Tag Archives: Dispatches

What mainstream travel media are still getting wrong

What up folks! Check out my interview with @Fly Brother Ernest White II on race, travel and travel media, What mainstream travel media are still getting wrong, which was republished by Matador Network yesterday. Please share and get some comments up there! The interview was a part of our Dispatch series, a bunch of conversations I’m having with writers of color on topics of race, place and adventure. Check out past Dispatches with artist Miyuki Baker and journalist Aliyya Swabby, and look out for next week’s Dispatch with Ms Moving Black on Monday. If you’re interested in getting involved in the project, let me know here. I’ll also be in New York City next week. If anyone’s into doing an interview in person, hit me up!

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3rd World Writing, 1st World Gaze #Dispatch: Negrisimo

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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Aliyya Swaby is a newly minted freelance journalist currently chasing stories and adventure in Panama. After graduating from Yale last May, she received a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship to report on race, gentrification, and Afro-Panamanian culture. She uses her writing to explore the local effects of urban development. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Ozy and Racialicious. Check out her blog at aliyyaswaby.com and tweets at @AliyyaSwaby

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

Aliyya Swaby:  I’m a freelance reporter, at least for now, reporting in Panama on a travel fellowship from Yale, my alma mater. My project here explores social and cultural issues in Afro Panamanian communities, obviously a very broad topic.

I’ve used it to explore parts of Panamanian culture that mainstream US media isn’t covering. I think a lot of articles in major publications talk about the steep growth rate of the country. Fewer talk about the positive and and negative effects of this growth on everyday people, especially low-income and minority groups.

I’d like to think that my writing is very grassroots oriented. I think the most interesting topics are the ones that are the most local. But that doesn’t help me get published. So I’ve been working on finding a balance.

BA:  Right on. Why did you choose Panama as the setting and the Afro-Panamanian community as the subject of your reportage?

AS:  I’d been awarded Yale fellowships before and used them to research similar issues in Latin American indigenous communities (specifically in Ecuador and Peru). I majored in environmental studies, and I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of forest conservation and indigenous rights in the Amazon. But I felt uncomfortable doing that sort of research. I’m not indigenous and ultimately my few months of reporting/research didn’t really give much back to those communities.

I chose to report on Afro-Panamanian communities, because it felt more personal. My parents are from Jamaica and Trinidad, and many black Panamanians are of Caribbean descent.

I’ve learned a lot about the West Indian diaspora being here in Panama. Actually, I have an article coming out soon about Marcus Garvey in Central America — not too many people know that he was inspired to start the UNIA after traveling and working in Panama and Costa Rica.

BA:  I didn’t know that!

AS:  Yeah, I spoke to my dad about it — he’s well read on West Indian and black American history — and he didn’t know either. I feel like there are millions of stories like these being passed over constantly. I love stumbling across them.

BA: Exactly. Those are exactly the kinda stories I wanna read.

AS:   It’s sad that there aren’t too many places to publish them.

BA:  Tragic, really. But then I think about the pre-internet age, and how folks went about distributing stories and information themselves because the mainstream didn’t provide a place for them.

AS:  Right. And it seems like you take advantage of different media outside of the mainstream to publish your work. I really admire that. I’ve enjoyed keeping a blog throughout this fellowship — though it’s still online, I feel less powerless having a self-curated space. At the same time, I’ve been trying to force my way into mainstream media. It seems backwards, but I think many people only have access to certain publications. Maybe they lack the connections or time or resources to search for alternative news sources. I want my work to be widely read. (And I want to be paid for it.)

BA:  The thought of bending my words to fit into mainstream travel writing kinda freaks me out. While it’s very important, crucial even, that certain stories get attention through a mainstream audience, it’s just not the type of attention my work needs. I don’t know. I’m still trying to carve out my own space and find my own voice. You’re coming from this academic, journalist background, and I can def see how that needs a different kind of attention. And you should get paid for it!

AS:  That makes total sense. I don’t know how far I’d be willing to bend my writing to fit it into certain slots. So far, I’ve mostly been published in smaller online magazines. I haven’t had to give up much. But I’ve definitely researched and pitched way more ideas than I’ve been able to publish. I do think, though, that there should be more opportunities available for this kind of writing than exist.

BA:  It’s part of the game, people say. But I notice which editors turn down which pitches, and I’m like, really?

AS: Also, we talked a bit before about the term “travel writer”.

BA: Yes, I wouldn’t corner you into that genre. That’s just me.

AS:  I just think it’s interesting. I’ve shied away from the term and that kind of writing. But reading your work is making me think about it differently. There’s definitely something to be said for creating your own path and your own definition or brand of travel writing.

It’s just been really frustrating throughout this fellowship to see a bit more of the behind-the-scenes of the journalism industry. There’s a lot of opportunities for uninformed diatribe.

BA:  It’s endless.

AS:  But not much for carefully researched articles on local issues. Or for writers who have a different audience in mind.

BA:  Speak, speak. It’s the truth. But I do think there’s a place for your work to be read by a wide audience, and that’s how I stumbled onto your writing, through your Racialicious piece, ‘Western Privilege and Anti-Black Racism in Panama’.

