Despite racking up countless frequent flyer miles during his illustrious 30-year career as an executive, Orlando Ashford still sometimes finds his status as a premium airline in question.

Sometimes this happens at the gate when Ashford, who is Black, lines up to be among the first to board the plane.

“There have been several times when people have interrupted me or stopped me saying, ‘Hey, they just called in first class,'” says Ashford, former president of Holland America Line and current chairman of Azamara. “And the assumption is, ‘That can’t be you. So let me cut in front of you’ or ‘Why are you moving to the front of the line?’

Even simply standing outside a hotel can sometimes lead to an awkward interaction.

“There have been a few times when I’ve been standing outside a building or a hotel and people have assumed I was the valet,” Ashford says. “They drive up, throw me their keys and drive off.”

While incidents like these don’t usually escalate into more overt racial confrontation, they remain downright humiliating. Ashford characterizes them as clear microaggressions.

“I feel like I’ve earned all these advantages, but when I try to enjoy that advantage and get on the plane first and sit down and have a drink and I get hit with a microaggression, well, then I’m upset or angry or sad,” he says. “And that is certainly not the intention of giving me this status. Microaggressions become things that really take away from the whole experience.”

“Microaggressions really make the whole travel experience worse”

Notoriously insidious, racial microaggressions can manifest in myriad ways. They can be verbal and non-verbal. They can be intentional, but sometimes they can be unintentional. Sometimes they can be a product of unconscious bias. And they are sometimes subtle in nature, making it all the more disorienting for those on the receiving end.

How pervasive are these for BIPOC people – even travel professionals like Ashford – as they navigate experiences in the travel industry?

According to Gloria Hobbins, a travel industry veteran and owner and president of New Jersey-based agency Global Village Travels Inc., facing microaggressions while traveling for work or on vacation is far from uncommon.

“I’ve traveled everywhere, and sometimes you think it’s your imagination,” Hobbins says. “But then you talk to someone else and they’ll tell you they’ve had the same experience. Honestly, as a black person, at some point you just can’t get bogged down in it every time because it happens so often.

Hobbins has found that restaurants are a particularly sore spot when it comes to the potential for microaggressive behavior.

To prove this to a friend who is white, Hobbins recently conducted an experiment. When the two met for lunch at a restaurant that was far from full, Hobbins asked the friend to come in and claim a table first while Hobbins waited outside. The friend was seated at a first-class table.

Hobbins followed three minutes later, spoke to the host and also asked for a table. She ended up sitting in the back of the restaurant, by the swinging kitchen doors.

“I don’t know that the maître d’or deliberately did that.” [intentionally], but that’s the problem, microaggressions can be subconscious,” says Hobbins. “So what I do now in restaurants is I say, very calmly, ‘I don’t want to sit near the kitchen or the bathroom.’ And the staff can look very puzzled when I say that, but that usually [ensures that I] I end up getting a good seat.”

Mary Phillips, owner of Ohio-based Phillips Travel, similarly found herself having to find ways to minimize the potential for microaggressions, sometimes on behalf of her clients of color.

She cited a recent incident involving a black customer who was issued a transfer voucher from the airport to his resort in Jamaica, which was expected to be presented at the accommodation upon arrival. However, the transport company mistakenly took the voucher, leaving the customer without this document at check-in.

“In short, they absolutely wouldn’t let him sign up,” Phillips says. “But I knew for a fact that they already had his name on their list. And he had a passport with his name on it. I ended up having to fax them another voucher, but that seemed ridiculous.’

After that situation, Phillips started making sure all her customers travel with two sets of such documents.

“Even though you know the actual problem was probably the color of his skin, you still try to adjust your approach so that something like this can never happen again,” Phillips says.

Phillips also found that some hotels and resorts may initially take complaints made by black customers less seriously than those made by non-black customers.

When a black customer reported to Phillips that his room at the resort was dirty, missing toilet paper and appeared to have a mold problem, the hotel did nothing to address the problem until Phillips escalated the complaint to management.

“I was very upset,” Phillips says. “I said, ‘If I have to come alone, I will.’ And only after that they moved him to a much better room.”

