I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists 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, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.
Bani Amor: Tell us who you are. How would you describe your work?
Ernest White II: Well, my name is Ernest White II, and I’m a writer and educator from Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve lived in five countries and traveled to almost 40. I’m a huge aviation geek and history buff with an affinity for house music and old school movie-musicals (my most obvious gay trait).
I feel like my two professional strains – writing and education – are constantly influencing one another. I think my writing offers a bit of knowledge to the reader, whether it’s a personal travel narrative, a how-to guide, or a piece of fiction. Conversely, the way I interact with my students is by incorporating literature, film, history, and (of course) travel as a part of my teaching methodology (which is easy to do when you’re teaching English, history, or social sciences, as I do).
I guess I must also mention that my work as a writer is driven by my desire to connect people of color – particularly black Americans – to the world outside our immediate communities.
Be that through highlighting a specific cultural connection or collection of influences, or something more universal to the human experience.
BA: So thinking about Place and Identity is pervasive in all your work.
EW: I absolutely feel that place and identity are pervasive in my work. We as people are greater than the sum of our parts, but where we’re from and the identities that stem from that, as well as the identities that we craft on our own, are two of the largest constituent parts to who we are.
BA: Truth. What came first: writing or traveling? Was becoming a travel writer inevitable?
EW: Traveling definitely came first, because I’ve had a love for geography, cultures, and languages since elementary school. My first inclination was to be a novelist, but I think considering my absolute compulsion to travel (which can severely impair novel-writing time) pushed me towards the inevitable.
BA: Your ‘Why Fly Brother?’ mission statement (and all the comments that follow) is probably one of my favorite things on the internet. You say, “People want to know what being black means outside of the US.” Do you have an answer for that?
EW: Thank you! I think that statement can be read two ways: as indicating a curiosity that (black) Americans may have about their own potential experiences abroad, and as a curiosity about non-American folks in the African Diaspora worldwide. I certainly don’t have a singular answer to that curiosity because, to my mind, there are infinite ways to be black inside and outside the US.
BA: Of course.
EW: I could also say something like “It means people copying your dance steps, music, and speech patterns and you get arrested with greater frequency,” but that would be a bit cynical, wouldn’t it?
BA: You’re talking to Cynic Numero Uno, you’re safe here.
EW: I know you feel me. ; )
BA: Just a few years ago, a search for ‘black’ or ‘POC travel blogs’ wouldn’t bring up many results. Now, there are tons of folks doing it. What’s changing?
EW: First, I think it took a minute for people of color to get into the blogging game in general, and specifically, travel-related blogs. I think that as a demographic, again, speaking generally, we spent more of our computer time focused on money-earning endeavors, and it was only when we began noticing the dearth of writing out there that spoke to our particular experiences, that we began to write in earnest.
BA: Yes, sometimes folks wait around for a hero, someone with guts. It speaks to representation.
EW: I absolutely agree that sometimes people need to see someone else take the plunge first, which I understand. I can be pioneering in some ways and a total wuss in others.
BA: Word. It helps not to be The Only One doing a thing.
EW: But that also reflects the historical relationship of people of color to travel, especially those of us from backgrounds that don’t include recent immigration from another country. Just as travel was seen as a luxury item, I think we tended to view blogging about it – at first – as somewhat of a waste of time.
BA: Interesting, but do you think that’s a direct result of the active exclusion of POC by the travel industry?
EW: I do think there was some active exclusion of people of color in travel up until the late 1960s, at least in the US. You still had segregated airports, bus terminals, buses, trains, beaches even. Then, there was the prohibitive cost of air and sea travel. Couple that with the very real need for steady employment within the community, and you can see a built-in reticence to just drop it all and travel.
Once, I was profiled on a black news website about my travels and forgot to mention something about how cheaply I travel during the interview. Sure enough, one of the commenters mentioned that I must have a trust-fund or something. Even now, the idea that travel is prohibitively expensive still exists.
BA: It can be seen as “privileged” or something “white people do” within communities of color.
BA: Any thoughts on how race is handled in travel media today?
EW: Generally, I don’t feel that non-white people are treated in the same exoticized way as you’d see in travel media (mostly personal narratives, magazine articles, travel posters, and tour brochures) up through the early 20th century. Nowadays, there’s an atmosphere of cultural sensitivity up to a point, and then it just gets ignored as an issue too big to address.
BA: In travel media, anything is up for grabs if it sells. Indigenous communities turn into destinations to be consumed, bought and sold, reinstating imperialism altogether.
EW: Well, you know what, this speaks to the larger problem. I think when it comes to indigenous communities and tourism, the exoticism has never gone away. Lord, it’s depressing. And STILL ignored by mainstream travel media.
BA: I don’t expect much from mainstream travel media, but even the other stuff is full of this kind of rhetoric. I think travel writers just copy what’s out there. I was literally told the same in travel writing class. Just do what the mainstream folks are doing, and you’ll get in. And as long as a white majority is still steering these conversations, this kind of content will go unchallenged.
EW: That advice kind of disgusts me, nahmsayin? ::sigh:: preachin to the choir
BA: That’s why a lot of that glossy travel mag stuff is so trashy! Not that it’s all bad. There’s hope, people.
EW: It goes unchallenged all the time. I just read an essay in a major travel publication by a very famous writer who has made questionable statements regarding race before. If we’re being honest, there is some, shall we say, tongue-biting that must be done if we want to have some semblance of success in the industry.
BA: Which is to say, if you don’t wanna go broke.
EW: We have to play along somewhat until we get into a position to be completely true to our voices. It means sometimes taking the slower road to success; subversion.
At what price do you end up “selling out?”
I will say that there isn’t any amount offered that would make me feel good about misrepresenting my people or anyone else for that matter. Not with my name attached.