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 top airline in question.
Sometimes it happens at the gate, when Ashford, who is Black, lines up to be among the first to board the plane.
“There have been a few times when people have cut me off or stopped me, saying, ‘Hey, they just called first class,'” says Ashford, a former president of Holland America Line and current chairman of Azamara. “And the assumption is, ‘It can’t be you. So let me wait in front of you,’ or ‘Why are you moving to the front of the line?’
Even just standing outside a hotel can occasionally lead to an unpleasant interaction.
“There have been many times when I’ve been standing in front of a building or a hotel, and people have assumed I was the butler,” says Ashford. “They drive up, throw me their keys and drive away.”
While such incidents generally do not escalate into a more overt racial confrontation, they remain thoroughly demeaning. Ashford characterizes them as clear microaggressions.
“I feel like I’ve earned all these benefits, but when I try to enjoy that benefit 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 mad. or sad,” he says. “And it’s certainly not the goal that gives me that status. Microaggressions become things that really take away from the whole experience.”
“Microaggressions really hurt the whole travel experience”
Insidious racial microaggressions can manifest in a myriad of ways. They can be verbal or non-verbal. They can be intentional, but sometimes they can be unintentional. They can occasionally be the product of unconscious bias. And they are, at times, subtle in nature, making it all the more disorienting for those involved.
How prevalent are they for BIPOC individuals—even travel professionals like Ashford—as they go through travel industry experiences?
According to Gloria Hobbins, a travel industry veteran and owner and president of Global Village Travels Inc. based in New Jersey, dealing with microaggressions while traveling for work or on vacation is far from a rare encounter.
“I’ve traveled all over the place and sometimes you think it’s your imagination,” says Hobbins. “But then you talk to someone else and they’ll tell you they had the same experience. To be honest, as a person of color, at some point you just can’t be swept away by it every time because it happens so often.”
Hobbins has found that restaurants are a particular pain point when it comes to the potential for microaggressive behavior.
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To prove a point to a friend, who is white, Hobbins recently conducted an experiment. When the two met for lunch at a restaurant that wasn’t full, Hobbins asked his friend to go in and ask for a table first while Hobbins waited outside. The friend was sitting at a head 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, near the swinging kitchen doors.
“I don’t know that the maître d’ did this consciously [intentionally], but that’s the problem, that microaggressions can be subconscious,” says Hobbins. “So what I do now in restaurants is say, very calmly, ‘I don’t want to sit near the kitchen or the bathroom.’ And the staff might look really confused when I say it, but that usually is [ensures that I] you end up getting a good seat.”
Mary Phillips, owner of Ohio-based Phillips Travel, has similarly found she has to find ways to minimize the potential for microaggressions, sometimes on behalf of her black clients.
She cites a recent incident involving a black customer who was issued a voucher for his transfer from the airport to his resort in Jamaica, with that voucher expected to be presented at the property upon arrival. The shipping company, however, received the voucher by mistake, leaving the customer without that document at check-in.
“To make a long story short, they absolutely would not let it be controlled,” says Phillips. “But I knew for a fact that they already had his name on their list. And he had the passport with his name on it. I had to fax them another coupon, but I thought it was funny.”
Following this situation, Phillips began ensuring that all of her clients 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 something like this can never happen again,” says Phillips.
Phillips has 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 Phillips reported to a Black customer that his guest room was dirty, lacked toilet paper and appeared to have a mold problem, the property did nothing to fix the problem until Phillips escalated the complaint to management himself.
“I was so upset,” Phillips says. “I said, ‘If I have to go down there myself, I’ll go down there.’ And only after that they moved him to a much better room.”
Both Phillips and Hobbins highly encourage their black customers to contact them or speak to a manager if anything during their rides feels “off.”
“I always tell my clients that if they come across anything, 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 industry-related professional events can find themselves singled out. During the recent American Housing Investment Summit (ALIS) meeting, a contract security guard challenged the credentials of a black attendee while 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 severed its relationship with security. the company that employed the guard and will ensure that event contractors in all of its conference areas have had training to minimize the likelihood of another such incident.
However, how restaurants, hotels, airlines and other travel suppliers respond to complaints about microaggressions can vary widely.
Heather Dalmage, a 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 confrontations within the travel industry, with a particular focus on dealing with interracial couples and multiracial families.
As part of a 2018 digital analysis of online review platform Tripadvisor, Dalmage found that travel operators and companies often respond to racial complaints in a very defensive manner, which Dalmage claims “ultimately negates racism entirely”.
“Research shows that negative reviews affect a business, so it’s in their best interest to respond,” says Dalmage. “But it was a rare occasion when a business simply said, ‘Thanks for pointing this out. We will 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 grandson, or “I remember your family, you were very visible. That’s how you behaved at our center.’
“They’re not addressing it effectively online, and that’s a reflection of what’s happening in the real world,” Dalmage adds.
Amid efforts to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across the board, however, some travel and hospitality companies are aiming to better address microaggressions and unconscious bias.
Marriott International, for example, has deployed a series 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 occur at the property and provide staff with guidance on how to respond. better in a comprehensive 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 they belong.”
‘Microaggressions can affect service. We want people to feel like they belong’
Of course, trying to eliminate microaggressive behavior becomes infinitely more complex when we approach it from a global perspective.
However, Marriott has long made investments in learning what Gandhi describes as “cultural competence” across its international portfolio. In 2014, the company launched its Culture Day program, offering immersive training experiences in eight different locations. 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 educated our property teams on different client cultures,” explains Gandhi. “For example, in 2018 we went to Japan to introduce American culture. We absolutely understand that diversity, equality and inclusion look different around the globe.”
According to Ashford, more travel and hospitality suppliers need to approach the issue of microaggressions as “an opportunity” for innovation, with robust employee training also a key part of the solution.
“Travel is about pleasure, about luxury, about connecting with people and family and all these other wonderful things,” says Ashford. “Microaggression has a negative impact. If companies can figure out how to minimize that, then it actually enhances the travel experience for all people, and especially people of color.”
“So many industries operate with a lens that white people are more valuable than others”
Dalmage, however, worries that material progress on the microaggression front may remain elusive unless the travel industry can commit to making lasting fundamental changes.
“And it’s not just the travel industry,” Dalmage adds. “The travel industry is among many other industries that operate with a lens that white people are more valuable than others. There is this assumption that white people deserve more. And to resolve the issue will require a reversal of an entire colonial history.”
* This article originally appeared in Travel Weekly