hey people, thanks for being patient during this lapse in posts. I left nueva york and am back in ecuador but instead of living in Quito like before I’m just traveling around for the next two months. I spent a week at Alas de Luna – encuentro de arte femenino in Cuenca which was organized by one of my best ecua feminist panas. The city has been freezing and gorgeous and I’ve gotten to chill with mad ecua women artists doing rad things in dance, theater, music, film, writing and activism. A highlight was splitting a tab of acid with one of my favs – rapper Black Mama – after her set that closed the encuentro. Then I took a bus back to the selva amazónica with a friend and spent the week chillin’, writing, taking little trips, being queer in nature, dreaming up big plans for the revolución with my friends, and swimming in the river.
I didnt mean to photograph her, but she walked into my photo of the door
So I’ve been planning and mobilizing over the last few months and I’m excited to announce some cool projects, namely a WEBSERIES on street food and decolonization, an online roundtable discussion on decolonizing travel media with dope panelists, a live event in NYC along the same lines, a new column for Chica Magazine, a new zine, and other things I do for very little credit and basically no pay. I’m excited that our next #Dispatch interview – my series with travel writers and personalities of color – will be a roundtable discussion on Traveling While Trans. Three trans or nonbinary writers/activists/travelers of color will share their experiences in crossing borders, boarding planes, TSA fails and why they travel. So stay tuned for that! And if you’re a traveler/writer/activist of color and got shit to say about place with an intersectional and critical lens, get in touch! (e-mail is in about page)
Next week I’ll have a post up about my second time at the nation’s only multi-genre workshop for writers of color, VONA. Read about my experience at #VONA14 and the importance of travel writing by and for people of color here. In the meantimes, like our FB page to get mad stuff in your feed daily and to join in on some thoughtful convo, follow me on Twitter cause I’m constantly raging against the machine over there, and follow me on IG cause y’all like pretty photos and that’s what IG is about, I guess. For now, I’ll leave you with some sweet travel moments over the past few weeks.
“Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.”
Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure is a series of interviews with travel writers and personalities of color where we discuss travel, writing and identity. Read previous #Dispatches here
Maile Arvin is a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar who writes about Native feminist theories, settler colonialism, decolonization, and race and science in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific. She is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnic Studies at UCR and will be officially joining the department as an assistant professor in July. She is part of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association working group and a member of Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a Pacific Islander feminist group of activists, poets, and scholars located in California and Oregon. You can find some of her academic writing here.
Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself, the work that you do, and how your identities play into that work.
Maile Arvin: So I’m Native Hawaiian, and my family is from Waimanalo, a small town on the windward side of O’ahu. I’m an academic – I research and teach about race and indigeneity in Hawai’i, the larger Pacific and elsewhere. Being Native Hawaiian grounds my work, motivates me to write about Native Hawaiian lives and histories in complicated, respectful ways.
One of my current projects is working with Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a group of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander feminist women, many of whom are also academics but also poets, activists, artists. We support each other in the academic world and are accountable to each other. We talk to each other a lot about current issues that affect Pacific Islanders, usually in news that erases the existence of Indigenous Pacific Islanders altogether, and sometimes write up responses on our blog, muliwai. We’re currently working on a response to the movie Aloha. Or maybe more about the criticism of the movie that is entirely focused on Emma Stone’s casting.
Bani Amor: Word. That leads me to my next question: I often find that travel media and tourism are complicit in settler colonialism, in that it still purports an archaic, false image of indigenous peoples as smiling caricatures who are ready, willing and able to serve at the beck and call of the (white) tourist. Any idea why this is especially the case for Hawai’i?
Maile Arvin: For Hawai’i, because it is actually a U.S. state, there is this incredible sense of entitlement that white Americans in particular feel to being at home in Hawai’i. Since World War II in particular, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was this narrative of Hawai’i as being the place that militarily makes the rest of the U.S. safe. And along with that, there is also a need to justify and naturalize U.S. military occupation of these islands that are over 2000 miles away from the U.S. continent. So Hawai’i becomes this feminine place in need of the masculine U.S. military to safeguard both Hawai’i and the rest of the U.S. And Native Hawaiian women in particular become these symbols of a happy, paradisical place, a place where white military men will have fun, will get their own Native Hawaiian girl.
