OK, so it’s been forever and a day since I’ve updated this here blog and I’m sorry for the radio silence. If you’ve been following me on social media you’d know I’m still alive and kicking and have simply gone the way of many bloggers before me who…fail to update their blogs.
There’s so much I gotta share with y’all but I’ll start off with this essay published at the beginning of the year on racist conversations on safety in travel culture that erase women and trans people of color’s voices and experiences with harassment and gendered violence. And really, those listicles on ‘safe’ travel destinations for women are a whole heaping mess of bias, assumptions, and feelings over facts. Cis white women’s feelings, to be specific. Here’s the premise:
Travel safety is simply more of a concern for women, trans men, and nonbinary travelers. But these conversations around safety have long been dominated by white Western women with class and race privilege who color their “advice” with a not-so-coded streak of racism. Safety for white women travelers is not the same as safety for women and nonbinary travelers of color, and when travel media fails to even acknowledge that we exist in these narratives, they strengthen the conditions that make this patriarchal world unsafe for those most vulnerable.
Unless you’ve managed to delude your racist ass into believing you’re ‘colorblind,’ then you’ve noticed that listicles on ‘safe’ travel destinations for women are not only written by white women but primarily list majority-white countries in what’s referred to as the ‘developed world’. You can call them former colonies, the ‘first world,’ whatever, but we all know how they got their wealth and which citizens they guarantee ‘safety’ for. So clearly this conversation needs to be complicated, because,
those are relative notions shaped by power, and not a one-size-fits-all deal.
There’s a lot to parse through here, but I want to highlight two main points.
These conversations rely on unexamined stereotypes of Black and brown men as not only criminals, but hypersexual beings who prey on white women
These conversations completely erase how Black, Native, and other women of color are often hypersexualized in predominantly white places while also being hyperpoliced, making them unsafe in spaces white women deem ‘safe’
So when a cis white woman with the privilege to travel the world advises you on where you should and shouldn’t travel, just assume that she’s only speaking for herself and women just like her, a global minority overrepresented in travel culture. It’s tired as hell.
We all experience the world differently, and if we are to advise others on how to navigate it, we need to be aware of and address those differences. When the mainstream travel culture—dominated with white voices—deems what’s safe or unsafe, they largely frame themselves as victims and people of color as predators because they are doing so without an analysis of power in mind.
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.
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.
I made it safely to Ecuador just in time for the locura of the presidential elections. I’ve left Quito and am just outside of Puyo, listening to wild birds call out to each other in tropical song and small white dogs bark at big brown dogs in the dirt roads of the neighborhood. The Talking Heads’s This Must Be The Place plays in the background. I wanted to share my latest work, Threshold of Revelation: A Queer Disabled Killjoy on National Themes, with y’all. It’s about the play-turned-TV-mini-series Angels in America, disability and Trump’s America, or whatever. A slice:
While we collectively watch the dismembering of the Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation that was insufficient in a healthcare system that’s world-renowned for its lack of humanity, in 2017, the face of disability is white. The face of “the LGBT community” is white. But how can the face of HIV/AIDS possibly remain white, over three decades after its outbreak in the US, despite all evidence to the contrary?
Read it in full over at the Philadelphia PrintWorks platform. If you’re into it, please share. I have so much news and so little time so I’ll have to see y’all again next week. Keep calm and carry – I mean, fuck shit up, please.
Hey kids, I’ve been in my writing den for a minute but will emerge with more interviews, articles and projects soon. For now, if you’re in the NYC area, you can come see me speak on the We Need Diverse Books panel on working as writers of color in digital media at Comic Con next Thursday, October 6th! Deets here and Facebook event here.
If you come through make sure to say hi! I’ll also be at the opening party for the anthology Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity, in which I have an essay on #travelingwhiletrans, on October 10th. I’ll post about that next week. In the meantimes, just wanna shout out to all the new people reading this blog after this salty white dude wrote a whole essay calling me anti-fun, anti-sun, and, gasp, anti-colonialism, all while misgendering me the entire time. I’m officially a tourism killjoy. #StayMad
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.
