“We Live in a Vertically Biased World”

By: Stefanie Benjamin, PhD for Tourism RESET

HRT-410 students with Brett Heising at the Downtown Hilton Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee.

HRT-410 students with Brett Heising at the Downtown Hilton Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Late December, I was making my annual drive to Miami, Florida to visit my family over winter break. It was on this arduous, boring, flat drive through Florida that I decided to try to wake myself up and re-listen to The Evolution of Accessible Travel podcast produced by SKIFT. During this podcast, I realized that this could be an incredible collaboration and partnership with my HRT 410-Strategic Management of Hospitality & Tourism students at the University of Tennessee … the wheels were turning my friends!

As an Assistant Professor in Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, this class serves as our senior capstone course unpacking marketing and managerial strategies of hospitality and tourism. With this specific course, I tend to focus on a student-driven project with some social equity or sustainability component drilled in. However, as any good professor sometimes does … may have waited a wee bit to organize and plan the official ‘final project.’ But, as Spiderman said …. with great procrastination comes great responsibility. He said that right?

brettapproved.com -  Accessibility Information on the Places You Want to Go

brettapproved.com - Accessibility Information on the Places You Want to Go

With Spiderman in mind, once back in Miami, I contacted brettapproved, a company founded by Brett Heising that helps people with disabilities (PWDs) travel more confidently through user generated data - think of Yelp but rating the accessibility and inclusivity of hospitality and tourism spaces for PWDs. Brett started the company in 2012 simply for wanting to shower on a business trip but not having access to a roll-in shower - even though it was promised by the hotel staff. His company disseminates information for PWDs to ‘travel more confidentially.’

I believe everyone regardless of any given disability or mobility challenge, deserves to travel — confidently
— Brett Heising

Fast forward to two months later on a rainy, cold, dreary February Sunday in eastern Tennessee. I got into my car excited, yet somewhat nervous, to meet Brett Heising at the Knoxville airport. As I was preparing my students for Brett’s visit, I realized that I was also anxious to meet Brett, as this was my first time interacting and escorting a person in a wheelchair for a sustained period of time. I was scared that I was going to screw up, say something offensive, or run into challenges with Knoxville’s hilly terrain or moderately accessible university campus … I didn’t know what to expect.

As I got closer to the terminal I texted, ‘out in front’ - as our Knoxville airport is quite small, I thought that this was no big deal. Not realizing my ignorance, Brett responded that he was picking up his luggage and kindly asked if I could come in and assist. This was my first aha moment … as Brett is someone who uses a wheelchair, the action of ‘meeting me outside’ with his luggage wasn’t as easy or accessible as for an able-bodied person. This first interaction was the beginning of understanding how PWDs potentially travel. After we successfully figured out how to load Brett’s wheelchair into my car, we were off to Adopo to discuss our working project for HRT-410 over pizza.

Over dinner, we shared similar popular culture references and our mutual love for The Big Lebowski abiding as The Dude does. His spirit and attitude was warm and inviting and our mutual passion for social equity was apparent - even though he identifies as a White, cisgendered, heterosexual man, the intersection of being a PWD shared similar biases and disadvantages as my identity as a woman in our society. We spoke about how PWDs earn 13.6% less than able-bodied people and are significantly more likely to lose a job, be unemployed, or refused the promotion or position. Compared with the Gender Pay Gap where women working full-time, year-round earn just 80 cents for every dollar that men earn - not to mention Women of Color earn less than White women. We shared our stories regarding discrimination and vowed to continue persisting as social equity fighters … even though it is challenging and filled with frustration, pain, depression, and disappointment.

Notice the person ... not the chair.
— Brett Heising

During Brett’s week in Knoxville, he visited our classroom and shared with the students his lived experiences, not specifically as a PWD, but as a human being wanting and deserving of respect and dignity - and access to a damn roll in shower! He focused on inspiring the students to put forth as much effort and passion as humanely possibly with everything they do and reiterated that, “we live in a vertically biased world.”

Brett Heising engaging with HRT-410 students on campus at The University of Tennessee.

Brett Heising engaging with HRT-410 students on campus at The University of Tennessee.