AS:  That’s true! I just was going to say: It’s hasn’t been all bad or frustrating. Racialicious is a great example of a publication with a LOT of very informed readers who are interested in hearing different voices. I’m really grateful to have been published there. The exposure was priceless. And I actually have been contacted a few times by editors who have read it and were interested in hearing what else I was working on.

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BA: That’s awesome. Also, I related to something you touched on in that article. For me, I’m Ecuadorian-Guatemalan-American, I live in Quito, and a lot of non-Ecuadorians (mostly white expats) feel like they can confide their anti-Ecuadorian sentiments/complaints in me, because I’m ‘exceptional’. This idea, that you are exceptional, is interesting to me.

AS:  Yeah, that definitely happens. In the article, I wrote about a journalist who told me how black people in Colon are just lazy freeloaders. And it happened to me in Peru and Ecuador, but it was a different dynamic because I actually didn’t see very many people like me in the capital cities.

BA: I’ve seen African-American expats in Ecuador treated very differently than Afro-Ecuadorians, for instance. When it’s convenient for folks.

AS:  Yeah, that makes sense. It’s a weird space to be in. I have a lot of white European friends here who don’t like that they stand out so much. I definitely can pass through certain areas more easily than they can. But also standing out, for me, is a good thing because otherwise I’d be treated poorly.

BA:  I’m so over white travelers complaining about how they stick out. Have fun being the ‘Other’, for a change.

AS: Yep, it’s a hard thing for white people to deal with, especially if it’s their first time in a “black” country. In a way, Panama is a black country.

BA:  There’s just a lack of reflection when white people complain about it, which leads me to my next question. In that Racialicious article you mention trying to be careful about framing other people’s stories in your gaze as a an American journalist. I’m going to go ahead and say that most travel writers and journalists are definitely not reflecting on Western privilege when they report abroad.

AS: Right. And that’s a problem, for sure. But it’s also a really difficult thing to do.

BA: How so?

AS:  First of all, as we talked about earlier, certain angles are going to be published more often in mainstream media than others. Too often, those angles replicate common misconceptions about global south/Third World countries or follow similar trends. For example, there were a few articles criticizing the news cycle surrounding the Boko Haram kidnappings.Articles on violence are readily published.

BA: Yup.

AS: Articles on local artists/cultural pioneers are not, for example. I think I’ve been lucky in finding publications interested in some of my ideas. And then I was able to do the research necessary to make sure I wasn’t presenting misinformation or an incorrect angle. But there are so many steps in the process and so much competition.

Many people don’t want to think about privilege, especially if there’s nothing forcing them to. That’s why I think there needs to be more space for people who do think about it. Those perspectives should be valued and should be adequately compensated to make sure that they stay in journalism. A problem right now is that many would-be journalists can’t afford to be. And freelance work is becoming less and less lucrative.

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BA:  Absolutely. Mad writers can’t just get fellowships, can’t get funding to travel, can’t afford to be an unpaid intern, etc. A space needs to be made for them.

AS:  Definitely. Diversity in mainstream media is at the root of many problems in the industry. Like anthropology, it’s the sort of medium that’s always been “white man’s thoughts on x other group” And it shouldn’t be like that anymore. But factors like unpaid internships and lack of pay for freelancers really keep most people out of the business. Some radical change needs to be made, but newer sites like Vox, for example, have been criticized for the same lack of diversity as older historic publications.

BA: So what advice would you pass on to those of us who do manage to stay in the game and are pursuing this kind of work,  how not to be just another privileged foreigner who pops in, takes what they need, and leaves? For travel writers and journalists reporting abroad, I mean.

AS:  Well, really, I need this sort of advice. I’ve only been freelancing for eight months — I don’t feel qualified enough to give any definitive rule or plan. But one thing that has helped me during my time here is focusing on building real relationships with the people I meet, whose groups I’m reporting on.

There’s a fear in journalism that being too chummy with your sources leads to biased reporting. But I think journalists should be more afraid of the opposite — that they won’t get deep enough into understanding a new culture or community to be able to represent it well in writing. And I think doing that well takes a lot of energy, effort and time. I’ve decided to stay in Panama longer than my allotted fellowship time, because I don’t think I’m done here. I’m learning how to make these connections and how I fit into this culture. I need more time to do it.

BA:  That’s awesome! I know you’ll make the best of your time there.

AS:  I hope so!

What Mainstream Travel Media Still Gets Wrong #Dispatch: Fly Brother

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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Fly Brother (aka Ernest White II) tackles international travel in unabridged, unapologetic, full and complete color.  He is a former assistant editor of Time Out São Paulo whose writing has appeared in Time Out London, the Orlando SentinelEbony, TravelChannel.com, American Airlines’ Black Atlas, Travel by Handstand, TripAdvisor, Viator, Jetsetter, World Travel Guide, and Matador. He has also been featured on The Root, The Huffington Post, and the Montreal Gazette Online, and has appeared as a host on the Travel Channel’s Jamaica Bared and Destination Showdown, which aired this past summer on the Travel Channel.

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.  ;  )

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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.

EW:  Absolutely.

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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.

BA:  Preach!