hey people, I have an essay on traveling through place and gender in bklyn boihood’s long-awaited anthology Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity! Published by Riverdale Ave Books, edited by Morgan Mo Willis (of bklyn boihood) with an intro by Toshi Reagon + cover art by Mickalene Thomas, OTXY is filled with stories, confessions, essays, poetry and letters from QTPOCs around the world for whom masculinity has played a role in shaping their lived identities.
My story, called Low Visibility, starts out like this:
In the morning, our plane began to curl downward like a rebellious strand of hair gone straight. I looked out over the cloudscape, a heavy swell of shadows that had been sucked up into the sky, swirling with the corals and blues of the sunrise, and wondered about the other side of turbulence. Having passed through the dysphoria of landing, where your belly’s lost in some buoyant limbo, what would touchdown finally feel like? I wanted to skip alla that. I wanted to be someone, somewhere –clearly defined.
hey people. I hope you’re enjoying your summers as much as possible because #2k16Problems are real as fuck. I especially hope that, if you’re non-Black like me, you’re working on ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter in terms of your actions, projects, organizing, art, community engagement, interpersonal relationships, volunteer work, putting your money where your mouth is, etc. Let’s get our shit together.
Directed by Bruno Brothers Media wth the help of Queens Nation Films, this teaser for a mini-doc about my work as a diasporic writer, photographer and activist exploring the decolonization of travel culture is being released in conjunction with my crowdfunding campaign. With your donations and shares, I’ll be able to do produce more exciting projects that really delve into the issues I bring up here, because struggling with meeting my survival needs complicates that. The full doc will be released soon! Donate here and thanks for your support!
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.
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
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.
happy holigays folks, it’s my last post of the year, woohoo! if y’all remember, I fucked up my leg in ecua over the summer and have been on bedrest for the past three months, but on baby jesus eve took my first steps (with a lot of work and the help of my cane…and mom (shoutout to mami)) so that’s the dopest gift I could’ve asked for.
Bani Amor is an impeccably well-spoken and intellectual queer writer who unwaveringly tackles issues and calls out everything that’s problematic in travel culture and media. From the erasure of indigenous narratives to the continuation of settler colonialism through tourism, Bani confronts the difficult questions surrounding race, privilege and exploitation that most travel writers ignore. There need to be more blogs and travel writers like Bani who forego the vapid wanderlust attitude towards travel and instead radically deconstruct how power and privilege affect people’s travel experiences. Look for Bani Amor’s amazing writings on her blog Everywhere All The Time as well as on Matador Network.
What follows is a short Q & A on problematic travel writing, tourism and imperialism, and advice for traveling QTPOC. Thoughts? Feelings? Lengthy racist comments I can laugh at and delete? Feel free to share them here, on fb, twitter, instagram or tumblr. See y’all in 2016!