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.
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.
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.
This is the first part in a two-part interview
Bani Amor: So tell folks who you are and what you do.
India Harris: My name is India Harris and I’m a Washington DC-born and raised lesbian of African descent currently working for a religious nonprofit in Long Island, NY, but when I’m not working I like to travel in the United States and abroad, mostly for leisure but also for work.
Bani: We came up with the ABCs of fucked up language in travel writing together. Before we get into it, can you share a little on why you think something like this is necessary?
India: Before I went on a backpacking trip in 2013 I went online to do a little bit of research about the countries I would be visiting. I searched for travel blogs by people of color because the majority of blogs that I read were written by white folks from the United States and Europe. They are considered experts by the travel writing industry while the industry simultaneously ignores the voices of people originating from these countries and the impact of tourism on their lives.
Words like ‘authentic,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘g*psy,’ ‘native’ and ‘tribal’ are used in ways that are either exoticizing local people or diminishing their culture. These words are often misappropriated by leisure travelers as monikers or identities to take on which, because of their privilege, is seen as something positive, while nomadic peoples throughout the world face discrimination, systemic violence and have had their lands handed over to settlers. These writings look very similar to the journals/records kept by colonizers otherwise known as ‘explorers’ from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
I think that having these ABCs of f***ed up travel language is important because in most Western nations people would say the rights of the individual, the right to self-determination and the right to sovereignty are vital to a thriving existence, however POC around the world have their human rights violated with impunity, are not allowed self-determination, are not allowed sovereignty. They’re not allowed to narrate their own experiences. Then someone from the outside comes in and projects their own thoughts and norms and biases (informed by white supremacy) on the land, people and culture of which they aren’t a part. Depending on their privilege and access, leisure travelers/travel bloggers are able to have a record of their experiences lifted up through Western media and then that is THE story that is told about a particular place.
Bani: Yes. When I think about decolonizing travel culture with a specific focus on travel writing, and envision what justice in that space would look like, it begins with reclaiming sovereignty over the language used to describe POC, our lands and cultures around the world. So here we go, let’s start with our fav – A for Authentic and Authenticity. Thoughts?
India: First and foremost authenticity is a social construct. In order for something to be ‘authentic’ it is inherently setting up a standard in which something else will be measured against it. Often, the standard for authenticity for Western travelers is that a place should be the complete opposite of the country that they are from, that it should look something from those outdated primary school textbooks.
Bani: Something out of the white/Western imagination.
India: They will see folks in larger cities in Mexico or Kenya using cell phones and laptops and then say that that is not authentic so then they go to a more remote place, perhaps where the Maasai people are or to Chiapas where there is a large Indigenous population. Yet there is no acknowledgment that in order to remain ‘authentic’ through colonialism the Maasai people and Indigenous people in Chiapas continually face insurmountable violence from the European countries that colonized them. Or even that the tourist gaze is disrupting their way of life and draining ever decreasing resources.
Bani: This sets up what’s wrong with a lot of the words we’ll be discussing – what we recognize as The Standard. White/Western being the default or norm and everything else Othered or Orientalized. The pursuit of ‘authenticity’ is something backpackers preoccupy themselves with a lot, which brings me to B. I bring up backpacking because there is a holier-than-thou thing young white backpackers have against tourists, the traveler vs. tourist thing, which is all very entertaining to me. They’re all tourists.
India: Yes. This idea that a backpacker wants to set themselves apart from other tourists because they may have an intellectual or humanitarian interest in a given place and are somehow less responsible for the consumerism and inequality enforced by traveler/tourist communities. Yet at the same time engaging in bargaining or price gouging in order to save a buck under the guise of having equal treatment as locals. Yet when you come from a country that is responsible for the economic state of many countries that you travel through, a country that was a former colony of the country that you’re from or simply put, your money is valued higher – it’s not about equity at all.
There are two ways to live in Mexico: like a local, and like a foreigner. The first will see you enjoying the bounties of a low cost of living and an easy pace of life (throw away your watch!), while the latter will see you getting ripped off at every turn, paying three to four times the actual cost of everything, otherwise known as paying the “gringo tax” – Avoiding The Gringo Tax,marginalboundaries.com
Bani: It’s about traveling the cheapest way possible JUST FOR FUN. So this brings us to B for Budget, which usually means cheap for rich people. Everything I’ve read about Budget travel is economically unfeasible for me and pretty much anyone without a well-paying job, no dependants, physical ability and passport privilege. So when I, for example, read travel writing and seek out Budget options, I realize pretty quickly that I’m not being spoken to, that this isn’t for me, my family, friends or community.
