Why does American travel writing erase Black people?

Travel writing has long gone hand-in-hand with Western imperialism, and some of its tropes remain in guidebooks today.

Car in front of Eiffel tower in Paris on sunny day
A car of the Paris company 2CVParisTour.com is seen parked in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France [File: Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

As Black Lives Matter protests spread to Europe in early June, Rick Steves, the US’s most popular European guidebook author, shared a picture in solidarity on Instagram. It was Eugene Delacroix’s 1830 epic, Liberty Leading the People. The image linked to his blog, where he had penned one of his Daily Dose of Europe entries celebrating the Delacroix masterwork and explaining how it depicted the popular protests of the July 1830 revolution that dethroned France’s Charles X.

Beyond the questionable judgement of posting an image of white people by a white person, he left out two crucial pieces of context. First, just weeks before the revolution in question, France had invaded Algeria and begun a violent (and deeply racist) 132-year colonisation. And second, Delacroix was on his way to becoming one of the leading Orientalist painters. Two years after completing Liberty Leading the People, he joined a diplomatic mission to North Africa and produced a series of famous works that helped feed the popular image of Black and Brown people as strange, lazy, deviant and uncivilised. Perhaps Steves could have chosen a less appropriate image, but he would have really had to try.

Travel writing and Western imperialism

It was in keeping with a general pattern of guidebook writers glossing over Europe’s colonial past and erasing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) from the European story. Travel writing has long gone hand-in-hand with Western imperialism, and it is surprising how many tropes of the colonial era remain in guidebooks today.

While most historians now see the story of empire as tightly interwoven with the story of Europe – you cannot imagine, for example, the history of World War I without the involvement of millions of soldiers and workers from India, North Africa, Senegal and Southeast Asia – the opposite is true for guidebook authors, who depict colonisation as something that happened “over there” but ended a long time ago. They tend to minimise the connection between yesterday’s imperialism and today’s social problems. Read some of them, and you would not even know Europe had any social problems and certainly not any issues related to race.

Travel writing itself is thousands of years old, with examples from virtually every culture. We find elements of the traveller’s encounter with “the other” in works as disparate as the Iliad, the Malian epic Sundiata and Ibn Battuta’s Rihla. But the late 19th-century explosion in the genre’s popularity was intimately linked to the expansion of European imperialism. Travel writers like Gertrude Bell, Edward Lane and Gerard de Nerval made far-flung places and Black and Brown people seem both exotic and intimate. That approachability demonstrated how the projection of imperial power could help travellers feel safe in “uncivilised cultures”. At its worst, the travel writing of the 19th century racialised and infantilised non-Europeans. At its best, it suggested a decent hotel in Damascus.

If travel writing in some ways paved the way for European colonisation or at least its popular acceptance, one of the long-term impacts of colonisation was to make Europe itself far more diverse. Non-white migrants from across the empires came to the metropole as students, workers, soldiers and spouses. But they were rarely afforded the rights and privileges enjoyed by native Europeans. These had to be fought for; they are still being fought for today in movements similar and parallel to Black Lives Matter.

The history of discrimination and disenfranchisement of BIPOC in Europe does not mirror that of the US, but it is no less central, and it should be no less obvious to even a casual student of European society. In other words, well-travelled guidebook authors have to consciously exclude it.

Shades of European whiteness

So, are the various shades of European whiteness simply what sells to tourists? Guidebooks may be about other places, but they are principally about the expectations of the home country audience. They reflect our expectations and desires as much as the lived reality of the destination. Americans’ disinterest in thinking critically about our own imperial ventures may be part of it too.

In this sense, it is hardly surprising that guidebooks avoid addressing social issues head-on. No one goes to France to learn about how labour strikes work, and no successful publication would devote as much attention to Paris’s poor (and diverse) eastern suburbs as it did to the Latin Quarter. But is it too much to ask guidebooks to include concise and accurate descriptions of European empire and to include some of the contributions diverse groups have made to European society? Are these not a central part of the European story?

Tourists stroll along the Sant’Angelo bridge leading up to Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, during a sunny day in Rome [File: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini]

If virtually all guidebooks are guilty of these erasures, what sets the bar a bit higher for Steves is his insistence that his methods of travel are a way of understanding one’s self and one’s own society better. In his 2003 book, Travel as a Political Act (since reissued), he argues somewhat persuasively that we travel to find difference, to understand it and to use some of what we learn in our own society. It is as trite as a fortune cookie, but it is still compelling, which makes it all the more surprising how Steves, in particular, writes BIPOC experiences out of the story of Europe.

