Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast

Social Identities Abroad - Sojourner White

March 12, 2021 FulbrightD&I Season 1 Episode 10
Social Identities Abroad - Sojourner White
Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
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Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast
Social Identities Abroad - Sojourner White
Mar 12, 2021 Season 1 Episode 10

Traveling social worker Sojourner White and Susanne Hamscha, EUR Regional Diversity Coordinator, talk about unpacking and navigating one's social identities abroad, reflecting on discrimination and privilege, and translating experience into action. Sojourner is the founder and creator of Sojournies, a travel education platform. She was a Fulbright ETA in Spain in 2016-17.

Show Notes Transcript

Traveling social worker Sojourner White and Susanne Hamscha, EUR Regional Diversity Coordinator, talk about unpacking and navigating one's social identities abroad, reflecting on discrimination and privilege, and translating experience into action. Sojourner is the founder and creator of Sojournies, a travel education platform. She was a Fulbright ETA in Spain in 2016-17.

Susanne Hamscha  0:05 
The Fulbright Program's basic premise is that cultural and educational exchange - experiencing the world through someone else's eyes and looking at one's own cultural background from a different vantage point - will foster mutual understanding and contribute to a more peaceful world. Educational and cultural exchange enhances our capacity for empathy, challenges our perception, and expands the boundaries of what we know, or what we think we know, about this world.

This is another episode of Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast and I'm Susanne Hamscha, the Regional Diversity Coordinator for Fulbright in Europe and Eurasia.

Expanding the boundaries of our knowledge, perceptions and capacity for empathy is also the basic premise of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work. Those of us who have a professional background in this field will likely agree that the capacity to empathize with someone else's experience is the key prerequisite for building a more inclusive, more accessible world. But how do we process and unpack the complexity of social identities? And how do we translate individual or collective awareness into meaningful action and social change?

This year, the Fulbright Program celebrates its 75th anniversary. And so this is a good moment to reflect on the mission of the program, which is such an essential component of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work as well. We will reflect on the complexity of social identities and talk about how experiences of traveling and living abroad can lead to a deeper understanding of equity and access issues with my guest Sojourner White. Sojourner is a transdisciplinary social worker, travel writer, and digital storyteller, and an alumna of the Spanish Fulbright Commission. She is the founder of Sojournies, a platform through which she curates travel education and inspiration for millennial travelers to see the world as they chase their career dreams.

Sojourner, thank you for being here today. We always start off with my guests introducing themselves and sharing a bit about their background. And so I would like to ask you what you would like our listeners to know about you.

Sojourner White  2:06 
So first off, thank you for having me, I'm excited to talk to you. My name is Sojourner. I'm originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is where I'm currently living and we're surrounded by snow right now. But aside from all of the professional things I love to read, bake - chocolate chip cookies are my specialty - hang out with my family, I'm one of seven siblings and fall right in the middle. So I have a big family. And of course binge Netflix like everyone else. But my favorite thing to do is probably sleep. I'm a big supporter of resting. So winter is a great hibernation time.

Susanne Hamscha  2:43 
I'm a big proponent of resting as well.

But let's talk about your professional background: You call yourself a traveling social worker on your website, which is something that I personally find very intriguing because travel and social work are hardly ever mentioned together in one sentence or in one phrase. So I'd be interested in learning more about how your background in social work informs your travel experience.

Sojourner White  3:12 
Yeah, it's definitely an uncommon combination. And initially, it was because I'm a social worker who loves to travel and I have worked internationally. But later I realized that the questions that arose for me, as I traveled, often were about, like, the social, economic and political environments of the places that I was in, as well as, you know, where to actually eat, what I should see, and what I should do, a lot of that is linked to the history of a destination. And so those are all the things that also align with social work and kind of how I've used social work not necessarily as just a professional experience, but I kind of carry those values when I go to someone else's country. And so I'm very intentional by saying I'm a traveling social worker, because I don't think I ever really shut my social work brain off at this point.

Susanne Hamscha  3:57 
And just as a follow up, how is traveling all these different countries shaped and changed how you see social work? What has been your most impactful travel experience that has inspired or challenged you the most as a social work professional?

