate of free food.
She means it. And there are a lot of white women like her. Rich, middle-aged, and entirely oblivious to their racial and class privilege, not to mention the costs they impose on others, they seem to have swarmed TikTok and Instagram with their wild adventures. Here is self-care gone bad or at least turned solipsistic—entitled ideas about romance and adventure rising to the surface in vignettes just like the one above. To understand the imposition of it, consider for a second if a Black, brown or Asian person barged into a wedding or a christening, stood around awkwardly in the middle of things, wanting to know the meaning of everything and just kept gawking while people began to eat. The end of the story would be a call to security. Only white people get their self-congratulatory curiosity rewarded.
Thinking of a Black, brown or Asian woman behaving similarly is revealing only because white women need to be reminded that the division of racial privileges in the world is not equal. What “neveraroadmap” is calling the “kindness” of strangers is really a flex of her white privilege. The white woman traveler (newly reinvented as a morally noble believer in the kindness of strangers and the healing balm of world travel) is happily reviving a colonial stereotype. She becomes the emblem of civilization, her smile one of neocolonial benevolence. Like colonists of old, it never once occurs to her that she may have intruded on something private or that these “new friends” felt cornered or assaulted by her many questions. Just as the colonizers of old imagined their subjects enjoying their servitude, so, too, do the neocolonial ones imagine what they have taken as entirely freely given and that power dynamics between pushy white women and Black, brown, and Asian people are equal.
“Neveraroadmap” has a story typical of many white women travel influencers on TikTok. In fact, it could be a template for the ravenous consumption of people and places as the salve for broken relationships and doomed careers. She left her job in March 2021, left her relationship that May, and managed to convert those losses into the envy of others with the help of compulsive travel. Her audience, presumably white, upper-middle class women just like her, are supposed to be impressed at this frenzied itinerary. Since May 2021, she has been on cross-country trips across the United States, as well as to Iceland, Colombia, Bali, and Malaysia. As further reassurance about the possibility of an enviable old age, she also offers up her abs, her crotchet bikini tops, and random travel tips. This kind of travel log is now so common on TikTok and Instagram that one cannot come away without wondering, “Did a white woman even travel if she did not post about it?” Here is whiteness feminized in a particular way, eager to “learn” about the natives, eat the “local” food and grasp the intricacies of the local culture, language, etc., all in a whirlwind week that yields steady content for fawning followers.
Another account of the same ilk is “passportsandpreemies” run by Kylee Nelson; a nurse with a love for travel and wine. Her backstory (cleverly told on a podcast to diversify platforms) is that she abandoned an attempt to settle down in Chicago and instead signed a lucrative contract to work as a nurse in Saudi Arabia. The money from this was good enough to allow Nelson to jet off to various European cities to get away from the Kingdom’s restrictions (read: no wine!). Nevertheless, she tells us that she mostly took the job so she could “explore the country” and travel the Middle East. She also apparently fled the burnout that she was battling in her jobs in the Midwest.
Saudi Arabia is great for Nelson until she gets fired just four months into her contract. She pours out a glassful of wine and then chugs from the bottle on one TikTok video promoting her podcast with the “full story” of what happened in Saudi Arabia. The good thing about getting fired in Saudi Arabia is that you can always blame it—or really anything negative—on the patriarchal culture, which converts your white female audience into ardent supporters. In her podcast, she explains that she did not get along with the male nurse who was her counterpart. She did not get along with the doctors either. This she presents as an inability of Saudi doctors to deal with an outspoken white woman (they called her rude, disrespectful, and too stressed). Cue applause: here we have the story of a white female fighting the good fight against the patriarchy.
It’s travel content with a touch of almost-racist commentary (prefaced by a statement that she doesn’t intend to “generalize”), disdain for Saudi traditions and ways of life, apparent exasperation that she has to cover her legs when going to a pool party, and other banalities that could be copied from Wikipedia. Not to worry about all that however, just like “neveraroadmap,” Nelson has also converted her losses into something wondrous. Instead of languishing in Saudi Arabia, she is now in France eating apple galettes with her French boyfriend Julien. If you happen to be a white blonde woman, the world is your oyster and France is your happy place.
France is also a busy place where white travel influencers on TikTok are concerned. The account “francesurvivalguide” is run by another white and blonde woman. Here again is a story of triumph with travel. “Francesurvivalguide” left her stateside life to be with her French boyfriend. She bought an old house in the countryside, which turned out to be a nightmare that ended with a breakup. In her storytime video (a TikTok that tells the backstory) she (poorly) acts out these bad moments, providing some unintentional entertainment. Going it alone, she decides to become a travel influencer instead. Her knowledge about her chosen environment appears limited to how close the winery is to her house. In one recent post she describes going running in someone’s vineyard only to be surprised by gunshots. It turns out that hunters have permits to hunt in the area. “Francesurvivalguide” doesn’t seem to have bothered to ask permission to run in the vineyards.
Collectively this smattering of white women travel influencers present a problem. In pretending that jet travel, and lots of it, is ennobling they create a new genre of virtue signaling that is smugly uncritical of the injustices of who gets to travel and why. Even as I was writing this piece, thousands of brown women holding work visas but fired from America’s tech industry were trying to figure out what to do with their suddenly defunct American lives. They are suddenly unwelcome and stuck in one place because the passport and visa privilege available to white women are not available to them.
In the past decade, travel somehow became seen by some as the noble kind of consumption, unsullied by capitalist taint. (I can still hear people telling me how they don’t buy “things” and focus on “experiences.”) This is not at all true; consumption of places and people and goodwill, the use of a platform to re-entrench racial stereotypes and flex privilege is just a different sort of consumption. There is something frightening about the compulsive wanderlust of these women, the same breathless desire for something “priceless” to happen, which is no different from searching for something fantastic to buy.
There is nothing physically wrong about being white and female and blonde. The mistake is in not recognizing how one’s privileges also represent systemic means of exclusion. Those who feel #blessed exist in symbiosis with the excluded and denied. The problem with what these women (and scores like them) are putting out is that it presents a warped version of the world and of the freedoms that it offers. The assumption is that tourist travel is a morally unproblematic form of exercising feminist freedoms rather than a racially limited commodity for the wealthiest with no real concern for our burning, flooding, and withering planet. Praising and propagating such content presents not only a vapid intellectual laziness about the world and everything in it but also a reification of the lack of social consciousness. Not having a map, spending weeks traveling while unemployed, and buying homes in the South of France are not acts of courage or bravery; they are the indulgent and privileged pastimes of the wealthy.