Brett’s visit was also coupled with a class site visit to his hotel at the Downtown Hilton to view what an accessible or ADA room looks like, how he views the property in terms of accessibility, and how we can be more aware of PWDs guests’ needs if our students will work in the industry. Part of this project is educating our students to become fully aware of PWDs expectations and needs when traveling so that they can share this knowledge with hotel front of house staff in Knoxville, our RHTM advisory board, and at the Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association (GHKA) monthly meeting in April. Additionally, our students will help generate reviews for Brett’s website, as part of their overall grade, consisting of tips to assist PWDs when visiting Knoxville. Hopefully, instilling the skills to be allies for PWDs can potentially encourage them to be advocates for social equity and seduce universal design within hospitality and tourism.

Myself, Brett, and Jill Thompson - Director of GHKA after Brett’s presentation to our Knoxville community.

Myself, Brett, and Jill Thompson - Director of GHKA after Brett’s presentation to our Knoxville community.

Brett’s visit to Knoxville ended appropriately … over a beer and margarita on a Wednesday evening on Gay Street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we successfully navigated the streets and curb cuts of Knoxville in the rain, facilitated great conversations with our students and community, and wrapped up any loose ends with the project and expectations we had for our students moving forward.

Brett’s visit to Knoxville taught me more than I was expecting … he mentioned early on during his visit for us to notice the person not the chair. Although he shared that the chair is essentially part of him … it isn’t only him. I teach my students that in order for us to move toward diversity and inclusion, we must actively and empathetically see and listen to people with different lived experiences. However, as my students continue to work on their presentations and projects, I wonder will this project have a lasting effect on them? Is this helping to foster change or an awareness around PWDs? Or is it just another project simply for a grade to graduate? Only time will tell …

Are you Black enough? Auto-ethnographical reflections on my trip to Ghana.

By, Alana Dillette for Tourism RESET

They say that travel transforms you, shifts your perspective and allows you to gain a greater appreciation for other cultures and ways of life.

If you’re lucky, travel may also bring you closer to yourself, to the core of who you uniquely are in this world. On my recent visit to Ghana, I was one of the lucky ones.

My trip to Ghana manifested over many years, but came together quite quickly after I interviewed the founder of Traveling Black for another research project last Spring. Currently, I am a tenure-track professor at San Diego State University researching issues related to diversity and inclusion in the travel sphere. More specifically – my work is focused on understanding the lived experiences of Black travelers around the world. When I learned about the influx of organizations catering towards travelers of color – I knew this was not only something I wanted to research, but also experience. With support from my department, and serendipitous timing, I was able to join a group trip Ghana with nine other African-Americans from around the United States in August, 2018. As all qualitative researchers know, a significant part of the research process is reflexivity and positionality. What follows are my musings of this experience as a researcher, and also a participant.

As I stepped off the plane onto African soil for the first time in many years, almost immediately, I felt a sense of home. The slightly humid morning winter air, Gospel music blaring from the airport speakers, colorful garments swaying in the wind, and a sea of Black faces rushing to help me with my bags; greeting us by saying “AKWAABA” which means “WELCOME” in their local language. The spirit of this nation was instantaneously evident as we were greeted by our local Ghanaian guide.

The colors of Ghana.

The colors of Ghana.

 Unlike any other trip I had taken in the past, this was a group trip organized by an American company based in Oakland, California called ‘Traveling Black’ – an organization dedicated to connecting the African Diaspora one experience at a time. This particular trip was called ‘Experience Ghana - Journey to a Real Life Wakanda’. I joined the group as both a participant and as a researcher, with the goal of studying the experiences of African-Americans travelling ‘back’ to Africa, a phenomenon also known as Roots Tourism.

As a group, we journeyed through Accra, Cape Coast and Kumasi with the intent of experiencing as much of Ghana as we could in just two weeks. Our experience was nothing short of transformational – from pulling in fish with the locals in a small village near Cape Coast, to exploring the horrific enslaved dungeons where many of our ancestors were kept before being shipped across the Atlantic to begin what would be a horrific story of slavery and human injustice; a difficult, but humbling history is ever present on this Gold Coast.