India: Different writers have expressed their frustration at the idea of travel being accessible for everyone and money not being an issue because everything is so cheap ‘abroad’ ( i.e. countries in Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East.) ‘Cheap’ in relation to what? ‘Cheap’ for whom? Yet people are never willing to begin their articles with ‘my target audience is essentially middle class folks from Western nations.’ Instead, they will argue and say that if you believe you can, anything is possible.
Bani: There’s been some talk about POC writing that type of shit. Just say you’re elitist and classist and we can skip the poor shaming.
India: It also highlights that the travel that’s being talked about is for leisure, educational or humanitarian purposes by privileged people from Western nations. It is not talking about how budget or cheap it is for local people to be able to afford groceries or pay their rent or get medical care.
Bani: It’s like the folks who talked shit about Syrian refugees who have cell phones. That leisure travel is the default is bothersome. But where are the resources out there for actual working poor people with families who might want to take a vacation for once?
India: As if refugees could not have been doctors, teachers, nurses or people with any means in the country that they come from.
Bani: Same with poor shaming in the US. Don’t buy that X Box or iPhone or Timbs or you deserve the poverty you’re in. I see this language all over the travel space.
India: They are resources that most people in the US would say that poor people were not deserving of. As far as capitalism is concerned in the US if you are struggling economically then it’s your fault and if you are not struggling economically you deserve additional rewards.
Bani: And if you temporarily trade in economic stability for roughing it in poor countries you’re a Life Hacker. Anyway, B is for Best kept secret, which has connotations similar to Columbusing – acting like you discovered shit. See also: off-the-beaten-path and hidden gem. B for Bustling – usually attributed to markets or streets in those ‘overcrowded cities’ i.e. the ‘Third World.’ See also: chaotic/chaos.
India: What this usually means is that tourists find out about a beach, forest, canyon or sights that locals already knew about, start coming in numbers, and then developers are looking to build resorts and working in conjunction with the government to then begin banning people from the beach and the forests that are near their homes or are in fact their homes.
Bani: Now we’re at C. Similar to main offenders like Authentic and Exotic, the way that we see Cultural or Culture commonly used in travel writing makes me uncomfortable. It’s a term I’ve noticed that gets attributed to my work like a lot…It’s ridiculous.
India: Culture and cultural are usually used interchangeably with the word ‘exotic’ as if people of European descent don’t have culture and wouldn’t be perceived as exotic or different once they went somewhere else. Most are not comfortable with being seen as exotic or different which is why we get back to the idea of being treated just ‘like a local’ or being seen as a local.
Bani: It’s chasing down this idea of belonging sans struggle. Others revel in it. They want to go somewhere where they’re the first white person to be seen by x person/community and write a book about it. Gross.
India: Which is an affirmation of supremacy. Being seen and treated as the most beautiful, intelligent, skillful, clever, etc. whereas POC are seen and treated as threats who are ignorant and economically dependent in many Western nations.
Bani: Without caring or thinking about what that experience is like at the other end of the spectrum, with Blackness.
India: Yet globally you will find that people with the darkest skin are treated inhumanely, from being called slaves in Iran to the experience of people of African descent being the majority in Brazil numerically but not having power and being entrenched in poverty.
Bani: I don’t think these folks (and non-Black people in general) understand that that fierce staring happens all over the US, in their own cities and towns. Almost reminds me of Human Zoos. There’s an aspect of voyeurism in tourism that restricts Black presence to either servitude or entertainment. These were the only two ways slaves were able to enter the kingdoms.
India: Exactly. As a POC, one can find that stare in any majority white community in rural, suburban or urban places in the US.
Bani: C for Colorful – this is often used as a coded term that reminds me of the use of ‘soulful’ to mean anything Black-adjacent by whites/non-Blacks. India and the Caribbean and Latin America (north of Argentina) are all ‘colorful.’ See also: vibrant.
India: That coded language is used to otherize folks the world over – whether in their country of origin or abroad. My last experience in the US in Yosemite National Park was of a white woman walking past me, doing a double take and asking me if I was Hawai’ian. Probably because of my ‘colorful’ skin. Then of course that othering that can lead to policing isn’t included in all of those articles about why POC don’t visit National Parks.
