People of Color with Western Privilege #Dispatch: Pooja Makhijani

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at

Bani Amor: Tell us where you’re from, where you are now, and how you got from one to the other.

Pooja Makhijani: I’m a South Asian American woman, born in New York City and raised in suburban New Jersey, now living in Singapore. My partner and I moved here in 2010 when he was offered an opportunity in Asia; I continue to write, edit, and teach — my background is in early childhood education and children’s media — here in Singapore.

Bani: Would you consider yourself an expat, or is that term unavailable to people of color?

Pooja: As an American (Westerner), I think, in some instances I may be considered an “expat” in Singapore. And my Western privilege allows me to claim it should I want to. I definitely think the term is less, if at all, available to my friends and colleagues from other Asian countries (Philippines, China, India, etc.). However, I agree, generally, “expat” in the Singapore context is a term reserved for professional white Westerners and professional Japanese and, *maybe*, professional Korean workers in Singapore. That being said, we are not immigrants to Singapore and we intend to return to the United States. I suppose “economic migrant” is the best term for people like us.

Bani: These distinctions always seem implied in media and everyday language. Recently I’ve noticed more journalists writing about the importance of making distinctions, questioning implicit bias or at least agreeing that the current vocabulary to name our place in these migrations is insufficient.

Pooja: Yes! I always remember this exchange between two of my favorite writers. Both Cole and Lalami address exactly these language contortions in their works.*

Bani: I decided a while ago that to be an expat means to hold privilege in the trifecta of class, race and place. Acknowledging that to be POC does not mean there isn’t a racial hierarchy at work with us (obvs).

Pooja: I totally agree! But my “place” — as evidenced by my U.S. passport and accent — gives me such incredible power and proximity to whiteness in a way that I would never have conceived of had I not moved overseas! As I detail in this essay, it has given me tremendous advantages over other people who “look like me” but hold different passports and/or have different accents.

For example, it is very common — and legal — for landlords to advertise empty rental units with the words: “no Indians, no PRCs [People’s Republic of China]”, sometimes followed by the word “sorry”. We have been asked where we were born, where our families live, whether we had an arranged marriage (WTF?), etc. But the minute we were able to produce our passport and to show that he (my partner) held a position in a U.S. company, the micro- and macroagressions ceased and we were able to find a roof over our heads.

I’ve heard story after story from Indian friends from India who are rejected from apartment after apartment, despite their privileged class. Another example: if I walk into a swanky bar/restaurant/retail space, I am sometimes ignored by staff. (I’m a t-shirt/jeans/flats/no makeup/no jewelry kinda gal). But if I put on my best loud, friendly American twang, I received better service. I hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S. until my mid-20s, and then only to to Europe, so I had no idea of this concept—Western privilege.

“Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.” Who is an expat, anyway?’ WSJ

I’m also glad that U.S. activists of color, e.g. Son of Baldwin, etc., are finally talking about Western privilege and the interconnectedness of various social justice struggles. It’s weird to go to into a world with “proximity-to-white privilege” when you’ve never been on that side of the fence before!

Bani: Yup, which is why a lot of USian POC can’t conceive of this privilege yet, and often deny that they hold any privilege at all.

Pooja: Yes. Totally.

Bani: But I wanna back it up. In your article you mentioned, you talked about being radicalized and embracing POC community in the age of Bush, and in relocating to Singapore, there was an excitement about moving away from “white systems,” but once you got there, you were like, “Oh.” Something James Baldwin said comes to mind: “I found myself…alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.”

Pooja: Yes, that Baldwin quote! I really need to go read him again now that I live overseas! I think USian POC are taught to only think of their struggles in the context of white supremacy in the U.S., which is, in and of itself, problematic because it doesn’t examine U.S. imperialism and our complicity in so much global oppression. It’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism at work, and even progressive folks like me are sometimes so unaware of these entrenched biases. My experiences thus far had led me think that I would only experience “real” discrimination in majority-white settings, and my education had not prompted me to question this provincial world view.

“An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’).” Wikipedia

Bani: I wonder if you’ve found balance in acknowledging your US privilege but also facing some discrimination for your ethnicity in Singapore.

Pooja: I think about this all the time. I’m not sure. I’m more aware of the ways in which I *can* wield my “power,” but actively choose not to. As I’ve written, people completely shift in their interactions with me when they hear my accent! They are kinder and more obsequious often. I’ve been referred to as “not that kind of Indian.”

Bani: Right. That’s real.

Pooja: Because, again my proximity to whiteness has somehow “civilized” me. Without which, I would be a “savage,” right?

