Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) #Dispatch: Moving Black

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.

Photos courtesy of MsMoving Black
Enter a captionMsMovingBlack (aka Abena Clarke) is a Caribbean-based London-born teacher, writer, historian and armchair activist. She currently lives in Martinique but of all the countries and continents she’s visited, she’s most at home in the centre of a dance floor.

Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

I would describe my blog, Moving Black as the place where I record my adventures, conversations and thoughts on travel, identity, stories past and present and the interplay between them.  I try and provide an alternative discourse on the places I visit, and describe my experiences as a black British woman in them.

For me, the most easily accessible travel writing seems to be by white people and for white people. I am not white. I have a bunch of white friends, but I also have a big black family and a bunch of black friends and when we travel, we experience the very same places differently. I try and reflect that in my writing. In addition, the places we and I choose to visit and the museums I choose to go to are not necessarily those which your average white person my age would select. I try to contribute information about those places that do exist and are of interest to people like me but which are difficult to find information about.

In South Africa, for example, I wanted to visit Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape province, because it’s the spiritual home of the Black Consciousness Movement and the physical place where Steve Biko grew up and did amazing work as part of the Black Community Programmes in spite of being ‘banned’ by the apartheid government. The Steve Biko Foundation has an amazing community centre there, with a Heritage Trail and a museum, library, bar and restaurant (not to mention snazzy conference facilities) but when I was looking for information about the place, all I found was backpackers saying, “Spend one night if you must – there’s nothing to do here.”

When I went to Haiti, same thing. I was reading a lot about how dangerous it was and how I’d be crazy to go out at night. But as a black woman, this was not my experience. I dress simply and blend in a black crowd and was perfectly safe out alone at night in Jacmel and Cap Haitien for the most part.

Munich, Germany
Munich, Germany

There are a lot of black people who don’t get to the historical sights when they visit the Caribbean, or get past the safaris of Africa for one reason or another. I’ve got nothing against beaches or animals, but I think the black adoption of traditionally white modes of travel is problematic. No holidaymaker should be engaging in Orientalism when they travel in 2014 or beyond. But ‘point and stare’ tourism is still the standard because ‘difference’ and ‘exotic’ remain unconnected with a full humanity. ‘They’ are not like ‘us.’  Rome is still marketed as the birthplace of ‘civilisation.’ Like, really. I hope my blog contributes to black people, particularly those keen on independent travel, thinking carefully about their holiday destination choices and the role they play in those destinations in maintaining power relations.  It’s not sexy, but I try and make it light-hearted in my writing!

Oh – and you asked me about myself.  When I was the only black person in our group of 15 British kids sent to teach English in Thailand at 18, I prepared myself mentally.  I was British too, but I was not white from a semi-rural nor a privileged background.  All the same, I was still flabbergasted when in our second group meeting after we’d been in in our respective schools a few months, a girl admitted that she was having difficulties settling in and with colleagues because “They all look the same!”  Once it was said out loud, the group expressed their collective woes borne of differentiating between one Thai person and another. Seriously.  This was at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

I grew up in a different world from those kids. A happy multicultural politically-progressive area in 90s London, whereas these guys were from small towns and villages where black people were spotted at bus stops and Portuguese people were dark-skinned and ‘foreign-looking’. And I realised, these were the people travel literature was written for: upper-upper-middle class white people on an adventure with more-than-colonial undertones. One of them even went on to study ‘South-East Asian studies’. I fell in love with backpacking that year, but I fell out of love with mass-produced nonconformity, and learned quickly that travel and travel writing are not progressive unless you consciously make it so.

The Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center, New York
The Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center, New York

​How can travel media change to become less of a white boy’s club?

Short answer:  “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe

LONG answer: Travel media can’t change unless the world changes. As long as travel media continues the tradition of denying people the opportunity to talk about their own hometowns, and instead pays foreigners to report back on someone else’s country, and no one sees anything wrong with that, it will continue to be a white boy’s club. Even if there are more people of colour in that club, travel writing will remain essentially an orientalist endeavour.

Stories about ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the essential insurmountable differences between humans and their collective groupings will abound. George W Bush’s cabinet had 2 people of colour in important positions – Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell. It was lauded as the most diverse cabinet in US history in some quarters if I remember correctly. But it was not a progressive cabinet in political terms because, to paraphrase Angela Davis, diversity which doesn’t produce change is meaningless and BECAUSE it looks progressive, can get away with being reactionary, i.e. backward!