Bani: This. It’s just fucking lazy. So much of travel writing is lazy and racist cause y’all can’t be creative. Like if you engage critical thought in travel writing, it automatically gets labeled as not travel writing.
India: The word creative is a nice segway into our favorite word Curate.
Bani: Take it away, India.
India: My familiarity with the word curate comes from the museum and art world. In order to curate something, you don’t have to actually create that something, you are giving voice to it or creating a narrative around it. You can work with the artist to do this however it is another form of consumption that makes way for large-scale consumption. Giving voice to something makes it an object unable to speak for itself. Travel writing is being used as a medium to objectify people, land and culture.
Bani: Absolutely. It’s speaking over or speaking for, operating under the notion that people have no will to speak for themselves, bringing us to D for Discover. Must we explain what’s wrong with this?
India: We can always start with the Doctrine of Discovery. Discovery or the act of finding something that you figure no one else knows about even when you find people living there. You find civilization, architecture, music and spirituality yet it isn’t anything like what you would find where you come from so therefore your presence means that this has been ‘discovered’ when it’s been in existence before the written word. The Doctrine of Discovery was used as a justification/confirmation of the God-given right bestowed to Europeans to Colonize land and people across the globe beginning with what is known as the Caribbean (West Indies), South America, Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada. The Doctrine of Discovery is still used to deny Indigenous people their sovereignty and self-determination in the US.
Bani: I want white travel writers reading this to understand that when they invoke this language they are employing the same logic used to colonize, that what they do when they travel bears resemblance to that colonization in the name of discovery or its close relative exploration. I’m not saying your writing is akin to the slaughter of millions, I’m saying you’re employing the same script that justified (still justifies) those acts, acts that enable you to be a tourist today.
India: Even more so when travelers say they have gone somewhere else to discover themselves. Which is centralizing selfhood in a place that is not your place of origin. I think that folks will have a hard time understanding or seeing their travel writing is akin to anything negative when Christopher Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés are still celebrated throughout Europe and the countries they colonized.
Bani: Yes, but those people are not about to read this shit anyway. Yet there are a lot of people who like to think that they’re down yet say, write and do the same shit.
India: I hope they do read it but yes they may not change their minds; that’s the whole idea of not giving up privilege. Why stop doing something you are continuously being rewarded for?
Bani: And it’s not just that word, it’s invoking that history, it’s walking in the footsteps of their ancestors.
India: Walking in the footsteps of their ancestors and constantly denying that they didn’t benefit from the systematic violence that is faced historically and continuously by POC.
Bani: You can’t separate white supremacy from travel writing. Nope.
India: There is no diversity if the stories are being told in the same way but the narrator has a different color skin or is a different gender or has a different sexual orientation.
Bani: Yup, that’s just tokenization wrapped around identity. It’s bullshit. Anyway, let’s do this. E words: Exotic, Ethnic, Explore and Expat. I feel like we covered Explore with Discover.
India: Still for me the difference with explore and discover is that it sounds like you can happen upon something and explore sounds like something more invasive way beyond encounter.
Bani: Like invasion/occupation?
India: I remember reading this story about these two white guys trying to explore a site on Indigenous land in the Southwest US. They specifically acknowledged the site as one of Indigenous resistance through the genocidal violence engineered by settlers. No one but Indigenous people from that particular nation knew about the site and even when these guys tried to get assistance from Indigenous people in order to find it and the Indigenous folks refused, the white dudes went ahead looking for it anyway.
Bani: Of course. Reminds me a of a Spanish dude who made a documentary of him hiring a local guide and searching for an uncontacted tribe in Ecuador! Like what is the point besides basically hunting down the ‘humanity’ of others by further dehumanizing them?
India: Or not understanding/respecting boundaries.
Bani: Travel is like this race to be the ‘first’ to ‘discover’ ‘explore’ and somehow ‘humanize’ the Other.
India: Humanizing the other without recognizing our impact or the impact of tourism on the environment and on people.
Bani: Having the entitlement to intervene without invitation, consultation or consent. Let’s go to Ethnic. The way this term is usually used is ridiculous, plain and simple.
India: Again the idea of there being a norm and anything outside of that Norm being measured against it, so white culture as the default and anything outside of that is being considered not normal. Everyone has an ethnicity so what makes certain experiences or cultural aspects ethnic and others not?
Bani: There’s whiteness and then there’s everything else. Which brings us to Exotic.