Then there’s just the economic situation of Hawai’i. The two biggest industries are the military and the tourism industry, so a lot of Native Hawaiians have to work for one or the other. So there will be a lot of Native Hawaiians working as performers, staff, etc. in Waikiki hotels. And they are asked to project a certain image, which is in line with this old but also current colonial idea of Hawai’i as a carefree place, a vacation place for white people.
I think there is also sometimes a sense that the U.S. has “helped” Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians, through “civilization” and through conferring statehood status on Hawai’i. So Native Hawaiians are supposed to be grateful to white Americans for those things. Which actually signify settler colonialism and genocide.
Bani Amor: Right! Travel media – mainstream and “indie” alike – seem to hold on to this theory that the tourist presence = savior presence, that indigenous people somehow *need* tourists to better their economy, keep things “civilized,” i.e. colonization is progress. In Hawai’i, does the tourist presence ever feel like another form of occupation?
Maile Arvin: Absolutely. Which is not to say that Native Hawaiians hate all tourists. But just that tourism is this structure that furthers U.S. occupation of Hawai’i. One example is that Waikiki, the site where most hotels are clustered on O’ahu, can often be actively hostile to Native Hawaiians who look out of place there. The City Council keeps passing these resolutions to ban anyone from sleeping or lying on the sidewalks. Which is a blatantly anti-homeless measure that forces Native Hawaiians out of sight of most of the tourists.
I live in California, and a lot of people who live here go on vacations in Hawai’i. Sometimes they ask me where to go, or they just want to tell me about where they went. And usually they go to outer islands, not O’ahu where I’m from, to Moloka’i or Kaua’i islands, where I’ve actually never been. I’m glad many people love Hawai’i, but it’s hard not to feel upset sometimes when it seems like my Californian neighborhood has seen more of Hawai’i than I have. But then again I wonder what they really see, and think about how much they must miss.
For Native Hawaiians, it’s really important to try to have a relationship with the places you visit, or at least to acknowledge the relationships that other people from that place have with that land. So it’s not really about just seeing as much of Hawai’i as possible but having relationships, honoring responsibilities to places.
Bani Amor: Yes, and it’s hard to communicate that to (white) people who want to visit our lands. It took me 21 years to be able to get to Ecuador, where my fam is from, and leading up to that time white people would like to tell me how many times they’d been there, what they did, what I should see when I finally go. It was torture! And when I’m living in Ecuador (white) people are always talking about the Galapagos, a mostly inaccessible place for actual Ecuadorians. I’ve never been, nor has 99% of my family.
Maile Arvin: Yeah! It’s really hard to get people to truly acknowledge how much privilege structures their ability to travel places. To not just try to explain it away, but to sit with that however uncomfortable it may be. It’s also hard to get them to see the ways their comments are often structured by the expectation that Indigenous peoples are tour guides or that there is one authentic Indigenous experience that they can casually ask for and receive.
Bani Amor: Yup, it’s a transaction. Places are sold to tourists as brands and their consumption of place forces indigenous people to become culture hustlers, in a way. Getting back to perceptions of tourists – do you feel that there’s a sentiment that some or many Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiians have towards tourists that the media is intentionally erasing?
Maile Arvin: I definitely think the media (local or national) does not see Native Hawaiians as a primary audience, and so even when there is reporting on Native Hawaiian issues, it is often very shallow and tries not to make any non-Native person uncomfortable.
For example, the best coverage around the Kanaka Maoli protectors of Mauna Kea blocking the road to the summit where a thirty meter telescope is proposed to be built has largely come from international media outlets or just from folks using social media to get information out. Local and national media often tries to present “both sides” in ways that are disingenuous and don’t acknowledge power dynamics. Then Native Hawaiians get called out for being “uncivil” for disagreeing with the priorities of Western science.
Mauna Kea is a very sacred site within Hawaiian epistemologies. It is the piko, or umbilical cord, signifying the birthplace of our people. But the protectors are not fighting simply to preserve the site for Native Hawaiians. They are also fighting to stop environmental destruction, and the possible poisoning of the water aquifer that would effect everyone who lives on Hawai’i Island. But the media rarely acknowledges that, they represent the “Native Hawaiian side” versus everyone else, which is a false binary.
Bani Amor: So often, the consequences of tourism directly lead to environmental racism, is complicit projects that natives actively fight against. I’m wondering how that binary is false though, can you clarify?