Bani: You and I and the folks you’ve brought up in this talk have all come to acknowledge western privilege only by spending a considerable amount of time outside of white majority or ‘first world’ countries. How do we get others who don’t (can’t) leave to acknowledge this, or is it necessary for them to?

Pooja: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. How else can we (POC) understand the interconnectedness of various global social justice struggles and find true solidarity against white supremacy? And I think we fail our progressivism if we aren’t willing to point out that we have the *same* power to oppress depending on the circumstance.

My personal challenge is now finding meaningful actions. How do I use this knowledge and power in the service of those without? Writing is all well and good, but I’m an “action” person!

“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The Guardian

Bani: Have you met a lot of other expats (or economic migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc.) of color in Singapore?

Pooja: Yes. Of Singapore’s 5.2 million residents, 3.7 million are Citizens or Permanent Residents (PRs). Non-residents (economic migrants of all classes) are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis. The large number of non-Citizens here has become a huge political issue for a country as small as Singapore. Foreigners are, as they are in other countries, accused of diluting national identity, “taking away jobs,” etc. Local activists continue to be be alarmed by the surge of racism and xenophobia in recent years. The issue is complex, but here is *some* background by a friend. So, in short, yes, I do know lots of foreigners in Singapore, and many Westerners of color. I do know a lot of non-White (I hate that term!) expatriates in Singapore as well.

Bani: Do they share the same politics as you?

Pooja: I suss out people who share my politics, I think. I will say that many of my close USian friends in Singapore are POC. Many of us have had similar experiences. On the flip side, my Chinese American acquaintances benefit from both racial and place-ial privilege in a city like Singapore. Some of them are quite aware of this, especially those who are fluent in Mandarin, for example, but others aren’t.

There was data recently collected – by WSJ, I think – about the races/ethnicities and nationalities of “expats” in Asia. The data concluded that what people generally think of as “expat” – white, male, on a company package, in company housing, with company car – doesn’t hold true as it used to. And that new migrants tend to be younger and either from other countries in Asia and/or Asian Westerners. As the world moves in this way, I think these ideas of Western privilege deeply come into play. And we have to talk about it.

“Want to make friends? Move to another country. Maybe somewhere third world. Expats tend to be adventurous, to be risk-takers. After all, they’ve already left their friends, their homes, their comfort zones and probably most of their possessions in another country to begin a new life abroad. That takes guts. It’s only a certain type of person who’ll do that.” What we could all learn from expats Traveller

Bani: Of the people of color who spend a considerable amount of time outside white majority ‘developed’ countries who acknowledge and question relationships between power and place, they usually come from a place of already having politics that challenge white supremacy. But the majority of poc who travel from these white majority countries for leisure or study or savior tourism or as expats, don’t seem to give a shit.

Pooja: Do you think they revel in their newfound privilege? I seem to think so now.

Bani: There seems to be a kind of aspiration to taste that place privilege for as long as possible, without examining power dynamics in adopted countries. When you talk about Asian Westerners, do you recognize that?

Pooja: Absolutely. And there are definitely people willing to examine those power dynamics, and those who will happily oppress despite knowing.

Bani: I think the latter is enjoying a moment right now. When I do see these nuances in privilege and place addressed with some justice it’s almost exclusively in literature, mostly novels. Even outside the travel space with personal essays and memoir that touch on this, it seems to be very superficial. I was wondering where you go to to see these issues fleshed out.

Pooja: I agree that travel and “expat” media is still centered around whiteness and Westernness, and so far from addressing privilege and place. I like social media—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook as that is where so many social justice conversations are happening (at least in English)—and try to follow activists who are involved in actions in their parts of the world. I think, as you rightly note above, novelists like Laila Lailami and Teju Cole are addressing some of these issues in their writing. Where do you go, Bani?

[noted white guy whiteguysplains it all:]

“It is much easier for someone from the United States to work or retire in Costa Rica than for someone from Costa Rica to do the same in the United States. But that’s because the US government created this obstacle for Ticos by requiring a visa, which Costa Rica doesn’t require of US citizens. It isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.” The difference between expats and immigrants? It’s passports, not race PanAm Post

Bani: This is why I started this conversation series, because I don’t see it addressed, not with this language or analysis in this space or context. Like we’ve both said, social media and literature (and the academy, perhaps) are where these issues are being deeply examined.

Pooja: Even online (in English social media), I find the conversation often centered around U.S.-specific concerns. Global hashtags tend to be U.S.-created; when was the last time you saw U.S. activist POC en masse advocate for a foreign social justice struggle?

Bani: It’s true. So how do we extend the dialogue?

