When people think of digital nomads, many picture young professionals laying out in hammocks, working from their laptops between two palm trees, with sand falling from the cracks of their toes and landing on their open-toed sandals.
Some envision the various locations DNs travel to, whether it be the Greek islands, mountains of Venezuela or, really, whatever destinations come to mind. But for a lifestyle so heavily entrenched in the exploration of different cultures, digital nomad circles are still fairly narrow in their reach, particularly among people of color.
There’s seemingly no representation of diversity in the location independent community. Based on a recent MBO Partners State of Independence Research Brief, 4.8 million Americans described themselves as DNs (2018). And of the nearly 5 million professional world wanderers, the 69% male population is consumed mainly by White Americans, according to Forbes.
So, why isn’t it the DN community spread more evenly with people of different racial and ethnical backgrounds? And what’s the cause of the racial disparity? “It’s society and White middle-class America,” said Stephanie Nunez, a remote-based visual designer who got her start as a DN three years ago.
Throughout her travels, having journeyed to several European and African countries, Nunez says the sparse number of Black, Latinx and Asian DNs is simply due to the absence of opportunity.
“Not everyone has that privilege,” said Nunez. “I come across more Black people in my travels than any Latin American people. There’s no one that really relates to me or can understand. It’s a different experience.”
Throughout Nunez’s life, she felt her ethnicity — Dominican and Ecuadorian — brought on undue judgement, making her often feel out of place. While growing up in Brooklyn, New York, considered one of the more diverse places in the world, she was raised in a relatively uniform neighborhood. As a result, Nunez grew to resent the idea of a Black and White world, which, in her mind, commonly fails to acknowledge Latin and Asian Americans.
“Being classified as ‘other’ still hasn’t set well with me,” she said. “I feel discrimination or irrelevance, which takes me back to my childhood when it was White and Black and [Latinos] were just in the middle. I have a huge issue with it.”
The uncomfortable feelings she’s felt as a digital nomad ushered in memories from her childhood. While venturing between countries like South Africa and Bulgaria, Nunez was the only person of Latin descent in both of her travel groups, each having 20-plus members.
Not many people like her get the opportunity to travel abroad and be a part of organizations like Remote Year, she says, a company that gives professionals the chance to work remotely while traveling the world. For the few Black, Latinx and Asian nomads that have crossed international borders, they often face even bigger challenges in the countries they occupy.
Luckily, Nunez developed a friendship with Elayne Fluker on their four-month expedition. As a Black woman, Fluker’s experience was comparable to her own. Not only was Fluker one of the few people of color in the Remote Year cohort with Nunez, and largely a small percentage among the DN community as a whole, she also faced feelings of discomfort during her nomadic journey.
“You can feel the discrimination, the separation,” said Nunez. “It’s still there. It’s very different from how we grew up in the United States. It’s more blatant.”
Fluker, who has carved out a career as an author and podcast host, addressed several racially-driven incidents she experienced while venturing to other countries. Like Nunez, there was a sense of unbelonging during her time in Bulgaria and South Africa. Both of them were uneasy while touring each location, as they were either stared at like “zoo animals” or rudely ignored altogether. Feelings like these, Fluker suggests, hinders many people of color from becoming DNs.
“Acts of violence against people of color in the United States already happens, so the last thing you want to do is go to another country and experience that,” said Fluker. “There’s a lot culturally that might be why parents aren’t encouraging children to travel in the way that maybe white parents would because of the larger considerations.”
Fluker, 46, isn’t from an era where people of color were pushed to cross international borders. Considering the obstacles minorities have faced in the U.S., many weren’t necessarily rushing to enter countries with potentially similar societal issues. With the absence of awareness, among other things, people simply didn’t know what to expect, while some just weren’t comfortable making those kind of leaps.
“Sometimes people weren’t necessarily supportive of it,” said Fluker. “When I was younger, a lot of my friends weren’t encouraged to travel outside the country because it wasn’t something our parents did. My parents didn’t know what was going on. There wasn’t social media. It was just different.
But in recent years, research has proven millennials are more willing to travel internationally for short periods of time. This generational gap has resulted in many Black, Latin and Asian Americans between the ages of 23 and 38 to begin roaming the world more frequently.
With the increased connectivity of the world through social media and other content-sharing apps, Fluker says, people have been inspired to step outside of U.S. borders and tour foreign land.
“Millennials are much more open to being more worldly,” Fluker said. “For a younger generation coming up, people all over the world are connected.
“I think it’s from exposure,” she added. “Social media lets us know a lot about what’s going on in other parts of the world, beyond what we see on the news. People are connecting to people through Instagram or Facebook. It’s making the world smaller for all of us.
In 2010, millennials generated $165 billion in tourism revenue, making 187 million international visits around the world. This number accounts for 20% of total global travel, according to Destination Canada, an organization focused on expanding Canada’s tourism revenue. The United Nations also estimates that tourism revenue generated by millennials has increased by nearly 30% since 2007.
Though millenials are starting to travel more, the percentage of Black, Latinx and Asian nomads is still widely disproportionate. Having other people of color to accompany you along your travels is an invaluable addition to one’s experience, says Nunez. With her and Fluker’s shared friendship, she was able to openly talk about her life’s journey and vent her frustrations, especially many that manifested on their 16-week exertion.
More importantly, she says, seeing Fluker’s efforts to encourage other Black people to travel and live abroad made her think about ways she could inspire Latin Americans to do the same. She’s still determining her role, but it’s a goal she’s set out for herself and one she challenges others to make for themselves.
“Meeting other Black women is great because they’re all role models for each other. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can do that for the next generation of Latin girls,” said Fluker. “I’ve been asking myself the last three years. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
The next steps are unclear. But for Nunez and Fluker, the possibility of more people of color joining the nomadic lifestyle is vital. In their eyes, continuing to develop organizations like Remote Year could result in the diversification of digital nomadism. In turn, making the DN community that much stronger and its benefits more accessible for future travelers.