Both Phillips and Hobbins strongly encourage their customers of color to contact them or speak to a manager if something on their trips feels “not right.”

“I always tell my clients that if they encounter something, say something and just talk to the person in charge,” says Hobbins.

“I tell my clients if they come across [bias]just talk to the person in charge’

Even black business travelers attending professional industry-related events may find themselves singled out. During the recent Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS), a hired security guard challenged the credentials of a black attendee by letting his white colleagues pass without more than a glance.

ALIS is produced by Travel Weekly’s parent company Northstar Travel Group, and when Northstar was notified, in addition to meeting with the delegate and apologizing, it took steps to reduce the chance of such an incident happening again: it terminated its security relationship company that hired the security and will ensure that event performers in all of its conference areas are trained to minimize the likelihood of another such incident.

However, how restaurants, hotels, airlines and other travel providers respond to complaints about microaggressions can vary widely.

Heather Dalmage, professor of sociology and director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University in Chicago, has done extensive research on racism and racial confrontation in the travel industry, with a special focus on the treatment of interracial couples and multiracial families.

As part of a 2018 digital analysis of online review platform Tripadvisor, Dalmage found that tour operators and companies often respond to racist complaints in a highly defensive manner, which Dalmage claims “ultimately negates racism altogether.”

“Research shows that negative reviews affect businesses, so it’s in their best interest to respond,” says Dalmage. “But it was a rare case where a business just said, ‘Thank you for pointing this out.’ We’ll do better. Instead, there were responses at the other end of the spectrum, such as “How dare you call us racist; we have a black nephew” or “I remember your family, you were very noticeable. This is how you behaved in our establishment.

“They don’t address it effectively online, and it’s an insight into what’s happening in the real world,” Dalmage adds.

Amid efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion across the board, however, some travel and hospitality companies are looking to better address microaggressions and unconscious bias.

Marriott International, for example, has implemented a variety of training tools designed to combat microaggressions at both the corporate and property levels, including one called the Respect For All series. According to Apoorva Gandhi, Marriott’s senior vice president of multicultural affairs, social impact and business advisory, the Respect For All platform includes scenario-based videos that show different situations that could arise at the property and guide staff on how to respond best in an inclusive way.

“The videos highlight the fact that unconscious bias, microaggressions and things like that can affect service, so the first thing we do is build awareness and understanding of these topics,” Gandhi said. “We want people to feel like a part of them.”

“Microaggressions can affect service. We want people to feel like they belong

Of course, trying to eradicate microaggressive behavior becomes infinitely more complicated when approached from a global perspective.

However, Marriott has long invested in teaching what Gandhi describes as “cultural competence” in its international portfolio. In 2014, the company launched its Culture Day program, offering immersive learning experiences in eight different countries. In response to demand from individual properties and corporate clients, the initiative was expanded to cover additional destinations and cultures in 2018 and remains active today.

“Through our Culture Days program, which we’re very proud of, we’ve trained our teams on site about different client cultures,” explains Gandhi. “For example, in 2018 we went to Japan to showcase American culture. We fully understand that diversity, equality and inclusion look different around the world.”

According to Ashford, more travel and hospitality providers need to approach the problem of microaggressions as an “opportunity” for innovation, with robust employee training also a key part of the solution.

“Travel is about enjoyment, about luxury, about connecting with people and family and all those other wonderful things,” Ashford says. “Microaggressions negatively affect that. If companies can figure out how to minimize it, then it actually enhances the travel experience for all people, and especially for people of color.”

“So many industries operate with the lens that white people are more valuable than others”

However, Dalmage worries that material progress on the microaggression front may remain elusive unless the tourism industry can commit to making lasting fundamental changes.

“And it’s not just the tourism industry,” Dalmage adds. “The tourism industry sits among so many other industries that function with the lens that white people are more valuable than others. There is this assumption that white people deserve more. And solving the problem will require a reversal of an entire colonial history.

* This article originally appeared on Travel Weekly

https://www.phocuswire.com/addressing-microaggressions-in-travel

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