hey kids, today I wanna share an essay from Esther Choi of Inedible Roots, a person who has contributed significantly to my understanding of how imperialism functions in travel culture by introducing me to a bunch of theoretical books on the subject, something that was new for me because I don’t speak academese!
Esther is dope for allowing me to share this essay but you can check out the original post here. Share your thoughts in the comments.
Inedible Roots: Our Cultures Are Not Commodities
By Esther Choi
Living in the First World*, we constantly hear about the glories of world travel. Travel is moralized as a good deed, an opportunity for spiritual transformation, or a test of the will. But in a world where global inequalities and borders dictate who gets to jetset around the globe and who must stay put, travel is largely the exclusive ability to consume in a world where others are selected to be consumed.
(*I will continue to use First World, Third World, Traveler, Backpacker, Native and Other to critique the imagined dichotomies that shape the culture of travel, not to say that these are accurate labels.)
Travel’s Imperialist Foundations
Colonization has always depended on controlling representations of the colonized Other, in order to deny their humanity and complexity, and both justify and facilitate their domination. That legacy is echoed in travel literature today, from guidebooks to blogs, which paint countries outside the West as primitive, exotic, and rich for exploitation, with their people, cultures, spiritualities, and natural habitats presented as products to consume or experiences to conquer.
While appearing neutral, travel literature is undeniably political, erasing global exploitation, shifting blame for historical injustices, and interpreting the world through white supremacist and Western-centric frameworks.
Contrary to the belief that travel makes one open-minded, travelers tend to approach cultural differences in ways that highlight their own sense of universality against the perceived deficiency of the Other. Poverty and chaos are seen as innate characteristics of the Third World, as proof of inferiority rather than evidence of exploitation. From their fleeting vacations in foreign lands, First World travelers believe themselves capable of evaluating and defining the Other’s complexities in ways they would find unthinkable with respect to themselves. While comments may range from sweeping generalizations about how uncivilized and strange the Natives are, to seemingly generous praise of how unmarred, beautiful, and peaceful they are, there is a shared subtext: that the observer has the ability to place the observed on a scale of human development, taking for granted their own position at the top of this scale.
And while the problems of the Third World are always seen as internally created, the solutions are expected to come from beyond. Those who feel guilty about the extreme inequalities that make their vacations possible can participate in a random assortment of volunteer opportunities–known as “voluntourism” or humanitarian travel–even though many of the charities and NGOs providing these opportunities are highly politicized, neoliberal organizations at the root of the problem. The voluntourism industry rests on the assumption that Third World people are so incapable of managing their lives that they can be saved by the natural ingenuity of any and every unskilled First World do-gooder.
Travel vs. Tourism
Distinguishing themselves from mere tourists by their oversized packs, Lonely Planet guides, and hill-tribe treks, the “Backpacker” travels not just as what they do but who they are, and their identities–predominantly privileged and white–are developed in relation to the exotic cultures they try on.
In spite of its veneer of grassroots independence, backpacking has become a large industry and prevalent culture that claims not only the land and resources of a country, but the very lives and identities of the Other as commodities. Seeking out the bizarre, problematic, and dangerous aspects of the Third World, backpackers turn whole countries into amusement parks, freakshows, and wild photo ops.
Backpacking’s relentless obsession with adventure also fetishizes an “authentic” experience of the Other, with the goal of ever more completely possessing the Other’s being. Third World people are forced to sell and perform bastardized versions of their cultures in order to survive, while the Western world appropriates, commodifies, and dessicates. The existence of the Other is reduced to a badge on the First World traveler’s display of cultured enlightenment and superiority, available for purchase at tourist markets in the form of cheap and stereotypical imitations.
Backpacking has also been instrumental in “discovering” new areas, as communities previously untouched by tourism are initially penetrated by the backpacking trail and quickly transformed to fit touristic needs.
When the Third World becomes the premier destination for “budget travel,” poverty itself is commodified. Travelers seek cheap places to stay, cheap transportation, cheap sex, cheap food, but the prices are considered “fair” only in a world where Third World people are considered innately inferior and deserving of poverty. Rather than challenging Third World exploitation, budget travelers have the chance to exploit directly, as part of the fun, violently haggling down to the last cent with Third World laborers, who are pushed below subsistence wages.
Waltzing through their fantasies of the exotic, First World
travelers transition old imperialist doctrines into contemporary forms. They rarely look at themselves and see the ugly history and circumstances that make their travels systemically possible. The elements of our world that are unjust, pitiable, broken, backwards–all that is everywhere but with them.
The Other at Home
Travelers of color occupy a space between privilege and marginality, knowing the violence of exploiting difference while simultaneously wielding the power to do the same. Notwithstanding their complicities and contradictions, travelers of color share the experience of being Othered by the global reach of white supremacy, and their perspectives offer an important challenge to the white supremacist moorings of travel culture.
Due to the structural inequalities that define the industry of travel, however, travelers of color confront the familiar experiences of exclusion and tokenization in an industry that justifies itself as a celebration of intercultural understanding.
About this Project
Inedible Roots seeks to challenge the exclusive and racist tendencies of travel culture by centering the perspectives of people of color, either as they experience tourism’s impact on their bodies, lands, and cultures or as they navigate their own travels.
It actively critiques seemingly independent or “humanitarian” forms of travel, such as volunteer trips, “backpacking,” and “eco-travel,” and the ways these forms of tourism exploit and commodify Third World Otherness.
Inedible Roots will share critical perspectives on travel–personal, journalistic, academic, and otherwise–and highlight activism around the world that challenges the neoliberal, racist structures on which tourism relies.
We welcome travel-related narratives, diatribes, artwork, and other forms of expression from people of color as well as resources related to the topics we discuss. Click Submit to find out how you can contribute.