India: Exotic and ethnic are often used interchangeably.
Bani: Sometimes. Though while ethnic is a signifier of identity and is not inherently problematic, exotic is.
India: Even in the dictionary, Exotic is mentioned as something that is not naturalized or acclimatized. Naturalized or acclimatized to what? What is this invisible standard that this imagined foreignness is being measured against?
Bani: We should also mention that the term is almost exclusively gendered in its modern use.
India: Most definitely because a cis heterosexual man is considered the norm.
Bani: The more exotic a woman is, the more fuckable she is. The term is coded to mean a submissive femininity associated with lighter skin and ‘ambiguous’ racial features.
India: Tourism and marketing are complicit in this. When you see travel ads for Hawai’i or Jamaica or Tahiti it’s usually a woman marketing her goods on behalf of the nation.
Bani: Yes. I recently pitched this as a story, how women’s bodies sell place. Rape and pillage. F is for Foreign. Do readers notice a pattern yet?
India: Especially when a tourist can go to a country and call the people native to that country ‘foreigners.’ No, you would be the foreigner.
Bani: It’s a mindset. This drives home how you can take these words out of the writing but the practice remains the same.
India: The writing is just the documentation of that practice and lifestyle.
Bani: This. Now for every white girl’s favorite word, G*psy.
India: The way that I understand the word g*psy is that it’s a slur for the Romani people living in Europe. The Romani are discriminated against and entrenched in poverty.
Bani: The term also has connotations like thievery, laziness, untrustworthiness and unreliability attached to it.
India: I’ve seen articles entitled ‘how to travel like a globetrotting ‘g*psy’ and the g*psies are often displaced or nomadic by choice however I don’t think they are ever referred to as Globetrotters.
Bani: This is ‘cool’ to them.
India: Or ‘how to live like a g*psy without going broke.’ It’s appropriating g*psy which has been used as a slur, not understanding the historical context in which it is used and then identify it with globetrotting which is a leisurely activity. I can’t ever say I’ve seen ‘The Wandering W*tback’ or ‘Nomadic N*gger’ or ‘Traveling Ch*nk.’
Bani: You just said a mouthful. You added Guru to the list; what are your thoughts on it?
India: My understanding of the way that I see people using Guru as an expression to demonstrate that they or someone else is all-knowing. Also another misappropriation similar to ‘griot.’ These terms are being separated from their sociohistorical context. The terms are also used in a way that separate them from the religious value that they have in the communities from which they originated.
Bani: A stripping of history and context. Oh and I want to add a last one – Global Citizen.
India: I think that global citizen it is really an expression of wanting to connect beyond literal borders but without global accountability or recognizing the power imbalances in your ability to be a global citizen because of access and privilege and another person’s being seen as a global burden.
Bani: It really reminds me of how ‘colorblind’ is used as a faux idealistic term that purposely erases difference. Having unlimited access to other people, lands and cultures. Whiteness itself is a passport.
India: The response to exoticism and making a big deal about difference is to act like difference doesn’t exist at all with common tropes being ‘we’re all human, we’re all the same.’ The thing is those nuances have to be picked up on because that’s where the majority of the world’s people exist – in the nuances. As Gloria Anzaldúa says ‘in the borderlands.’ Real borders with real violent consequences when they’re crossed.
Thanks for reading part 1. Part 2 is coming soon! Tips always appreciated via Paypal.me/BaniAmor
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: Tell us where you’re from, where you are now, and how you got from one to the other.
Pooja Makhijani: I’m a South Asian American woman, born in New York City and raised in suburban New Jersey, now living in Singapore. My partner and I moved here in 2010 when he was offered an opportunity in Asia; I continue to write, edit, and teach — my background is in early childhood education and children’s media — here in Singapore.
Bani: Would you consider yourself an expat, or is that term unavailable to people of color?
Pooja: As an American (Westerner), I think, in some instances I may be considered an “expat” in Singapore. And my Western privilege allows me to claim it should I want to. I definitely think the term is less, if at all, available to my friends and colleagues from other Asian countries (Philippines, China, India, etc.). However, I agree, generally, “expat” in the Singapore context is a term reserved for professional white Westerners and professional Japanese and, *maybe*, professional Korean workers in Singapore. That being said, we are not immigrants to Singapore and we intend to return to the United States. I suppose “economic migrant” is the best term for people like us.
