Travel advice and race, with Santilla Chingaipe

Jan 10, 2023 •

Each year, around a million visits to the US are made by Australians. But it's becoming a more dangerous place, especially for people of colour.

But you won’t find that statistic in the guidance for Australians travelling to the US.



Travel advice and race, with Santilla Chingaipe

863 • Jan 10, 2023

Travel advice and race, with Santilla Chingaipe

[Theme Music Starts]


Hey there, I’m Ruby Jones, welcome to 7am’s summer series: an exploration of big ideas with some of our favourite contributors and thinkers.

Each year, around a million Australians visit the US. But its becoming a more dangerous place.
Firearm murders increased by 35% between 2019 and 2020 — something that disproportionately affects people of colour.

But you won’t find that statistic in the guidance for Australians travelling to the US.

Today, author and contributor to The Monthly, Santilla Chingaipe on the travel guidance we rely on for our safety, and whether it’s letting us down.

[Theme Music Ends]


Santilla, you've recently been in the United States. And I wonder if to begin with we can go back and you can tell me a bit about your thinking as you prepared for that trip, your thought process around what you might need to consider as a black woman going to the US.


It's interesting, because it wasn't my first trip to the US I've been there a bunch of times, but it was the first time that I was going to a regional part of the US and that made me very anxious because I knew was going to be for an extended period of time. And generally I've just driven through those sorts of towns. And it got me thinking about my personal safety because I'd been, you know, like most Australians, we hear about what goes on in the US in terms of violence towards black people, whether it's police brutality or even just, you know, armed civilians sort of using their guns and shooting black people.

Archival tape -- 7 News:

“It's a murder that has rocked communities on opposite sides of the world. A Sydney man gunned down at point blank range in L.A. Azuma Bennett had moved to the United States in 2018…”

Archival tape -- Black Lives Matter chant:

“All in unison! All… Black… Lives… Matter…Say his name… George Floyd…”

Archival tape -- George Floyd March:

“Thousands packed in at Cadman Plaza this afternoon, all joined together to remember George Floyd”


And the town that I was specifically spending time in was about 4 hours away from a town called Buffalo, New York, where early in the year there was a racist attack where, you know, this white guy went in and he shot about ten black people.

Archival tape -- News anchor:

“Authorities now confirming 18 year old Payton Gendron visited Tops Supermarket two months before he shot and killed ten people in what the FBI calls a racially motivated attack.”


That made me very anxious because I sort of thought, you know, can I go to the supermarket? You know, is someone going to see me and see me as a black person? And definitely not seeing me as an Australian person, but seeing me as a black person because in America I am black.

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:

“We must all work together to address the hate that remains a stain on the soul of America.”


And how do I protect myself in that environment? You know, what do I do? What precautions do I put in place?

And so that was kind of my thinking prior to travelling. And, you know, I did a ton of researching and reading news stories, but nothing ever really prepares you for the reality of the situation.


So what was it like when you got there to this small rural part of the U.S. when you arrived? What did you notice?


I noticed a lot of American flags, which was very confronting because, you know, flags to me symbolise so many things and in many ways they symbolise a sense of nationalism, you know, and to see the sort of front and centre on every house that we drove past was initially very confronting cause I sort of thought, Oh, okay, I am in white country now.

Like that's what it felt like to me and that feeling sort of just continued as I made my way to where I was spending my time at the writer's residency. So I was staying in this town called Austerlitz in upstate New York, and it's populations about 1,600. And when I researched this town, the population is about 96% white and a smaller percentage of Hispanic and Asian people. And already that told me what I was stepping into. As much as I intellectually understood it, I also didn't quite know how to behave.

Because, again, the images that I have of white America are very violent towards black people. And in this instance, I knew that just because I was Australian doesn't mean that people are going to see my passport on my head. You know, they just seeing me as a black person. And so that was quite discomforting in many ways.

And, you know, I'm a runner. I run every day. And in Melbourne, I'm sort of used to going out for a run without even thinking about it. Obviously, think about my personal safety as a woman, but generally I'm not worried about someone driving behind me in a truck and potentially pulling out a gun. Whereas in America, this was something that I was legitimately thinking about because where I was.


Something that had happened.


It had happened. And then it became a thing of just being very aware that if I was going to be moving out and about in this area, I would have to be moving in a group and moving with people. So that was what that experience was like initially, and it just amplified as the time wore on.


And Santi you're obviously an Australian citizen, and the place that you're told to go as an Australian citizen to work out what you need to know about wherever it is that you're traveling overseas is the Department of Foreign Affairs website, the Smart Traveller website. So did you go there?


Yeah, that was the first place I went. I went to the Smart traveller website and I was told that it was safe for me to move around the U.S. and to exercise the same safety precautions as I would in Australia, which I thought was very interesting because I sort of thought, well, you know, Australia's got its own brand of racism but people aren't walking around with guns and the race relations here are very unique to this context, whereas race relations in America are also very unique to that context. And there wasn't an acknowledgement of how that spills over into fatalities. And the fact that I was being told that I could move freely through America the way I would move here was very surprising. I just sort of thought, okay, here I am. I travel a lot for work and I'm very aware of what goes on in the world.

But I sort of thought if I was a young Australian who'd just finished high school and I was not white and I wanted to embark on a big adventure overseas and I did the right thing by registering with this government website. And they told me that I could just do whatever it is that I wanted because I could move the same way I would move in Australia.