Sojourner White  4:12 
So naturally, I'm a introspective person, I love to journal I love to reflect. And I think both traveling and social work amplified that. And I think for me understanding how tourism is both helpful and harmful, in some ways continues to challenge me, especially as someone who talks about tourism, who promotes tourism. And so I think about the issues that I care about at home about valuing community and supporting local businesses. And so I think just the whole idea of traveling even when I go to different destinations, whether I'm in Costa Rica with my friends for spring break, or when I was living in Spain through Fulbright, understanding, you know, I'm a guest in someone else's country. And so how would I want someone to treat my hometown, as they are guests in my community.

And so it always challenges me to go beyond what I may see on the internet, go beyond what I may find on social media and find ways to connect on a personal level because that's what social work is. It's about having those relationships and dignifying you know who you are with people you interact with.

Susanne Hamscha  5:28 
So many people who held a Fulbright grant, when they look back, they describe their time abroad as a transformational experience. And I guess for many people living, studying, or working abroad is a transformational experience. But it can be extremely tough and challenging at the same time to navigate a different cultural context, particularly, I guess, if you belong to a marginalized or underrepresented community. But it is very often - for better or worse - an experience that also prompts you to reflect on who you are, on the different discourses that produce you as a subject. So how can we unpack our social identities, the complexity of our identities, while traveling or living abroad? Could you walk us through this process of unpacking one's social identity?

Sojourner White  6:21 
Yes, so I think it's really important to understand our positionality, our own social location and where we are in relation to the actual world. And so one of the best ways to do that is to write it down. I know it may sound a little tedious. But there is one thing we've done in social work, and I've done it personally multiple times, where I write down Okay, what is my race, like, I know I'm black. But sometimes when you write stuff down on paper, you can contextualize what that looks like what that sounds like to you. So I write down, you know, your race, your ethnicity, your nationality, your citizenship, your gender identity, your ability status, or sexual orientation, you can write all of those categories or labels that we attribute to ourselves, write them down. And then once you do that, you could be able to see, okay, how does this impact where I am. And so for example, when I did it, I know like, as a black woman, I've always known that, but there's what I realized, in my travels, for example, when I was solo, traveling through Europe, I was interning Berlin, I went to Amsterdam, London, and I intentionally wanted to meet other black women and those destinations. They didn't have to be Dutch, didn't have to be British, you know, I wanted to meet other black woman and connect with them. Because that is what is important to me. It's understanding, you know, the diaspora. It's understanding what people who look like me are doing or what they're facing in other destinations.

And so once you write it down, and kind of have an idea of who you are in these categories that we don't necessarily create for ourselves, I think you can see the broader scope and think about I'm someone that lives with a disability, how does that show up in way I travel? Do I think about if I have to get elevator assistance? Do I have to think about it for, like, body size, like I'm an average built person, but a lot of airplanes are really small. So I don't have to think about those things as I'm traveling, but I don't think I would have fully understood that. Had I not written them down and said, Okay, how like, how is all of this showing up for me? So that's one way you can start. And then from there, it can contextualize your experiences.

Susanne Hamscha  8:34 
Would you say, though, that depending on the context, and obviously the spaces you're in and moving through, certain aspects of your identity will be in the foreground, or, you know, you are more aware of certain aspects of your identity in a specific situation, while other aspects recede into the backgroun?. So I guess is your self perception contextual as well?

Sojourner White  9:03 
Absolutely. I think for me, for example, in the United States, being black and being a woman, you're considered a double minority. But then when I go abroad, I'm still a black woman. But I find that my US American privilege, which is linked to my passport privilege, and also the currency that I have using US dollars, especially in countries in the Global South is more magnified. Because I'm able to go from place to place without worrying about a visa, I'm able to use US dollars and that has a better conversion rate in countries in the Global South due to GDP and all of the other social, economic, and political factors that go into currency. And I'm not an economics person, but there's a lot there. And so I think about all of that and how well yes, I'm still a black woman, I'm also conscious of these other privileged identities that I may not really face or really not fully contextualize when I'm in the US. And so it doesn't necessarily change, just some are more amplified when you go abroad. And it's good to know how those are impacting our experiences.