Pooja: For one, we—U.S.ian POC who have this power—need to listen and not dominate the conversation. We tell white people *exactly this* all the time; we need to walk the walk. I’ve seen, online, U.S. POC get defensive and or derail conversations or talk about “intent” when they are called out for their biases, instead of apologizing and sitting with their thoughts. We have to do better.

Bani: Absolutely.

*Tweets used with permission by both Lalami and Cole

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The Revolution Will Go Viral

Hey people, so I injured my knee either swimming, hiking or running alongside vehicles hoping to jump on them in Ecuador last month – on acid – and now I’m watching Fall go by from my bed in Queens, New York, unable to walk. Getting better is the most important thing for me right now, which means working less and earning less when I need it the most. If you wanna support me in any way (besides donating, obvs, which you can do by clicking on the Donate button on the left column or sending cash money to via Paypal) you can share my work with folks you know, collaborate with me, come over with bottles of liquor (a popular option with my friends), lend me books, or send gushing statements of solidarity.

Click on image for full article
Click on image for full article

Anyway, before the fit really hit the shan I was able to profile Black Lives Matter activist Kwame Rose whose confrontation with Geraldo Rivera on Fox News went viral during the Baltimore Uprising earlier this year. If you like it, share it (and credit me!) and follow up with the organizing going on in Baltimore right now, where just last week 16 activists were arrested for demanding a meeting with police commissioner Kevin Davis.


Next week, my #Dispatch interview with writer Pooja Makhijani on what words like expat, migrant, refugee, exile and immigrant really mean will be up. In the meantimes, you can follow me on the facebook, the twitter, the instagram.

“Don’t Step Foot There” #Dispatch: AfroLatino Travel

I’ve been chatting with travel writers and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, identity, microagressions, hustling and the creative process, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. If you’d like to get involved,  get in touch!

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.41.49 AM
Dash Harris grew up in Panama, Brooklyn and the Poconos. She attended Temple University for broadcast journalism, business and French, and is the owner of In.A.Dash.Media, a multi-media and video production studio. She is a co-founder of AfroLatino Travel and Negro, a docu-series about Latino identity and the African Diaspora.

Bani Amor: Alright so let’s get into it! Please introduce yourself, what you do, what AfroLatino Travel is and your place in it.

Dash Harris:  I’m Dash, co-founder and team member of AfroLatino Travel, the travel and culture resource of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Bani: Can you give us some background on AfroLatino Travel? How it started and why.

Dash:  I’ve traveled extensively throughout Latin America over the past six years for my documentary series [Negro: A docu-series about Latino identity]. I’m personally and professionally drawn to predominant Afro-descended communities and regions and I noticed when I would inquire about how to get there, most people would immediately question why did I want to go *there* or remark that it was “very dangerous.” Basically code for too Black.

It was especially jarring when I inquired about how to get to Palenque de San Basilio. I was told it was “dangerous,” so I asked if they knew the reputation that Colombia has on a global scale and if they were perturbed by it, why impose that thinking on a particular town that actually does not even have a police presence as it is tiny and everyone knows everyone. Crime is almost non-existent in Palenque de San Basilio.

To find out how to get to most Afro-descended regions, it was a feat of information-gathering from many many sources, mostly personal blogs, and I thought that there has to be another way for folks to access information, especially other Afro-descendants interested in connecting with the wider Diaspora. Being from one of those “too black and dangerous” regions in Panama, I thought it was time for a way to do tourism that was not exploitative and actually is led by locals who are consistently blocked from access in the industry.

Gabino, my tour guide in Palenque said the only tourists that visit are white, and he would love to have more Afrodescendant tourists visit.

Besides, these regions are always the most beautiful – beautiful weather, great food, great people and with profound and powerful history not only to the greater country they are in but also the Afro root that has sustained its very existence. And it’s more of an “adventure” because these places are hard to get to, which is a blatant exhibition of the marginalization and neglect of the state toward the population that resides there.

Bani: Reaching Black(er) regions in Latin America can be such a relajo. I remember my first time traveling in Ecuador I Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.45.32 AMopened up a Lonely Planet guidebook and was reading the Esmeraldas section. It came with a warning not to visit there and to watch your shit if you go cause you’ll get robbed and in the same sentence mentioned that it was a majority Black area. If we think about the extent to which anti-Black racism affects travel and access, it’s pretty extreme.

Dash: I’ve been trying to get to Esmeraldas for theee longest. Oh yea the anti-Blackness in travel guides. Fun! One time I picked up a few travel guidebooks on Panama and sat down with Lamar to read the section on Colón together to see how obscene they could get. One woman had never heard of the Black christ of Portobelo (Panama) and I was like WHO THE HELL DOESN’T KNOW ABOUT THE BLACK CHRIST? The same with El Chota (Ecuador), a soccer player-making region that the state doesn’t invest in. It makes no sense. Fútbol being a religion – invest in that!

