Popping in for another random-ass update about a month overdue. Over a year ago I started the POC Travel Book Club to get other nerds to talk to me about travel-ish books not written by white people. Now we have around 150 members who are getting ready to discuss An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, edited by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I wrote about our lil’ club as well as the legacy of whitewashing in travel literature and the significance of reading travel by POC for CNN Travel!
“The tradition of travelers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe; it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism.” Travel writing provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious, or simply ‘other.’ There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.”
Though it wasn’t linked to in the piece, this quote is from our talk Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been)from back in ’14. My CNN piece includes a photo gallery of all the books we’ve read together so far, so while the club is for POC only, white folks are welcome (and encouraged) to read along on their own.
Part of decolonizing travel narratives is redefining what gets to be filed under travel writing and expanding it to include varying forms of migration and the unlimited stories of place and identity this experience produces. The kind of stories we read in the POC Travel Book Club.
Head here to join us. If you’re already a part of the club, then I’ll be seeing you December 10th at 2pm EST over Hangouts.
Travel writing [is] a particularly colonized genre desperately in need of a full-frontal attack. Not only do we have to fight against the master travel narrative—an extension of the colonial project—and redefine the definition of travel, but we spend a lot of time educating POC about what travel literature is. Folks weren’t valuing their journeys as the stuff of literature, and they were letting the white gaze determine and define the world. As I always say, POC are the most traveled people on the planet; every time we leave our houses, we travel.
Hey people! I’m excited to finally share my talk with the one and only Faith Adiele. She’s the award-winning author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun and The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems, and teaches what I’m 99.9% sure is the only travel writing workshop exclusive to people of color at the VONA/Voices workshop, which I’ve written about here, here, and here. A bite:
Travel memoirs in the hands of women and nonbinary writers of color in particular can be a revolutionary thing. While traditional story structures often fail to accommodate the ample stories of hyphenated people with “complicated” identities, it also provides an opportunity to complicate the project of memoir in new and exciting ways. It’s what Faith Adiele calls a “superpower.”
For my series of interviews with WOC authors of travel-ish books for On She Goes, Faith and I talked about writing against the trope of Westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment in the East, finding relief abroad from the racialized binary of the US, and why teaching travel writing to people of color is such vital work. When I asked her about writing her first book, Meeting Faith, (which we read in the POC Travel Book Club!) she said:
I see POC and others trying to cram themselves into the old structures that don’t represent the way we view time, the multiple codes we speak, the shapes of our families and lives. I knew that one of the reasons I had ended up shattered in northern Thailand is the pressure I experienced at college to choose between being female (a white project) or black (a male project), which felt like a choice between my arm or my eye, so I certainly wasn’t going to let narrative rules do the same kind of damage.
Hey people, I’m still settling into my new base in Montréal – the land of pâté, poutine, and other things I’ll never understand. Popping in between the cat emergencies and Facebook pleas for free furniture to share my latest essay for Bitch Magazine for their series on Fragility.
The use of women’s bodies—and specifically, the promise of sex—to sell any and everything under the sun has long been the subject of beef between feminists and the advertising world, but what happens when the product being sold is a place? The marketing of women’s bodies, namely, those of color, as destinations to be consumed, lands to be penetrated, or as accessories to the (masculine) tourist experience has remained a largely uncontested norm in travel ads, from vintage depictions of the Hawaiian feminine to the mainstream pimping of Brazilian women’s bodies from brands like Adidas and Kia Motors during the 2014 World Cup.
In this long-ass (I believe the proper term is ‘longform’) piece, I attempt to answer the questions:
What does tourism’s dehumanization of women of color tell us about the fragility of the western traveler?
What role does patriarchy play in selling place? And,
What does—or doesn’t—constitute a feminist travel narrative?
There are a ton of sources mentioned within the essay for folks to follow-up on, from academic shout-outs to literary ones. (I go into a lil’ more depth on these sources in this Twitter thread.) But this line from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other gets to the root of it all:
It is as if everywhere we go, we become someone’s private zoo.
A few months ago an essay of mine, Beyond Binary, was published in Archer Magazine’s THEY/THEIRS issue dedicated to non-binary gender identities. It’s the first time my travel photography has been published in a print magazine, and an internationally-circulated Australian one, at that!
It is when I’m moving in between places that I feel the most pressure to be pinned down. As a travel writer and diasporic person of color I spend a lot of time in transit, and it’s this condition that reveals to me time and time again that places, like identities, are always in flux, and that borders aren’t as binary as they’re made out to be. Borders, like the gender binary, cut right through me, through so many of us. They attempt to neatly and quietly delineate difference no matter how much it continues to overlap, intersect and blur. It is between the constructed binaries of place, language and gender that I feel the most at home and most under attack, for it is these in-between spaces that are the most heavily policed.
Get your copy of the magazine here or see where it’s stocked around you here.
If we’re going to protect the sacred and prepare for the worst, we must look at the environmental effects of white supremacy.
Real talk: it’s been a fucked up month in a fucked up year and I, like many of you, am afraid. Since November, I’ve been hibernating, maybe because I feel safe inside, also because the cold weather is racist, and have tripled down on reading and writing. A lot of that writing was published this week, notably my series on climate change and oppression for Bitch Magazine that accompanies my feature on “natural” disasters in their latest Chaos issue. I’ll be releasing one essay per week, starting with everyone’s favorite topics, white supremacy and climate change. Just some light holiday reading.
“Poor places experience forest-cover loss because they are exploited by wealthy places.” Historical context for current crises demands accountability from those wealthy places, and this is key if what we’re fighting for is environmental justice.
I lay out a brief history of the deforestation of Haiti by colonial and imperial powers that took place way before the current (white, Western) environmental narrative decided it was an issue. The takeaway here is that these wealthy countries have been using the climate to punish Haiti for resisting white supremacy ever since they dared to overthrow their slavers.
I get capitalism, but if your goal is long-term domination, wouldn’t you be in favor of environmental sustainability? Turns out: Nah. Because they knew in the end, people of color would be the ones paying the highest price for the environmental consequences of settler colonialism.
I blame the creation of the settler state, which is predicated upon the genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of people of African descent, for being a major contributor to our current climate crisis, and the settler colonialist framework many environmental groups rely on that stalls progress. I think it’s detrimental that people of color remain stewards of the land, because we historically know how to take care of it best.
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.