Bani Amor: Yay! So introduce yourselves however you like.
Jay Abdullahi: I’m Jay and I’m a disabled woman of color who has a travel blog called JayOnLife about traveling with a disability and all that that entails. I focus on the race aspect as well as the disability aspect.
Mama Càx: I’m Cax, most know me as Mama Càx. I’m a travel/lifestyle blogger and also work as a program manager at the Mayor’s office here in New York. I hope to one day work in international development focusing on disability rights.
Bani: That’s dope!I love how social media can connect us and uplift us in these ways that didn’t seem possible just a few years back. Travel blogging by POC, especially WOC, *especially* disabled Black+non-Black WOC was just not around when I got into it.
Jay: Yeah, true talk. At the risk of sounding like a Dramatic Debbie it did seem like it was just me. Although, as I have polio, it’s mostly just me and a bunch of old people. Polio is pretty much wiped out and I was the lonely one just chillin’. But in terms of travel blogging, when I decided to start up, all I saw were white folks climbing mountains, skiing, and saving starving African babies (with the obligatory hug photo of course – pics or it didn’t happen!) And in terms of Black people traveling, they were never disabled, and the disabled travel bloggers were always white. Then lil’ ol’ Black cripple me came along.
Cax: I sometimes find myself getting hesitant to even call myself a blogger. You guys have probably been doing it for a long time but for me I just wanted an online journal. I figured if my friends are reading they’ll be expecting updates and frequent posts so it was a way to hold myself accountable and push myself to write more. But then people started messaging me saying they’d never seen a woman of color with a prosthetic leg before. So my blogging became more about showing people who I am through my travel and that I do the same things they do. And I agree with Jay; I felt the need to join women or POC travel blogs but they were clearly not inclusive.
Jay: That’s so poignant, Cax, cuz I feel like the issue I have with my blogging is that I don’t get deep enough, as I rarely delve into how I FEEL about my polio and how it actually affects me from the day to day, to when I travel.
Bani: I was once invited to speak on a ‘diversity’ panel at a travel conference. It was all POC, but the LGBT and disabled panels were all white. I am all of the above. So these status-quo-led diversity (groan) convos seem to only be available for one ism at a time, effectively erasing us at the intersections. Seeing content out there for disabled Black+nbWOC travelers is just rare. How do you conduct your trip research? Did either of you search for other disabled travelers?
Knowing if I’m safe as a woman and that resources are available to women
Knowing if I’m safe as a dark Black person
And seeing how accessible things are
I’m very mobile. I have a heavy prosthetic leg and two crutches but I get around. From climbing to three-hour walks, I can push myself physically but there are days that I just can’t. For example when I traveled to the Ivory Coast recently I wanted to know if there was electricity 24/7 since my leg requires battery. In all, if I feel safe everything else is secondary. I’m more of an off-the-beaten path traveler which poses additional challenges for someone with a disability. I mostly look into general blogs and guide books while keeping in mind my added hurdles (gender, race & disability).
Jay: Nine times out of ten I legit have no clue and I believe I take such a careless attitude because I do not have a wheelchair. I can do stairs. They’re annoying and tiring as hell, but I can do them. In my search for disabled travel bloggers, I found one white guy in a wheelchair. Then another white guy in a wheelchair. Then a different white guy and girl in a wheelchair.
Bani: I feel you. The great majority of ‘is x country safe for women?’ content is by and for white women.
Jay: At the risk of sounding completely obtuse, I have never seen the point in such posts. Cuz let’s be real, you could die anywhere. I went to Jamaica and people told me to be careful out there. The people were nothing but lovely. Same with South Africa. Beware, it’s so dangerous etc. I felt nothing but loved. And I recently came back from Brazil and had the best time. Like, stop trying to scare muhfuggers. I know that traveling as a disabled woman of color is not the easiest. And sometimes, I have felt a bit iffy…
Cax: Yes, but I think everyone has a different experience. Some countries like Jamaica are hot spots for tourism so they know how to deal with foreigners. But someone who is LGBTQIA+ will not be welcomed and it can even be dangerous for them.