And then something happened, you know, and there was a tragedy. I sort of thought, whose responsibility is that in that instance?


We’ll be back in a moment.



Santi, as you’ve said – the Smart Traveller website doesn’t specifically warn Australians about safety concerns in America – relating to guns, or to hate-crime, or really any specific warning about violence. So what does DFAT, what does the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade say about why is that?


Yeah, so I spoke to a DFAT spokesperson who told me that it was Australian travellers responsibility to remain informed about the destinations to which they were travelling.

And they said that this included understanding the risks and planning for their safety and that they kept all travel advisories under close review and that if there were any changes that Australians faced overseas. To visit the Smart Traveller website for any updates, the spokesperson further said to me that each travel advisory provides destination specific information about safety, health, local laws, travel and local contacts.

There is specific guidelines for certain travellers. But it's interesting that there's no acknowledgement of travellers that come from culturally diverse, religiously diverse backgrounds because it isn't safe.

And that frustrates me because I sort of think, no one's thinking about people that look like me as tourists. You know, people are viewing us as migrants, asylum seekers. And that's very much reflective, not just in the travel advice, but even in terms of tourism and the messaging and the kind of traveller who's spoken to. And it's frustrating because we know that that's not true and we know that that's not the fact.

There's just zero acknowledgement on the DFAT website of the fact that there are Australians going out there in the world that aren't white and also come from different cultural backgrounds.


Yeah there are a lot of people in Australia who aren’t white, who come from different cultural backgrounds. So how many people do you think might be put in this position - of being completely left out of consideration, when it comes to warnings around international travel?


Oh, it's huge. I mean, you know, the latest census data tells us that we are the most diverse we've ever been. I think more than 50% of Australians either born overseas or have one parent born overseas.

So I spoke to Professor Fethi Mansouri at Deakin University who gave me a bit of insight into this. And I, you know, asked him explicitly, I was like, what do you think about the advice that I was given? And he said it was insufficient. And he pointed to several examples in which Australians have found themselves in instances where they should have been given sound advice by the Government, but then ended up being caught up in a political situation.

He mentioned examples of Chinese Australians who go back to China and, you know, get caught up in that sort of situation. Also other Australians that might travel to the Middle East, for example, also finding themselves in situations that they're not being prepared for because they just simply unaware of what's going on politically in other parts of the world. And so my example is not unique. It's clearly an experience that's being felt by quite a lot of Australians. The specificity for me was it came down to race, and that made it quite a difficult one to navigate in a global context because every jurisdiction deals with race in a very different way. And the fact that my government could not give me advice about how to navigate through that was quite upsetting.


And so why do you think it is, that advice doesn’t exist? Because DFAT has access to census data. And they can get information about what the population of Australia looks like. They also know what security threats can arise overseas. So why do you think it is that those things haven't been put together for people?


A couple of explanations. I reckon the first one would be racism. And I'm not talking about, you know, the bad intention person kind of brand of racism. I'm talking about, you know, structural and institutional racism. So to me, this just speaks to the fact that our institutions are still not quite reckoning with the multiculturalism of this country and making that acknowledgement because this advice is being disseminated through the lens of whiteness, the assumption that the Australians that are travelling are white and therefore they can move through these spaces a certain way.

The fact is that's not the case and my own experience speaks to that. But the other one, I think, is the fact that the US and Australia specifically have a strategic relationship. And I think that also factors into the travel advice that we get on the website.


In that Australia doesn't want to say that the US is dangerous?


I think so. I think that there is some caution in the language that's used in talking about the domestic affairs within the United States. I think that that is also factored into the advice.

I'll give you an example. Like if you look at the travel advice that's given to countries in the so-called Global South, whether it's India or certain parts of Asia or even certain parts of Africa, you know, when I travel to certain parts of Africa, the Smart Traveller website is very quick to tell me, do not travel or there’s orange, you know, like it's just, you know, danger, danger, danger. And in those sorts of instances, the government is very quick to be able to sort of say, exercise, caution, it's not safe, do not travel, and will bring up numerous examples of situations where travellers have found themselves in situations where they've been unsafe. You don't get that when you look at countries in the global north, whether it's the US, parts of Europe, whether it's the UK, we don't get that similar kind of language.

You don't get that similar kind of tone that's used in the travel advice. And that to me speaks to not just strategic relationships between these countries, but it also speaks to where power sits in the world, you know, and how in one instance we can be very quick to issue advice and warnings and condemn certain things. But in other instances, there's just silence.

For me, this example of my own trip to the US highlighted just the complexities of not just travelling in the world, but also the limits with which our own government can look after us when we're overseas.


Santilla, thank you so much for your time.


Thanks for having me, Ruby.

Each year, around a million Australians visit the US . But it's becoming a more dangerous place: firearm murders alone increased by 35% between 2019 and 2020.

But you won’t find that statistic in the guidance for Australians travelling to the US. And it’s a risk that disproportionately affects people of colour.

Today, author and contributor to The Monthly, Santilla Chingaipe on the travel guidance we rely on for our safety and what it tells us about how race functions in bureaucratic definitions of Australianness.

Guest: Author and contributor to The Monthly, Santilla Chingaipe

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Alex Tighe, Zoltan Fecso, and Cheyne Anderson.

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

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863: Travel advice and race, with Santilla Chingaipe