Bani: These distinctions always seem implied in media and everyday language. Recently I’ve noticed more journalists writing about the importance of making distinctions, questioning implicit bias or at least agreeing that the current vocabulary to name our place in these migrations is insufficient.
Pooja: Yes! I always remember this exchange between two of my favorite writers. Both Cole and Lalami address exactly these language contortions in their works.*
Bani: I decided a while ago that to be an expat means to hold privilege in the trifecta of class, race and place. Acknowledging that to be POC does not mean there isn’t a racial hierarchy at work with us (obvs).
Pooja: I totally agree! But my “place” — as evidenced by my U.S. passport and accent — gives me such incredible power and proximity to whiteness in a way that I would never have conceived of had I not moved overseas! As I detail in this essay, it has given me tremendous advantages over other people who “look like me” but hold different passports and/or have different accents.
For example, it is very common — and legal — for landlords to advertise empty rental units with the words: “no Indians, no PRCs [People’s Republic of China]”, sometimes followed by the word “sorry”. We have been asked where we were born, where our families live, whether we had an arranged marriage (WTF?), etc. But the minute we were able to produce our passport and to show that he (my partner) held a position in a U.S. company, the micro- and macroagressions ceased and we were able to find a roof over our heads.
I’ve heard story after story from Indian friends from India who are rejected from apartment after apartment, despite their privileged class. Another example: if I walk into a swanky bar/restaurant/retail space, I am sometimes ignored by staff. (I’m a t-shirt/jeans/flats/no makeup/no jewelry kinda gal). But if I put on my best loud, friendly American twang, I received better service. I hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S. until my mid-20s, and then only to to Europe, so I had no idea of this concept—Western privilege.
“Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.” ‘Who is an expat, anyway?’ WSJ
I’m also glad that U.S. activists of color, e.g. Son of Baldwin, etc., are finally talking about Western privilege and the interconnectedness of various social justice struggles. It’s weird to go to into a world with “proximity-to-white privilege” when you’ve never been on that side of the fence before!
Bani: Yup, which is why a lot of USian POC can’t conceive of this privilege yet, and often deny that they hold any privilege at all.
Pooja: Yes. Totally.
Bani: But I wanna back it up. In your article you mentioned, you talked about being radicalized and embracing POC community in the age of Bush, and in relocating to Singapore, there was an excitement about moving away from “white systems,” but once you got there, you were like, “Oh.” Something James Baldwin said comes to mind: “I found myself…alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.”
Pooja: Yes, that Baldwin quote! I really need to go read him again now that I live overseas! I think USian POC are taught to only think of their struggles in the context of white supremacy in the U.S., which is, in and of itself, problematic because it doesn’t examine U.S. imperialism and our complicity in so much global oppression. It’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism at work, and even progressive folks like me are sometimes so unaware of these entrenched biases. My experiences thus far had led me think that I would only experience “real” discrimination in majority-white settings, and my education had not prompted me to question this provincial world view.
“An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’).” Wikipedia
Bani: I wonder if you’ve found balance in acknowledging your US privilege but also facing some discrimination for your ethnicity in Singapore.
Pooja: I think about this all the time. I’m not sure. I’m more aware of the ways in which I *can* wield my “power,” but actively choose not to. As I’ve written, people completely shift in their interactions with me when they hear my accent! They are kinder and more obsequious often. I’ve been referred to as “not that kind of Indian.”
Bani: Right. That’s real.
Pooja: Because, again my proximity to whiteness has somehow “civilized” me. Without which, I would be a “savage,” right?
Bani: You and I and the folks you’ve brought up in this talk have all come to acknowledge western privilege only by spending a considerable amount of time outside of white majority or ‘first world’ countries. How do we get others who don’t (can’t) leave to acknowledge this, or is it necessary for them to?
Pooja: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. How else can we (POC) understand the interconnectedness of various global social justice struggles and find true solidarity against white supremacy? And I think we fail our progressivism if we aren’t willing to point out that we have the *same* power to oppress depending on the circumstance.
My personal challenge is now finding meaningful actions. How do I use this knowledge and power in the service of those without? Writing is all well and good, but I’m an “action” person!
Bani: Have you met a lot of other expats (or economic migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc.) of color in Singapore?