Jay: I get what you mean about the sexuality comment, Cax. While being disabled can suck and does leave me vulnerable. Unless someone has bad intentions, they are more willing to help, and go above and beyond, if you know what I mean. But I can’t even begin to imagine what some people in the LGBTQIA+ community have to go through. There’s like a deep hatred which I can never understand. Like, mind your fucking business.
Cax: I’ve had different experiences traveling in Christian countries vs. Buddhist countries, not to the point that I felt unsafe but that the attitude is different. The former people pity you and want to pray with you (I hate it) and the latter…it’s almost as if you don’t matter because you brought this upon yourself a.k.a. “Karma.”
Jay: 😠 I have had people trying to pray for me, only ever Christians, but I never noticed the Buddhist-Karma-thing. Maybe I just wasn’t focusing.
Cax: And unfortunately in some places my disability overshadows my race or even my gender. Other Black travelers get treated badly but I’m seen as this disabled fragile thing. I’ve noticed it outside of big cities.
Jay: Yes, the way that different cultures around the world consider disability can be very ableist. Do you get the feeling that people think you’re going to fall over and break any minute?
Cax: Oh yeah, the carefulness and offering help every two seconds…of course it’s always up to me to stand my ground. Once I let it be known that I’m a grown-ass woman and can take care of myself all becomes well. They all thought they cured my cancer through vodou and prayers.
Jay: Well, growing up in a religious African home, they’ve been trying to pray the disability away for some time now. Also random helpful Christians I don’t know. It’s always infuriating, Cax. At the risk of sounding like a creeper, but from the photos I’ve seen of you, you’re much taller than me. So I feel like they would sooner listen to you than me. Nobody is trying to acknowledge 5’2 baby face me. Like, leave me alone, I’m okay😅
Bani: Let’s talk accessibility. What are the biggest challenges when traveling?
Cax: For me it’s the physical environment. Hills, sand & ice are not easy to maneuver.
Jay: I am a victim to the weather. Rain makes life harder, and ice is just a no.
Bani: That presents more challenges of course. What do you do when the conditions aren’t optimal? Stay in?
Jay: But I have found that sometimes I think I am okay with a building or whatever, and I am not allowed to complete it because of people that work there, such as the Eiffel Tower. But I do try to push myself as hard as I can. Sometimes too hard, like I’ll climb to the top of a hill and have no idea how I’m getting back down (haha). That has happened one too many times, but I have killer upper body strength!
Cax: If the conditions aren’t ideal I work with it. Sometimes that means leaving my prosthetic leg in my ho(s)tel. I may complain but when I look back, overcoming those challenges is what ends up making my trips so special to me.
Bani: How do y’all navigate and feel about disability inspiration porn?
Cax: What’s that? I’m on a work computer I won’t be googling hahaha!
Jay: I think it’s looking at folks like us for inspiration.
Bani:No there isn’t any actual porn (well there is but that’s a topic for another day!), just a figure of speech.
Cax: Oohhhh, got it hahaha
Jay: I personally think it’s stupid, but if folks want to adore me, I’m not about to stop them. That’s on them, not me. Worship away. But I will counter to say that I can kind of see where they may be coming from. You have no idea what you can do until you have no other option.
Cax: Oh boy I get that a lot. People stopping me to say how I inspire them or shouting out [amen!] and of course I try to be polite but I hate it. I don’t see how I can inspire you if you don’t personally know me. Someone once told me I inspire them to wake up and conquer the day as if my whole existence is enough. As if because I have one leg I should be sad, depressed and if I’m not then I’m special.
Jay: I’ve had polio since I was a baby so I don’t know any different. But for others, it’s a bit much to wrap their heads around.
Cax: I agree with you. Many in my situation would have fought like hell and moved on. We are humans, we fight for survival. But alas, when I hear [you inspire me] I respond with a thank you…I can’t go out and educate everyone. In that sense it gets too tiring. Thank you is shorter and ends the conversation.
Jay: Nah, who has time for that? Just smile, nod and keep it moving.
Cax: Some guy once told me, “Even though you’re cripple, I’d still fuck you.”
