I grew up in a multicultural environment and
enjoy love learning about different cultural traditions; I work really hard not to buy into cultural stereotypes; and I have this crazy thing about being every culture that walks the planet (especially when traveling)…just for a little while anyway. But hey, When in Rome…, right? *Grin*
Because I have such a healthy imagination, as a child I always pretended I was not only a violin-playing-ballerina-mermaid-princess-in-the-circus (I know, I know), but every culture I ever laid eyes on. And of course, in my own fantasy world I spoke every world language fluently (including mermaid-ese) which, when I look back on it, might explain why I took Spanish and French simultaneously.
From the time I was a tween, my more realistic goals included visions of being a language translator and adopting children from every cultural background à la Josephine Baker or in today’s headlines, The Jolie-Pitts. But instead, my life path took me down another road. Today, in addition to writing, retailing and traveling, I own and operate a travel & learning adventure program for girls. It is my life’s work. (Still shooting for the mermaid fantasy, though. *Wink*)
All of my travel camp programs take place at waterfront locations (Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Martha’s Vineyard, Lake Tahoe, Lakes Shasta, etc.) and include a cultural appreciation component. In addition, I teach girls to travel independently of their parents (which includes, in some cases, each girl getting her very first passport) and I encourage social and environmental engagement while at camp. No video games, no cell phones, no lap tops, no parents. In short, my aim is to give girls a world view. And while I also aim to create a camp that accurately reflects the multicultural world we live in, my outreach is primarily with girls of color. The underserved, if you will. Which leads me to this…
In 2010, my Spring travel camp of 10 Brown Girls – CampCaribe – went to the US Virgin Islands for 11 days of fun and learning. The girls swam, sailed, snorkeled, parasailed, hiked and had an all around good time in a luxury camping environment on the island of St. John. With “CampCaribe” emblazoned across the front of our orange sherbert-colored sweatshirts, a man at the airport took one look my group of traveling Brown Girls and asked me if they were “some sort of basketball team.” Not one to take the bait of the ignorant, I simply replied “What makes you ask?” Yuk.
Likewise, once we got to the campground, a group of 4 teachers asked my husband one evening if the girls were “at-risk.” You’re kidding me, right? A soft-spoken man, my husband remained calm but was very upset and simply answered no. Yes, he understood the question; but no, he simply didn’t understand the how could they? of it all. Before camp was over, however, those women knighted me an honorary teacher and donated the rest of their dry oatmeal packets to the girls before they left (which I ultimately threw away). To be frank, I think they were the ones that got schooled (pun intended) that week….but I schooled them with kindness.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2011. Naturally, I have had time to forget and ultimately ignore The Rude & Ignorant Questions of 2010. But alas, I was reminded. Just like last year, my staff took my well-behaved articulate (sorry, I just had to say it) middle class A and B students back to St. John for CampCaribe 2011. Not one to dwell on the past or go through life with a chip on my shoulder, I didn’t even consider more of the same. (How naive I am sometimes.) This time, it was a jitney driver that asked my husband - upon seeing my fabulous group of Brown Girls come toward him. “Are these girls at-risk?” Grrrrrrrrr. Maybe it’s better that I wasn’t there after all.
“What makes you ask?” has become the title of an unfinished chapter in OBG Adventure Camps’ employee handbook. And while it’s easier to get defensive, irritated and just plain mad, I have instructed and reminded both my staff, my husband and myself to use this travel and learning adventure program for girls as a learning opportunity for outsiders as well. To refuse to answer questions like “Are these girls at-risk?” or “Is this a basketball team?” and instead insist that the person asking the question re-phrase it by turning the tables on them using the pleasant reply: “What makes you ask?” Typically, the next (and most appropriate) question becomes “What type of group is this?” Now that I can answer.
I admit that I resent having to create a chapter in my staff handbook that is a response to ignorance and just plan rude folks. I resent that people have the nerve to look at a group of Brown children and assume that they are at-risk. (Shoot, aren’t we all?) I also resent that a female boat captain told me she believed that Black people can’t swim (but that’s another story entirely). The truth is, I resent that I even have to write this post.
But you know what? I like surprising people and I like teaching moments. And I understand why most people might be curious about a group of Brown Girl traveling together and hanging out in a high end destination. All you have to do is look around any airport and see that us Brown folks don’t make up the bulk of the folks on airplanes. But I like being slippery with my responses and eloquently articulating (yeah, I said it) that I own and operate the only travel camp of its kind in the nation. I like being a Brown Girl Culturalista, being good at what I do and being brave enough to stand up to ignorance…nicely. But no, I am not on a doggone basketball team.
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born to be brave.
~ Lady GaGa / Born This Way