The problem with travel media, for me, is really a more broad discourse. Who has the right to speak? Who has the power to be heard? Who sets the terms of the discussion? Who and what subjects are included? Who and what are excluded?

Travel writing has a troubled history. The tradition of travellers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe, it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism. Travel writing, like early anthropology, provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious or simply ‘other’. It played a key role in creating a popular imagination in which people are sufficiently characterised as so different, their lifestyles and cultural practices so alien, that they’re not fully human, and thus, with their humanity diminished bit by bit, story by story, you arrive at a world where brutal barbaric invasions are romanticised as bringing civilisation! Cruel, inhumane exploitation is barely thought of as unfortunate because it also involved ‘modernity’ or ‘Christianisation’. There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.

I don’t think I’ll make any friends but here’s my two cents: Travel media can’t change to become less of a white boy’s club unless it, by some unusually effective process of reflection, looks at itself and asks how it became one in the first place.

'Grafitti Street', Fort-de-France, Martinique
‘Grafitti Street’, Fort-de-France, Martinique

White boys didn’t invent the movement of peoples or travel for pleasure. If necessity is the mother of invention we know that travel has historically been very closely linked to trade. Where some people go to trade, other people follow to travel.  The link between the US ban on travel to Cuba for nationals following the trade embargo is one example. The place of Timbuktu in popular imagination is another. Our conceptions of geography itself are wedded to our political realities; how else do you explain that ‘everybody’ has heard of the Caribbean islands – Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas – but few people would place Cuba, Haiti or the Bermuda triangle in that same geographical region? How many people have heard of Martinique or Guadeloupe?  Let alone place them firmly in the same archipelago as St. Lucia or Trinidad if you gave them a map?

How is it that lots of contemporary travel writing is still so keen to present a place of wonder, relaxation or exploration for the traveller or tourist, and not as someone else’s home? Filled with all the stresses and joys of life for the people who live there?  What is it about the way we travel, that makes the realisation that the ‘unique’ transportation we’re taking in an ‘exotic’ destination is somebody else’s oh-so-mundane ride to work, a bit of a buzz kill?  Why are we so determined to talk about Jamaican beaches and landscapes, with reference to Jamaican crime, and not Jamaica and the IMF? Why is an authentic African adventure one which features seeing African wildlife and not one which features meeting African people, on their turf, as equals, or better yet, with them as the experts?

If I throw the question back at you, do you want travel media to become less of a white boy’s club, or all media? Travel is not a white boy’s club and never has been. We can’t talk about who gets to travel and whose lands are turned into ‘destinations’ – and whose aren’t – without talking about history and power. Well, I can’t!

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33 thoughts on “Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) #Dispatch: Moving Black”

  1. This dispatch is really making me think, and I thank you both for that. I’ve written a lot on my blog about my travels but I haven’t called myself a travel writer, and I actually don’t read much travel writing, and I’m realizing now that it’s because most of it is so problematic for all the reasons laid out so beautifully here. I’m going to think more on this!

    1. Yup, most folks don’t think consciously about travel writing, it tends to float by unchecked. I’m glad it got you thinking. Looking forward to our talk tomorrow!

    2. I also really struggle to identify myself as a travel writer or read a lot of travel writing though I love both writing and travel – It was through chatting to Bani that I started to see why! Glad it helped you think through these questions too.

  2. This was so thought provoking! Particularly I am intrigued by “How is it that lots of contemporary travel writing is still so keen to present a place of wonder, relaxation or exploration for the traveller or tourist, and not as someone else’s home?” – which is true, so true, and an aha! moment in this interview filled with aha! moments. But perhaps it is most true of nonwhite and highly marketed tourist destinations.

    There are certain forms of travel writing that DO depict a place as someone’s home, but which are still just as orientalist and ‘colonialistically’ condescending as marketing something as a place for middle and upper class white people to relax. Poverty porn is one example, and the whole genre of white people ‘seeking themselves’ in nonwhite countries is another – all those books of the City of Joy and Shantaram and Eat Pray Love ilk. I am always unsettled when I read about white people going to ‘my’ home, seeing something so surfacial, and making a big deal of how omg!tragic or omg!enlightening is. Which it might well be for THEM but they use the language of universalism. Simultaneously erasing us and making freaks out of us, denying us depth and humanity. Point-and-stare on a whole new level, is what it is. Pointing and staring at a whole culture or country instead of at one single sight.