Jay: WHOA. Are you serious?! He actually said that out loud?! To you?!
Cax: Yes he did. I’ve heard several fucked up comments…
Bani: I’m sorry. That’s beyond fucked up. Yet that mentality is all around us.
Jay:Fucking shit. Should have whacked him with your crutches.
Bani: Have you found some places more hospitable, convenient or accessible than others? And have you faced any kind of discrimination in some places more than others?
Cax: In some countries people tend to stare and keep their comments to themselves where as other countries people are intrusive with their questions.
Jay: I have found some places absolutely amazing especially in terms of transportation: Lisbon, Athens, Stockholm, Berlin, Rio. I agree with the intrusive comment. In some places people are polite about their wonderings. Whereas in Istanbul, some dude who I was not even next to, had no dealings with, just said, “What happened to your leg?” Like, really? In my head I always come back with “What happened to your face?” But I just say [polio] and keep walking.
Cax: I love big cities because people tend to be more educated in that sense and they have exposure to diverse people and therefore more opportunities to learn about different people. For example, in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, people stared, but in a coastal town like Sihanoukville people were touching and rubbing my skin and seemed to be amazed that my brown wasn’t rubbing off.
Bani: As people who aren’t white, aren’t men, aren’t ‘able-bodied’, what does it mean (to you) to travel? And write about it?
Jay: I just like to get my thoughts out there. But I do have issues getting deep. Like, there was an incident on my birthday while abroad. And I am still trying to wrap my head around how I feel about it.
Cax: I understand how the world works and that some people only see dark-skinned people on TV. It’s simply ignorance. So as a traveler you just brush it off. As a Black woman who happens to have a disability, traveling and sharing my stories with others means someone else who fits that same criteria knows that they shouldn’t set boundaries for themselves and that they can do the same. I always like to be transparent about the challenges as well because the same world that has kind people that make my day and help me through my journey also has mean-spirited, uneducated and ignorant people.
Jay: But I love traveling and seeing the world and letting the world see me. I am a sight to behold, damn it.
Cax: I just hope that when I get old and am no longer able to go on adventures I can relive the beautiful times through my blog posts and pictures. I do it for myself first and foremost.
Jay: Totally agree. The body, whether disabled or otherwise has a time limit and I intend on enjoying it while I can.
Pick up the latest issue of Bitch Magazine (or just check it out online) to read my feature essay on Gendered Orientalism, Imperial Feminism, White Feminism – whateveryouwannacallit, and the artisan fair trade industry. (Sounds so sexy, right?) Here’s the thesis:
The overwhelming majority of founders, CEOs, and employees in these organizations—all of which claim to provide an equitable transaction between the globally wealthy and the globally poor, to the tune of more than $200 million a year—are white women. And the workers who produce the colorful wares that line the online shelves are poor women of color from developing countries. How “fair” is this trade? And what does its proliferation say about relationships of power between women, who account for the majority of both producers and consumers in this industry?
I drop some history on the origins of the fair trade movement (I went all the way back to scripture, but that got cut out! A different story for another day…) and how its present-day practices rely on the Savior narrative – as well as global inequity – to rake in dough. Another bite:
The connotations of poverty seen through this white gaze are apolitical, a sad fluke of modern society. White supremacy and western hegemony are just as oppressive to underprivileged women of color in poor nations as poverty is, but to mention them would be a tough sell, a real downer for customers to ponder while they’re shopping for a new pair of sandals.
Finally, I go into Cause-Related Marketing – the business of commodifying social ’causes’ for profit – (also known as Consumption Philanthropy), using it as a critique of White Feminist Entrepreneurship.
With names like Buy the Change, Global Girlfriend, and Indigenous Designs, these companies employ practices that are naive and self-serving at best, and that reek of imperialist exploitation at worst. In the middle lies a controlled form of cultural appropriation, where white women get the green light to wear “authentic” “ethnic” garb, to consume the oft-endangered cultures of the Other.
Thoughts? Praises? Rants? Resources? Feel free to engage with this piece in the comments below, on the Twitter, FB or IG. Click here to read the article in full.