Maile Arvin: I just mean that the media often treats Native Hawaiian views as this specialized, boutique kind of opinion which is relevant only to a very small number of people. When actually the knowledge Native Hawaiians have to share, and the struggles Native Hawaiians are engaged in, often impact everyone. Especially in regards to the environment. So it seems false to me to tokenize Native Hawaiians into this one box that is sometimes acknowledged, but is set up as necessarily being against the needs/desires of the larger public, when that isn’t even always the case. Does that make sense? Maybe false binary isn’t the right phrase for it.
Bani Amor: Yes, thanks for clarifying. Seems like the media has done a lot of work to invalidate those “boutique” opinions. My final question is just about getting some resources up in here so that people can do work that continues after this conversation ends: For folks looking to balance their perceptions of Hawaii, can you name drop some Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian activists, groups or creatives that are working towards decolonization?
Maile Arvin: Gladly! This is a really wonderful blog, He Kapu Hehi Ale, written by a group of Native Hawaiians and others in Hawai’i. It covers a lot of current issues in the Pacific, including Mauna Kea, and it is really creative and just great writing. To keep up to date on Mauna Kea, you can follow Sacred Mauna Kea Hui on Facebook. Another blog I love is by Teresia Teaiwa, an academic and activist working in Aoteraroa/New Zealand. And finally Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and activist from Micronesia who has a blog. Also she gave a killer speech/poem to the UN recently.
Bani Amor: Awesome, thank you!
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Hola, folks. So I had a lot of thoughts today about speaking OVER communities we’re not apart of in the process of trying to write in solidarity with them. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in general and have tons to learn. After I tweeted these thoughts, a lot of different folks jumped in to offer their two cents and a fruitful convo developed, so I’d consider checking out my TL (‘timeline’ for you non-tweeters!) for more, if you’re down. Share your thoughts in the comments!
So I've been thinking a lot abt the line bw writing what we think are solidarity/ally pieces and appropriating struggles we're privileged by
Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure is a series of interviews with travel writers and personalities of color where we discuss travel, writing and identity. Read previous #Dispatches here
Navdeep was born in England, raised in East and West Africa, the Middle East, and the United States, but he is a Punjabi boy at heart. He served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, taught ESL in China for two, and traveled extensively throughout South East Asia, including a six month honeymoon in India. He runs the travel blog, ishqinabackpack.com with his wife, Sona Charaipotra, author of Tiny Pretty Things and one of the founders of CAKE Literary, a book packaging company focused on integrating diversity into high concept stories. He is a VONA/Voices alumni, holds an MFA in fiction, and writes about books, parenting, and diversity on his own blog, NavdeepSinghDhillon.com
Bani Amor: Aight, so tell folks who you are, what you do and why
Navdeep Dhillon: I run the travel blog, Ishq In A Backpack with my wife, Sona Charaipotra, a novelist and entertainment reporter. We began the site in 2007 just to document our honeymoon to Mexico and India in the days before Facebook, so we could let our families know we hadn’t been kidnapped. Then we had kids and kept the site going because it was fun. It quickly became more of a platform to discuss overt and subtle racism to counter the over-representative white narratives from travel books to blogs to experiences, as though white people are the only ones who travel. We would often be asked pretty ridiculous questions about identity and diversity as though People of Color are new to this whole travel thing. So, it’s our little space of the internet.
Bani: You were asked questions about identity and diversity by other travelers or from people who read your site or..?
Navdeep: Mostly from people who were reading our site, who would ask questions about how Indian travelers feel about Europe, like we’re representatives from Mars. And our Indian identity is very complicated since neither of us have ever lived there. Or questions about religion as though we speak for more than just ourselves, and from travel media organizers about how to create better token diversity. It also comes from other travelers and our experiences traveling abroad, where many things are discussed through a very white lens, such as being treated like a celebrity in China or how easy it is to get a teaching job there. I taught English there and loved it there, but nobody went out of their way to take photos of me or touch my hair or skin.
Bani: How do you respond to travel media organizers who try to enlist you to create token diversity?
Navdeep: It’s complicated and really depends on the event. Most of the time, if it feels like complete tokenism like one panel on diversity in a sea of white, we’ll say no thank you politely. But there are some situations where we have attended because we saw a greater good coming out of it, a conversation to potentially be part of a small change. The travel blogging industry is a particularly toxic form of whiteness because there is very little room for any real change in its current climate. Best 100, or whatever arbitrary number of travel blogger lists are consistently and thoroughly white, book lists are white, and there isn’t a collective of POC who can really incite change because the few POC who get any privilege in the system start supporting that system by saying things like, “well, there just aren’t enough POC blogging,” or “the quality of the content isn’t up to par with the “mainstream,” or, “it’s all about the numbers and we just don’t have them.”
