On Reckoning With the Privilege of My Little Blue Book

I didn’t earn this passport, but I’m going to spend its privilege.

A few years back as my first solo trip to Southeast Asia was ending, I sat in the common area of a hostel packing and repacking my oversized backpack, ensuring everything fit.

A guest and I, a girl from the Philipines, we're sharing our travel experiences and backgrounds, my inability to visit the Philipines on that trip and her desire to one day visit the United States.

Our conversation came to an abrupt halt when I removed my passport from my bag to ensure my departure documents were in order.

The exact words this Filipino girl used to ask to hold my passport are a blur, but the deep smile that spread across her face as she held it is etched in my memory.

Through her smile, she told me a story I’d heard over and over from others along my travel journey but had the privilege of never experiencing.

A privilege that I was unwilling to accept because unlike most, I don’t view America as the “land of the free.”

I am not the American that travels abroad and boasts about its greatness.

As a Black woman, both history and my lived experiences, have shown me that America is not a country that is here for me.

I am virtually always enraged by the injustices of the country in which my blue book belongs, but my anger blinded me to one of my most significant privileges:

I am an American citizen with an American passport.

I am privileged to be in a position to hold one of the most powerful passports in the world.

Citizens of America, Canada, Japan, the U.K., South Korea, and Singapore can travel to more than 185 countries without a visa, making it possible to travel the world without restrictions.

Compare this to the more restrictive passports in the world like Afghanistan and Iraq, where its’ citizens can only travel to 30 countries without a visa.

Citizens of Somalia and Syria can travel to 32 countries without a visa while citizens of Palestine and Sudan can travel to 39 countries without a visa.

At borders in countries across Southeast Asia and India, I noticed whiteboards with lists of nationalities that were denied entry to the country or given a hard time for entry.

The countries were usually the same: Nigeria, Sudan, Liberia, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria — all Middle Eastern and African countries.

The fact that the citizens of these countries are brown and black people comes as no surprise either.

Don’t be fooled: Visas are inherently classist, racist and uphold white supremacy ideologies globally.

Visas allow a select few the opportunity, usually those with economic resources to roam freely while others are restricted because of socio-economical and political factors.

If an individual has the financial ability to travel from a restrictive passport country, there is no guarantee their visa application will be approved.

The useless bureaucracy that I’ve learned from people throughout my travels from African and Middle Eastern countries is disheartening and infuriating.

Luvvie Ajayi, a New York Times bestselling author and a native of Nigeria, created a podcast episode about passport privilege and shared real-world experiences from her listeners.

People from all over the world shared their stories of missing funerals of loved ones, not being able to attend a child’s college graduation or wedding because a visa application was not approved in time, or even worse, denied.

Activist and educator, Brittany Packnett shared a series of tweets earlier this year about social privileges and that many people possess both oppressive and privileged identities.

“Many people possess both privileged and oppressed identities. But you don’t stop being white because you’re gay or stop being able-bodied because you’re Black, etc. Identities intersect & intersect differently, sure. But they don’t *cancel each other out.* It’s not math.”…

I am one of those people.

I am a Black woman traveling the world, and though I experience discrimination and racism, I hold immense privilege simply because of my American passport.

Reckoning with this truth has been incredibly humbling, especially after listening to the experiences of friends who hold passports from other countries.

After landing in Bali, Indonesia, for a relaxing birthday vacation, a friend from Nairobi, Kenya could not anticipate what she was about to experience.

As she handed over her declaration form to the immigration officer, the officer proceeded to scream “East Africa!” repeatedly.

Shocked and confused, she followed the instructions to step out of line.

She was led to the immigration security corner where they searched and removed her belongings from her luggage without reason.

When nothing was found inside her luggage, her passport was confiscated, and she was escorted into a private room where she was told she was to undergo a full-body search.

Through tears, she asserted that a woman conduct the unlawful body search and not the men they insisted on.

She was forced to remove all her clothing and underwent an anal cavity search. Because enough humiliation had not taken place, her tampon was also removed during the search.

“Girls from Africa bring drugs” were the words she was left to find solace in.

As she left the room defeated and sobbing, there, walking by was another African woman.

She, too, leaving a private room, broken and in tears.

Within the same series of tweets, Brittany goes on to say we are responsible for spending the privilege we have, whether earned or unearned.

“I know where the idea comes from: Those of us with privileged identities want to abdicate our responsibility and inoculate ourselves from criticism. It’s selfish and immature. We’re each responsible to spend the privilege we have. Otherwise, why are you here?”

I didn’t earn my blue book.

It’s an unearned privilege, but I have a responsibility to share it with whoever is in need — at airports, at borders and everywhere in between.

Renée Cherez is a moon-loving, mermaid believing empath seeking truth, justice, and freedom. Feel free to read more of her writing on Medium, here. Follow her on Instagram to indulge in her *sometimes* overly long captions on travel, self-discovery, and social justice.

Renée Cherez is a Black woman writer creating magic at the intersections of travel and Black liberation. Follow her on Instagram + Twitter (@reneecherez).

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