A stop roadside to help locals pull a large net of fish out of the water. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Traveling Black

A stop roadside to help locals pull a large net of fish out of the water. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Traveling Black

The Traveling Black group with local people in a small fishing village near Cape Coast. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Founder - Traveling Black

The Traveling Black group with local people in a small fishing village near Cape Coast. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Founder - Traveling Black

Okay now, let’s back up a little bit… and please, bare with me.

Growing up in The Bahamas in my household with my White Canadian Mother, Black Bahamian Father and two older brothers – this was my normal, and for many others I knew, this was their normal too. Race was rarely, if ever a topic in our house, at school, or amongst my friends.  

It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S., (Auburn, Alabama to be specific) at the age of 17 that I all of a sudden I became a ‘Black face’ in majority White spaces. I don’t think I consciously realized it then, but, as a person of color, mixed with half Black blood, living in the U.S., this automatically categorizes you as Black. Prior to this time, I’m not even sure I had ever consciously considered my racial identity before.

I was a Bahamian-Canadian girl, who loved the water and had much national pride for my home country, The Bahamas. That was it, that was me. Yes, like other places in the world, we colloquially used colors to describe people – ‘he’s dark skin and tall’, ‘she’s light skin with curly hair’ – but, it never felt like a big deal. People were who they were and that was that. This was the privilege of living in a majority Black nation that I did not yet realize I had.

Back to Ghana. Towards the end of the trip, we began to talk amongst each other about how this experience in Africa had impacted us all in different ways. Some spoke of feeling an even stronger connection to the continent, identifying now as African AND American, instead of African-American. Others felt a strengthened sense of responsibility to Black America, developing an even stronger sense of responsibility to Black lives.  

In the middle of the trip, others in the group realized that I was not ‘full’ Black, but a half-breed. All of a sudden, I was being questioned “well how do you feel about XYZ since your Mom is White?”, does it bother you when we say “White people?”, “what has your experience been like because your Mom is White?”. It felt intrusive, but I understood the curiosity.

An image of the group exploring Jamestown at sunset - a fishing village and one of the oldest settlements in Accra. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Founder - Traveling Black

An image of the group exploring Jamestown at sunset - a fishing village and one of the oldest settlements in Accra. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Founder - Traveling Black

All of a sudden I felt like an imposter in this space, but at the same time, I felt like I didn’t fit anywhere else. While I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt truly welcomed by the people there, I in fact, was not home, and I am not an African. I am not even African-American. I am a mixed race, White and Black, Bahamian and Canadian woman, living on the West Coast of the United States. There were moments where I questioned – “Should I even be here on this trip specifically targeted towards Black travelers?  Do I fit the demographic?”

“Am I Black enough?”

It’s interesting, race in America, in some instances (like this one), a shining light is put on it questioning your Blackness, and in others, as in the case of figures like Barack Obama and Meghan Markle – their (half) blackness is celebrated and revered amongst the Black community.

I realize that this story is not a unique one, and will become more and more common as time moves on. However, since returning, I’ve been able to spend some time reflecting on my identity crisis of double consciousness brought on by my trip to Ghana.

Group photo in Kumasi holding sign that says ‘This is what Traveling Black looks like’. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Founder - Traveling Black

Group photo in Kumasi holding sign that says ‘This is what Traveling Black looks like’. Photo credit: Kumi Rauf, Founder - Traveling Black

To be honest, I have not arrived at any answers in particular, other than, I cannot change either of my genetic halves, and I do not wish to. I have also realized that genetics determine only part of who I am, the other part, has been largely determined by my environment. By virtue of my living in the United States for my entire adult life, (in the South for many of those years) – my identification with the Black American experience is real and the history of my Black ancestors lives through me.

What I am clear on is that my personal and professional passions are to bring justice and equity to the lived experiences of marginalized people, and I am fortunate to have an outlet to shine a light on these voices, including my own.

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About the Author

Alana Dillette is an Assistant Professor at San Diego State University. Originally from the islands of The Bahamas, she is always trying to maintain her connection to home through research. Her research interests include issues around diversity and inclusion, more specifically looking at the intersection between tourism, race, gender & ethnicity. Currently, she is working on research to gain a better understanding of the African-American travel experience. Fun fact - she competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics for The Bahamas in swimming.

Contact Alana at adillette@sdsu.edu