Pooja: Yes. Of Singapore’s 5.2 million residents, 3.7 million are Citizens or Permanent Residents (PRs). Non-residents (economic migrants of all classes) are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis. The large number of non-Citizens here has become a huge political issue for a country as small as Singapore. Foreigners are, as they are in other countries, accused of diluting national identity, “taking away jobs,” etc. Local activists continue to be be alarmed by the surge of racism and xenophobia in recent years. The issue is complex, but here is *some* background by a friend. So, in short, yes, I do know lots of foreigners in Singapore, and many Westerners of color. I do know a lot of non-White (I hate that term!) expatriates in Singapore as well.
Bani: Do they share the same politics as you?
Pooja: I suss out people who share my politics, I think. I will say that many of my close USian friends in Singapore are POC. Many of us have had similar experiences. On the flip side, my Chinese American acquaintances benefit from both racial and place-ial privilege in a city like Singapore. Some of them are quite aware of this, especially those who are fluent in Mandarin, for example, but others aren’t.
There was data recently collected – by WSJ, I think – about the races/ethnicities and nationalities of “expats” in Asia. The data concluded that what people generally think of as “expat” – white, male, on a company package, in company housing, with company car – doesn’t hold true as it used to. And that new migrants tend to be younger and either from other countries in Asia and/or Asian Westerners. As the world moves in this way, I think these ideas of Western privilege deeply come into play. And we have to talk about it.
“Want to make friends? Move to another country. Maybe somewhere third world. Expats tend to be adventurous, to be risk-takers. After all, they’ve already left their friends, their homes, their comfort zones and probably most of their possessions in another country to begin a new life abroad. That takes guts. It’s only a certain type of person who’ll do that.” What we could all learn from expats Traveller
Bani: Of the people of color who spend a considerable amount of time outside white majority ‘developed’ countries who acknowledge and question relationships between power and place, they usually come from a place of already having politics that challenge white supremacy. But the majority of poc who travel from these white majority countries for leisure or study or savior tourism or as expats, don’t seem to give a shit.
Pooja: Do you think they revel in their newfound privilege? I seem to think so now.
Bani: There seems to be a kind of aspiration to taste that place privilege for as long as possible, without examining power dynamics in adopted countries. When you talk about Asian Westerners, do you recognize that?
Pooja: Absolutely. And there are definitely people willing to examine those power dynamics, and those who will happily oppress despite knowing.
Bani: I think the latter is enjoying a moment right now.When I do see these nuances in privilege and place addressed with some justice it’s almost exclusively in literature, mostly novels. Even outside the travel space with personal essays and memoir that touch on this, it seems to be very superficial. I was wondering where you go to to see these issues fleshed out.
Pooja: I agree that travel and “expat” media is still centered around whiteness and Westernness, and so far from addressing privilege and place. I like social media—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook as that is where so many social justice conversations are happening (at least in English)—and try to follow activists who are involved in actions in their parts of the world. I think, as you rightly note above, novelists like Laila Lailami and Teju Cole are addressing some of these issues in their writing. Where do you go, Bani?
[noted white guy whiteguysplains it all:]
“It is much easier for someone from the United States to work or retire in Costa Rica than for someone from Costa Rica to do the same in the United States. But that’s because the US government created this obstacle for Ticos by requiring a visa, which Costa Rica doesn’t require of US citizens.It isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.” The difference between expats and immigrants? It’s passports, not race PanAm Post
Bani: This is why I started this conversation series, because I don’t see it addressed, not with this language or analysis in this space or context. Like we’ve both said, social media and literature (and the academy, perhaps) are where these issues are being deeply examined.
Pooja: Even online (in English social media), I find the conversation often centered around U.S.-specific concerns. Global hashtags tend to be U.S.-created; when was the last time you saw U.S. activist POC en masse advocate for a foreign social justice struggle?
Bani: It’s true. So how do we extend the dialogue?
Pooja: For one, we—U.S.ian POC who have this power—need to listen and not dominate the conversation. We tell white people *exactly this* all the time; we need to walk the walk. I’ve seen, online, U.S. POC get defensive and or derail conversations or talk about “intent” when they are called out for their biases, instead of apologizing and sitting with their thoughts. We have to do better.
*Tweets used with permission by both Lalami and Cole
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Hey folks. Yesterday, a discussion on race, place, power and privilege and how they affect travel writing started on Outdbounding.org. I’m one of the panelists in the discussion and I have *lots to say* so I’d like to hear y’alls thoughts, questions and opinions. Start an account – it’s ridiculously quick and tell us what you think. Click here to read and join in the convo.