Many conferences are completely white, from its panelists to its organizers to its teacups,and nobody sees anything wrong with it enough to say something publicly. Sona is involved with the We Need Diverse Books campaign that began with a twitter conversation between two writers over the pure whiteness of Book Con last May, and now it is fully funded and making power moves. Hopefully something like that could happen in travel.
The New York Travel Festival had a great initiative they just started this year with a part of it devoted to diversity with some wonderful panels and panelists. I am of two thoughts about that. On one hand, I think it’s great because these conferences need a diversity 101 course, even if the room is filled with other POC. I facilitated a workshop there and it was interesting to see how everyone didn’t even want to use the word, “white,” and a lot of the vocabulary to talk about these concepts of white supremacy are stripped away and it’s important to talk about them. But how much change this actually helps bring about is debatable. If the only thing these conferences have is a diversity section and nobody is invited to the table for discussions on craft, where you can organically talk about race and travel, it is a form of ghettoization.
The dilemma always comes down to a very difficult choice: either attend as tokens and engage in some discussion of diversity or there will be no discussion of diversity. It’s a tough call and one that can be very frustrating when neither option is what you want.
I feel like we have more impact writing unfettered on our blogs than we do at these panels because there are a lot of restrictions placed in the conversations that we obviously don’t have to adhere to on our blogs. But then the question becomes about the objective and there is a great divide on that. If you remember the Outbounding panel we were both on, one of the things I was a little taken aback by was that the loudest voices in support of the system came from other people of color.
Bani: That excuse for exclusion – that the quality of travel content by POC isn’t up to par with the mainstream – is particularly funny because the quality of the content in the mainstream is crap! I’m sorry but the standard is low, to me
Navdeep: There’s a lot that I like, but there’s so much wading through mediocre-to-complete-rubbish blogs that are littered with top ten things to do here, top five places to see, etc, that have no soul. I’m all for mediocrity with POC. We can be just as rubbish as the “mainstream.”
Bani: It seems to me that when some POC enjoy some success in whatever field they’re in, they think, well it must not be that bad, look at me!
Navdeep: We love individual stories of those few people of color who made it. Not of communities. And the burden of these individuals is that they are never safe. If they start calling out the racism, they could lose their position. In many cases it’s more that to keep what little privilege they have, it involves walking the line and strengthening the myth that hard work and perseverance are the key ingredients.
Bani: It seems like just another form of assimilation
Navdeep: It’s exactly assimilation
Bani: It’s also sad that POC travel brands have to market themselves as apolitical to be successful
Navdeep: I agree. They have a great platform, but when the immediate aim is money and not primarily cultural shifts, race is going to be low to non-existent on their talking points. Most of the POC travel brands I have heard of seem focused on bridging the gap between corporate white america and black travelers, not from an ideological standpoint, but from a monetary standpoint: there is money to be made. It’s a difficult thing combining the two.
The book industry is just now getting comfortable enough to have these conversations without dancing around the real issues. Authors, particularly Young Adult, Middle Grade, and kid lit authors feel empowered to say things at panels or on twitter because they know there are other people who feel similarly, but more importantly there is an organization that supports them. Travel doesn’t have that and we’re still at panels dancing around the issues because we’ve tied ourselves too closely to brands.
Bani: Yeah, travel writing is like the suburbs of literature lol
Bani: My last question: is there hope? Where?
Navdeep: Haha, Yes, I think there is definitely hope. It’s important to recognize the problems, but it’s more important to work towards creating change. The internet has changed a lot of things and given POC the ability to have their voices heard. We use our site to write about things like the White House Travel Blogger Summit last year on diversity, where they invited mostly white people, including one couple from Australia. Or diverse book lists. And there are many travel bloggers who are changing the landscape like Oneika The Traveler, who isn’t afraid to integrate race into her travels because it’s a part of traveling, of life. Keeping the conversation happening, and addressing the issues is a step, and when organizers especially put in the initiative to start a conversation, it’s something that should be encouraged because a lot of people genuinely want to know what they can do to actively change things.
peep the new site design! in lieu of doing anything fun or even leaving my place this weekend, i stared at this screen for hours on end and re-worked the website entirely. i’m especially proud of the shiny new Photography page and the re-worked #Dispatches page. there’s still a few sub-pages i want to work on but for now, this is it. whatchu think?