For decades, Steves – who declined to be interviewed – has peddled a clear vision of European tourism. He tries to steer readers away from tourist traps towards locally run hotels and restaurants and to cities and towns that had long been off the beaten path. He shows concern for sustainability, although his promotion of places like Cinque Terre in Italy has helped make them some of the most crowded destinations in Europe. His archetypal reader probably backpacked around the European hostel circuit a few decades ago, is ready to upgrade, but wants something more authentic than package tours and bland exurban hotel buffets. It is a noble cause.

Shaping how Americans view Europe

Steves has tremendous power in shaping how Americans view Europe. He has never been afraid to speak out on causes he believes in – most famously, he is an outspoken advocate of legalising marijuana – and he gives generously to social justice causes. His audience undoubtedly skews left, but his travel politics are hardly radical. Even Travel as a Political Act is more Sesame Street than Occupy Wall Street. Its main thesis is that we can learn lessons from other societies that function differently from our own. His show, Rick Steves’ Europe, has been a PBS mainstay for 20 years, often run during pledge weeks to draw bigger audiences. Lonely Planet might sell more books but, across platforms, Steves is the single biggest voice in American travel to Europe.

Steves has a responsibility to be more honest and inclusive in his depictions of Europe, both past and present. I am not arguing that Steves should not, for example, gush about the Louvre just because it does not equally represent Black and Brown artists, or that he should not talk about the Escorial because much of its wealth came from the genocide and exploitation of Indigenous peoples, or that he cannot help you navigate how to order espresso in Italy.

But Rick Steves knows, or should know, better than to say things like that the 19th century was a time of “wealth, peace, and middle-class … values” in the British empire. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Indians killed in the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. His advice to “travellers of colour” is to “be careful not to over-attribute grumpiness to racism”. His interpretation of European history is not too far from whatever was taught in Western Civilisation courses in US high schools 50 years ago, softened a bit with the language of multiculturalism and open-mindedness.

Compared to other guidebooks like Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Rough Guide, Steves has always prided himself on his expertise in European history and art, and he writes about both well. He has a unique, engaging voice that helps a Titian, say, stand out from a thousand other Madonna paintings. In other words, he is knowledgeable. Too knowledgeable, actually, to unwittingly omit Europe’s various colonial ventures and their lasting impact on European demographics and culture.

A visitor uses her smartphone to take a photograph of Titian’s The Rape of Europa painting at a media preview of Titian: Love Desire Death exhibition at the National Gallery in London on March 12, 2020 [Simon Dawson/Reuters]

The examples are too numerous to name. In his France guidebook, you find only one mention of its modern empire but five of the Roman empire. There is only one mention of Algeria (in an entry on Charles de Gaulle), which France colonised in 1830 and where it stayed for 130 years. Millions of French citizens (and Italians and Spanish too) moved to Algeria, bought land confiscated from Algerians and made it their home. In 1962, when Algeria won its independence, they moved back (and not without considerable violence) to France, where millions of North and sub-Saharan Africans were already living as a result of France’s colonial rule.

Among the other conspicuous absences in his France book is the city of Marseille. That’s right – France’s second-largest and most obviously North African-influenced city does not have an entry. According to Steves, “Most tourists leave Marseille off their itinerary – it doesn’t fit their idea of the French Riviera or of Provence (and they’re right).” Note how he inverts the causal relationship between tourist itinerary and guidebook author as a way of deflecting blame: Marseille’s great, it is just the tourists who do not like it. For their part, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide all have substantial sections on it in their France guidebooks – Rough Guide describes it as having an “earthy magnetism”. Steves’ most recent book, a sort of greatest-hits compilation called For the Love of Europe, predictably mentions BIPOC just once in his entries on Western Europe, an observation about Somali migrants selling “street trinkets” that borders on condescension.

The most egregious omissions come in his survey of European history and art, Europe 101 (co-authored with longtime collaborator Gene Openshaw). Steves tries to head off criticism in the introduction. “Historians and scholars will be appalled at all the names and dates we’ve left out,” he writes, “but our goal is not to make you feel like you just ate an encyclopedia, but to explain clearly just what’s necessary to appreciate the Europe you’ll see in your travels.”