Story strewn across the candlelit basement: backpacks, toothbrushes, wool thermals, sandals (’cause we’re going to India, too, right?), fire staves, lighters, cameras, cash, knives, tea cups, and you-paid-what-for-that?! tags tossed unceremoniously into the recycle bin.
I’m embarrassed by how many Apple products, Bluetooth and USB devices are lying around. Even more by how many have a place in my bag. Am I really going to bring the computer, I wonder. Well, if I’m going to write a book…
Yesterday, on a spontaneous drive to Hood River, the man who pulled up my zipper at my wedding asked, “If you added the cost of everything in your backpack, what would it be?”
Jordan’s my climbing partner and 100% friend. A voice of reason – and challenge. Like, “Are you going to rappel this, or not?” and, “No, those aren’t the mushrooms you think they are.”
I count the months until we’ll climb together again.
When Jordan asked about the cost of everything in my backpack, I reconsidered my reasons for traveling. What a privilege it is to think, I can visit Nepal, Varanasi, Bangladesh, Burma. I can walk through the Himalaya, along the Ganges, hear countless stories, and still want for context. How arrogantly ironic it seems that I have the freedom and money to visit the most destitute regions on Earth.
What, exactly, am I bringing them?
The influence and love of friends is a new type of fuel for me. So are a GoPro camera and a desire to connect. I still have my feet and feelings and eyes leftover from former trips abroad, but I’m troubled justifying a desire to voyeur foreign squalor as a path toward broadened horizons. Should I stay in Portland instead, and live out white western privilege in the land of the less-free-by-the-day, or should I dream, discover, and explore the world just because Twain’s suggestion sat well with me in the 10th grade?
How do you travel, again?
I’m trying to remember previous trips, picturing my backpack full of used books and granola bars; Boris, the stuffed, eyeless spider hung from a carabiner on the shoulder-strap – how many times was that pillowy, cherry-red spiderbody swung into the back seat of an old van in Alaska, a Cadillac in Ireland, the Mercedes of a professional bodyguard who took us from an icy highway exit to a train station in Luxembourg? How many people said they picked me up just for the fedora, or gave me a place to sleep for the night because… why? Because I was there, and they were there, and could we connect at our respective velocities, even just for a few moments?
These flash-memorial travel narratives make sense only to those who were part of the stories – maybe that’s why they don’t seem popular with travel magazines. They’re looking for texture – the flickering candlelight on the inexplicably wet wall next to the sexiest bed in Glasgow, the sandy crunch of a sticky sweet found on a pier in Zadar. How the bobbed-hair girl in the next bus seat took so many pictures along the Croatian coast, I thought the camera’s beep would break my brain. I imagined how her slideshow back in Saskatchewan would sound: “And then, we turned left!”
What I leave behind this time has the texture of tears that refuse to be absorbed by arm hair, ones that fall like fists from the edge of a broken man’s lower eyelid when he hasn’t been hugged in two years.
Tony’s got a hurt soul. Two months ago, a young man to whom he was friend and mentor was killed by police. Left behind a month-old son. Twelve years before that, my teenaged best friend, Heeth (and Tony’s Little Brother, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program) committed suicide sophomore year. Two of his attempts at Positive Role Model wound up on the coroner’s table without good reason, and no one’s told him recently that he’s definitely a good man. Sometimes, I think I’m his only life support.
What am I doing traveling across continents with ambitions of experiencing local sorrow?
The backpack’s on the floor. It cost more than a rural Nepali earns in a year. I load up my luxuries, and trek across the world because it is a selfish portal to the antithetical search for enlightenment, to stories I want to collect and share with the diminishing western world.
That’s my intention: to collect stories. To find the poetry in Nepal. As if Peter Matthiessen, Milarepa, or a thousand generations besides have somehow failed.
It’s not that I’ve forgotten how to travel – just the opposite: I’ve learned to focus aimless wandering into semi-purposeful movement. The work is the journey itself. Inside, I’m not convinced that guilt is an effective use of my relative economic position. Even Alexander Supertramp found, in the end, the futility of burning all his money.
Neither do I wish to compete with the poets. Stories are best told by tellers who understand them. What I wish for is context, understanding, the ability to release ego, and listen. That’s a good plan – stop trying so hard to Be, and just listen.
29 hours ’til takeoff. I take inventory, and find the contents of my backpack matter less than the reasons I fill it.