Susanne Hamscha  10:11 
You just mentioned privilege and obviously living abroad, but perhaps traveling even more so, also encourages us to reflect on privilege. Traveling in itself, I think, implies privilege because you're moving from A to B for pleasure, or at least voluntarily, as opposed to being forced to move for various reasons. And if we think about who can travel, who has a passport, who has the right passport, who has access to transportation, etc, what are some of the privileges you have reflected on, or that you continue to reflect on with regard to traveling?

Sojourner White  10:45 
Yes, so I think the more I travel, the more I realized there are so many privileges that I was not privy to, in prior travel experiences. So one, when it comes to sexual orientation, being someone who is heterosexual, I think about the privilege in that and that if I had a partner, I would be able to move freely, for the most part, and express, you know, public displays of affection and whatnot in a lot of countries, but people who are not heterosexual do not have that privilege. So that's one that I'm really conscious of, because it's illegal to be a part of the LGBTQI community, many communities around the world, that's something I'm really conscious of.

One, another one that I think about - not as much - is religion, and how that plays a role in my experiences. As someone who grew up - my mother's a minister, and so I grew up in the church, I grew up around Christianity and being a Lutheran. And while that's not something I necessarily am super devout to now I'm, when I go to other destinations, I'm very conscious of that, and what religious affiliation is in a country, because I think that's something I didn't think about in the United States, because I was in the silo due to my own upbringing. And so going abroad, I'm really conscious of learning about the different religions and other countries as well. And then again, currency privilege when it comes to money. Talk about travel being a privilege: money. We live in capitalism, so you needed to go around. And so I'm also conscious of where my, where my dollar or how my dollar is perceived by people. I know I've been to the destinations, where I could get away with using US dollars, which felt icky, because it's not even the country's currency. So I'm conscious of what does that mean, what I don't have to worry about currency conversions as much as other people who travel as well.

Susanne Hamscha  12:43 
So you spent your Fulbright in Spain, and I would be interested in learning more about how you navigated your identity in Spain and how you experienced privilege and discrimination while you were on your grant.

Sojourner White  12:57 
Yes, I think, being in Fulbright, and I was in Logroño, which is not a touristy place in Spain, which I think also played into my experience. But... I... from what I have, from my knowledge, from what my students told me back in 2016-2017, is that I was the first black teacher they had had before, and so that was like a little layer of pressure just because I didn't think about that, honestly, when I initially applied. I knew it could have been a possibility, but it's one of those things I didn't really let myself think about as much. So I didn't take that lightly. And it definitely... I took the US cultural ambassador part of our Fulbright title a little seriously as well. So when students were asking me about, you know, what, like, what do you call your hair, because my hair was not the hair they were seeing in, in their textbooks. And so I incorporated that into my lessons, I talked about adjectives teaching English, I incorporate it, you know, these are called twists, then we have braids, and we have head scarves, and other parts of my identity I allow to show up into the space. And as an educator, I felt like I was doing what I thought was best.

And that definitely shaped how I interact with people when I travel as well. And it was a great experience. I thankfully didn't experience a whole lot of discrimination when I was living in Spain. I know people were definitely surprised when I spoke English because I am black. And so that was of experience that I didn't understand at first because I was also getting called, like, Beyoncé. So I knew people knew there were black people in the United States, but in the media, we're not as represented when it comes to US media that is being broadcast abroad. So it was... when it comes to my racial identity, I kind of had those nuances and those different experiences of you know, what does it mean to be black, to be a Fulbrighter, and also to be the first black person, a lot of people interacted with as well.

Susanne Hamscha  15:03 
So Sojourner, from your perspective, as a professional social worker, can I ask, and I'm gonna put you on the spot here, would you say, can we take the experiences we make abroad and translate them into social change in our communities? In the places we live in the institutions we work, and in other spaces that we move through?