Bani: Nope, those are always the most underdeveloped areas, especially touristically. Ecuador’s current #AllYouNeedIsEcuador tourist campaign leaves places like Esmeraldas and El Chota in the dust, for instance.

Dash: Per usual, and it isn’t until our regions are recognized nationally or somewhere else that the state then says “yea that’s us.”

Bani: The fact that folks don’t usually correlate Blackness with Latin America has something to do with how the tourist industry still markets these places.

Dash: Absolutely – BUT wanna partake in Black cultural manifestations – the music, the food, the party. We are allowed to do that, fine, just don’t go beyond that – the sports, the sex tourism. When I was in Managua I was a SPECTACLE which was so mind-boggling to me as there are Afro-Nicaraguans. The mestizos pointed and stared like I had five heads. That never happened to me in my entire life and I’ve traveled to many places with under 10% afro-descendants. In even the whitest places, it didn’t compare to the othering in Managua.

Bani: What did you make of that experience?

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.45.12 AMDash: That Nicaragua has a lot of work to do. When I mentioned I was going to the coast, a hostel owner said, “Oh yes, that culture is really about partying and they do the maypole and eat fish but here in the capital it’s more calm, more laid back,” and I’m like, “So they do the maypole everyday or just on May 1st for the annual maypole celebration?” It is severe othering, which is interesting because I saw a lot of afro-descendants among those mestizos.

Bani: Leading into my next question, which I hope is not redundant, what would you say is the significance of what you’re doing with AfroLatino travel?

Dash: Helping to connect the African Diaspora (in the Americas) in ways that benefit all involved. Now of course we’re mindful that not all can travel so we are speaking from a privileged perspective. Afro-descendants don’t own their labor when it comes to their access in the tourism industry and limited access is getting even more limited because of multinationals encroaching on and even running them off their very land. So AfroLatino travel connects travelers to locals because locals can explain and show their own culture better than anyone else can.

Bani: Of course. What do you see as a result of bridging diasporic folks and locals? What change, if any, do you think it brings about?

Dash: That’s the best part!! OK so I have a short anecdote. I was in Orinoco chatting with a Garifuna drummer; my partner is a drummer and I was talking about the Batá drums. I came back with videos I shot in Cuba and it turned into this really dope dialogue about Afro-Cubans, Garifunas and Afro-Panamanians. They were loving it and so was I. All of that is to say: magic happens, man. When you get long lost cousins together, magic happens. I don’t know what else to say really.

When you get long lost cousins together, magic happens.

On a cultural level, socially, psychologically, mentally, and yes, economically, the goods and services paid would be going to the afro-descendant community and not the establishment. That’s the malembo element of AfroLatino travel. (Malembo were the friendships Africans made whether in the crossing of the Atlantic or in the Americas; they were bonds that made them feel a deep obligation to help one another, and that’s just how I feel, serving and building with my community continent-wise, because America is a continent *ahem* as we all know lol.)

Bani: Jaja. I think it’s that affirming of each other’s experiences that’s so powerful, in the face of violent rampant erasure.

Dash: Yes! You’re more eloquent with it lol. I remember one time in Utila, Honduras, I’m sitting on the corner chilling with Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.41.00 AMsome elder men and a young girl selling mangos and one of the guys was shocked that I was hanging out with them because tourists never talk to us. They were English-speaking afro-descendants in a Hispanophone-dominant country; my family shares that history in Panama, so it was like, ok, I’m among family. I don’t really feel like a tourist.

Bani: Like I started out saying at the beginning of this talk, white tourism is (generally) mad different from what POC experience when the travel. In your story, you were a part of the community in a way. And from that comes a dedication to tell stories about those places and their people with some justice.

Dash: Absolutely! Yes! Exactly! I said this with the travel guides saying “don’t step foot there” it’s like, um, there are actual human beings that live in these places. It is disgusting. Whites always gotta insert themselves in every corner or crook ever. Just leave us alone!

Bani: And centralize themselves in every single thing. The majority of travel writing books should just be called The White Experience in X Country. Alright, let’s wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts? Plans for the future of AfroLatino Travel?

Dash: Just that aside from our trips, tours and informational content, expect more accessible afro-diasporic travel, cultural exchange and sustainable community building coming to an app near you.

Bani: Can’t wait!

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Dreaming, Planning, Mobilizing

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.

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)

feminist graffiti in cuenca

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.”

bell hooks

The Fine Line Between Writing in Solidarity & Appropriating Struggles (That Aren’t Ours)

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!

decolonizing travel culture


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