    Oof, sorry, this is turning into a proper rant! In don’t want to hijack your wonderful interview… But this is totally your fault – it really was thought provoking, here’s the proof!

    1. Oooh the universalising nature of the particularity that is whiteness was once a serious pet subject of mine!! Ummm…ie really looking forward to reading your dispatch! Glad you felt this one.

  3. As a traveler and woman of color, I’ve struggled with these same ideas about tourism. I become conflicted during my travels, thinking about how I might be contributing to a new type of colonialism.

    This interview was a great read. Everywhere All the Time and Moving Black can count on me as a new follower.

    1. For those of us who abhor colonialism, travel is an amazing opportunity to create new, healthier power relations among peoples who live in different places. The first step is simply asking yourself what am I doing here, I suspect. An then being prepared to change your behaviour in that place if you don’t like the honest response. Learning basic vocabulary and expressions even in places where ‘everybody’ speaks English – an at least 2 more languages which they use when foreigners aren’t around – helps me fix my perspective usually.

      1. You have captured and articulated my 10 year experience in Azerbaijan perfectly. I always tried to live local and understand the complexities of my adopted culture. I gained so much more than just acting like a tourist.

        I don’t consider myself a”travel” writer at all. I am much more interested in gaining new perspectives on our world.

        I grew up clueless about race as a military kid, meaning I did not ever see a homogenous world, and was never taught to think in terms of “us” or “them” – for which I am grateful.

        But it has caused me no end of frustration and impatience with what you call the “colonialist” mind set.

        I so appreciate your well considered comments and approach to educating others (me) to our (my) blind spots.
        Many thanks!

  4. “I learned quickly that travel and travel writing are not progressive unless you consciously make it so”
    This whole interview is amazing! Keep preaching it

  5. Thank you for helping to open some eyes, mine included, to how narrow our vision can be. How refreshing. Smiles to both you bind-er-I mean ladies.

  6. Reblogged this on Life Lessons and commented:
    Recently I’ve had the opportunity through my injury to experience a sliver of life through a different set of eyes, one where not everything is taken for granted. I had you work a different set of muscles, both literally and figuratively.
    Well, my blogging acquaintance Bani Amor (@bani_amor – Everywhere All The Time) has brought another perspective on travel in this post I am re blogging below. I’ve quoted many posts before, but rarely if ever re blogged. This interview was so good, I wanted to give you the full experIence.

    For me this is something I have wondered about, in the recesses of my mind, but had no way to get outside my own understanding to compare. .. until now. Thank you, Bani Amor for this wonderful interview, put together under very challenging circumstances.

  7. This is why I love your writing! You always bring something thought provoking to the table. This post was no exception.

    Thank you for this. You’ve given so much to think about and discuss. Hat tip to you!

    I also reblogged on my Life Lessons. .. What The World Taughte Me – seems to me this is the very best definition of a “Life Lesson” ¿Si?

      1. Me too! I’m so glad you thought to do this interview bringing light to Abena’s insights. And, pleased you were gracious enough to share it with this additional audience of global travelers! 😉

  8. I spent my early childhood in Kenya, then most of my youth in India and now have lived for more than a decade in London. And I have traveled a lot- in the far East, Europe and America. And it’s funny how everyone – no matter where you are – identifies you on the basis of externals, a brown skin but internally to me i do not label myself as this or that- I see the similarities. To me, there are the same joys and sorrows that human beings experience. I admit that cultural differences, can be often like two sides of the fence, and each side views the other suspiciously. But then isn’t that precisely the point of traveling? To find those unifying factors – the things that bind us rather than separate us? I guess I am digressing slightly but hope that it makes some sense! 🙂 Thank you for the excellent piece.

    1. It makes perfect sense to me – it’s probably through being in places I didn’t grow up in, that I learned that actually, people are people are people and that we’re really not as different as we’re encouraged to think. In that respect I think international travel can perhaps confirm our ideas about people; whether you believe that we’re all human and thus the same at heart, or that we’re fundamentally different.

  9. I love this post so much. I love writing by people of color and I love travelling, I just don’t see them coming together so often, of course because most of the media is controlled by ‘white male’. I was jumping happily in my chair on Angela Davis’s name. Loving exploring your blog, Bani.

    1. Thanks! Abena and I are currently working on some new projects that I can’t wait to tell folks about. Also I love your handle – kafkaonshore. That’s like one of my fav books of all time.

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