Sojourner White  15:26 
Yes, I think there are a few things. One of them is that you don't have to travel to meet people of different backgrounds of you. I think that's something I tell people all the time, like, I want to go abroad so I can meet people of different backgrounds, but there are people with different backgrounds at home as well. And so you can have an intercultural experience at home and you can, you can value our differences and workspaces, especially as a black woman. The questions people ask sometimes in work spaces I've been in haven't always been the most culturally appropriate. And so I think practicing at home is great practice to go abroad. Another thing I think, when I go abroad, I always talk, or I tried to support local communities and local businesses, you can do that at home, as well, there are people especially now we're in the pandemic, who are who are struggling until they're making their own businesses, so finding ways to support your own community back home, because that will translate  to how you move abroad. And then I think a third thing is we have to understand our own positionality. At home before we can jump into someone else's culture, I think in social work, we always talk about, you know, we shouldn't be asking people, or we should people what they need, and not just assume that we know best. And that is the same thing I think we should do abroad too. And just broaden our our perspective, because the world is a lot bigger. I'm currently based in the US. And a lot of the times it's us, us, us, but we are all connected. And so looking at different forms of media, expanding what news you watch, getting to know what's going on outside of the US in particular, just because there is that disconnect between, there's domestic issues, international issues, but really, they're all connected. We're all striving for the same things, the same values. And I think once we realize that, we need collective action, and we need to work together. Whether that's uniting via social media, or finding ways to support people abroad, then we can kind of push forward and have the social impact and social change a lot of people want to see.

Susanne Hamscha  17:50 
Yeah, thank you. And you know, still sometimes when you're abroad, but I guess also when you're at home, you find yourself in situations that are hurtful, or, you know, you experience microaggressions, you experienced harassment, you experienced discrimination. And then it's difficult sometimes to take a step back and take a deep breath and think about, like, really think about how you want to respond in this specific situation. So I guess my question is, are there techniques we can learn for how to respond in such situations? Do you have any advice or suggestions or best practices that have worked well for you in such situations?

Sojourner White  18:27 
First, I think if you need to rest, you need to rest. I started the podcast saying that I love to sleep, I believe rest is one of the best forms of resistance, and you cannot show up for anyone else before you show up for yourself. So I think that's important. And then something I learned from my mom, actually, is that anytime she's handling an intense situation, she always counts to 10, which sounds ridiculous until I did it. And then when I was in a situation where I needed to take a breath, I literally counted to 10 in my head to figure out how I wanted to respond. It's a very simple strategy. I think it takes more practice, because sometimes you have those knee jerk reactions, and sometimes you can't control how you react. I know there have been times when I've been traveling, people wanted to touch my hair, and I just kind of froze, because you just don't know what you what you want what you're supposed to do. But I think taking a deep breath, really thinking about what you want to say how you want to move is important that 10 second rule has saved me a lot, especially I think in a time where people are really at home sitting with themselves and everything's a little more reactive than it normally would be because we're not on the go. So just taking a step back even for again 10 seconds and reevaluating what you want to say is, can be a great strategy to do.

Susanne Hamscha  19:44 
Thank you. It's been so great talking to you and learning from you, Sojourner. You know, we've been talking a lot about the impact traveling and living abroad have on one's life. And I'd like to close this by asking you what the impact is that you want to have on other people's lives. What do you want other people to take away from what you do?

Sojourner White
I think I want people to understand that when you talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, or any of these kinds of issues, like it's messy, and it's not simple, and it's complex, and it's gonna take a lot of time to unpack what all of this means, but we have to try, we have to stay curious. Because if we don't, then we'll get stuck with the status quo, or just do something because someone told us that's the way it's supposed to be done. I want us to continue to ask questions, even though I know I'm all the way through grad school at this point, I never stopped learning and, and that is something I want people to take away as well. We don't know everything. I think I know something, and then I learn a different perspective, a different identity, and now I have to go reevaluate. And so I think I want people to know that this work is continuous, it's not necessarily going to stop, you can rest but just know that the work is is never fully over because we don't live in a world that is fully equitable for everyone. And it can feel like a lot to take away but doing it piece by piece, having others on your journey with you because we also can't do it alone. And just know that the answer is very rarely yes or no, or it's right or wrong. It's more of a yes and. Like, Yes, that's true. And also all these other truths are true as well.

Susanne Hamscha  21:37  
Today's episode took us back to the basics of the Fulbright Program. Being abroad prompts us to reflect on our positionality and the complexity of our social identity. Being abroad challenges us to think about our privileges and teaches us how to respond to discrimination. The experiences we make while living, studying or working abroad, let us grow as individuals and may have an effect on how we engage with our communities back home once we return. We never stop learning about ourselves and about this world. So it's important to stay curious and to keep asking questions while we are on our journey. This was another episode of Fulbright Forward - A Diversity Podcast. Stay safe and please join us again next time.