But the omissions and errors are not minor quibbles. The Ottoman Empire gets as much attention as the invention of the guillotine. A map of “Europe in 1550” that labels European states by name refers to all of North Africa as simply “Islam”; apparently the authors either found no states worth mentioning or wanted to give the impression of Islam looming on the continent’s margins. Never mind that, at the time, an Islamic power, the Ottomans, dominated much of the Mediterranean and controlled most of southeastern Europe. Finally, in both Europe 101 and For the Love of Europe, Jews hardly appear at all, except as victims of violence.

His other blog posts from recent months – many signalling his support of Black Lives Matter – are those of someone almost comically out-of-touch with the broader, transnational implications of the movement he claims to support. Hoping to bring Europe to would-be travellers quarantining at home, on June 15 he wrote a post about the bust of Nefertiti in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. He goes into gushing detail about the artistry of the bust before claiming that it has come to “represent the aspirations of the reunited German people”. True or not, one would imagine that a number of Egyptians feel that it represents the theft of their cultural heritage in the name of European civilisation. Steves does not mention that Egypt has formally asked for the bust to be returned. It continues an old Orientalist practice of including only ancient Egypt in the European story while excluding all other periods of Egyptian history.

The Nefertiti bust on display during a press preview of the exhibition ‘In The Light Of Amarna’ at the Neues Museum in Berlin in 2012 [Michael Sohn/Pool/Reuters]

Questioning the core myths of European greatness

Some guidebooks are showing signs of improving. The Lonely Planet series has made efforts to foreground the violence of European colonisation and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment across Western Europe. Lonely Planet writers are not more knowledgeable about contemporary racial politics in Europe, they are just more willing to discuss it. While not centring it, National Geographic offers a more frank assessment of racism and empire. Others, like Fodor’s, have not bothered. It may simply be that Europe’s whiteness is a selling point to the American audience – a middle-aged, relatively affluent audience situated somewhere slightly left of the political centre. After all, travel writing reflects the home culture more than it does the destination.

Steves has branched out of Europe with TV episodes on Iran and Egypt, and his love of travel in Central America is well documented. These exceptions only prove the rule: Steves seems very comfortable with other cultures, so long as they do not infringe upon a tidy definition of Europe. He maintains a strong, though slightly Orientalist, appreciation for Morocco, but views the millions of North Africans living in Europe today as unworthy of mention.

There remains a more sinister explanation, too. The defacing and removal of statues of some of the great white men of modern Europe – Churchill, Rhodes, Bismarck – have shown that the new popular, anti-racist movements are questioning the very core myths of European greatness. If we really begin to peel back the layers, we quickly see how much 19th-century European wealth was dependent on slave labour, even if the scope of slavery on the continent never reached the levels of the Americas. We see how the national heroes that helped liberate Europe in World War II had little problem slaughtering Black and Brown people in the name of empire. We see how liberty, equality, and fraternity are not always applied equally. Are guidebooks ready to grapple with this shift?

Workers remove the protective boards around a Winston Churchill statue in Westminster in London on June 17, 2020 [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Travel as a political act

My long appreciation of Steves’s enlightened normie approach to travel has meant that I too have been guilty of overlooking these erasures. But other writers prove that it is perfectly possible to love much of old Europe while confronting its problematic past and present.

Leah Pattem, freelance writer and founder of the Madrid No Frills site, uses her platform to profile classic, traditional Madrid bars in danger of falling victim to gentrification – and to highlight instances of racism against African and Arab migrants to the city. These things might at first seem at odds, but they are not. “I want to represent the real Madrid, the real stuff that matters about society,” she said over the phone, “People coming together, making a diverse, positive space.” Pattem is working to create a digital map of colonial monuments and memorials in Madrid as a way to expose how the former Spanish empire continues to shape society. In Paris, Kevi Donat launched Le Paris Noir, a walking tour company that focuses on Black history and culture in the city. He offers a “(de)colonial Louvre” tour that focuses on how BIPOC are portrayed in the museum’s masterpieces. In short, we can have it both ways.

What can be done? Author and political philosopher Rafia Zakaria recently called for a new, more expensive, most sustainable tourism that directly addressed the inherent power imbalances between “server and the served, the guide and the tourist”. What if this new tourism grappled with our most idealised places’ complicated, often problematic, past? With guidebook series issuing new editions every few years, there is no reason why authors cannot revise their narratives to include more accurate depictions of empire, race and diversity in Europe. Travel can be a political act, but not unless it pushes us to grapple with the ugly histories of our destinations and of our home.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.