Racial Segregation and Assimilation in Travel Blogging: #Dispatch: Navdeep Dhillon

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.

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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.”

IshqInABackpack.com: Sona and Navdeep Spiritual Journey to Vaisno Devi

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

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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

Navdeep: Haha

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.

There are plenty of travel memoirs by people of color out there and lots of bloggers of color from around the world. Real change in the travel writing industry will come from the people.

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6 thoughts on “Racial Segregation and Assimilation in Travel Blogging: #Dispatch: Navdeep Dhillon”

  1. Great interview, thanks for introducing me to Navdeep’s blog (and through him Oneika’s – looking forward to reading more of both!), and “travel writing is like the suburbs of literature lol” – lol indeed. I loled. Apt metaphor, I think!

  2. I participated in the New York Travel Fest panel with Navdeep. It was surprising to see how many people felt their voices had no place in travel media. Of course that feeling is largely due to the topic at hand. We (people of color) as a whole need not hesitate when it comes to sharing our experiences – whether they be mediocre or extraordinary 😉

    The best way to tackle the representation beast is to support each other, as you both have done here. Ya know what they say: there’s power in numbers. Looking forward to the number (and awareness) of diverse voices growing exponentially. Cheers!

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