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.
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 about yourself. How would you describe your work?
Nandini Seshadri: I’m a fiction writer, mainly. I write short stories and try very hard to write novels. I’m also a longtime blogger, started blogging way back before blogger even existed (2003). But blogging has somewhat fallen by the wayside since I had kids. These days my primary identity seems to be mom.
My work is and has always been very feminist. I am Indian, and it has always been very clear to me how much my society stacks the deck against me. Didn’t hurt to have an openly feminist mother.
Bani: Feminist moms are the shit (hey ma!)
Nandini: And also, since I have moved around a lot since childhood, never living in one city (sometimes even country) or one home very long, I also write a great deal about identity, fitting in, and being an outsider.
Bani: What usually enables and propels you to travel?
Nandini: Work! (and following spouses or parents for work) I come from a family of immigrants. In the middle-class South Indian community I come from, there is this deeply embedded idea that someone who gets out of India has “made it”. It definitely used to be much stronger when my family first emigrated. I also ended up traveling during college for debating tournaments. I am now in a financial position to travel for pleasure too, and do it happily and eagerly.
One of the first members of my family to go to USA was my cousin (who is actually my father’s age because of the age gap between siblings) in the ’80s. Everyone sang his praises and he has always been considered the pioneering success. But because our family is also middle class and upper caste, there are also all these whispered stories about how he was ‘reduced’ to working as a dishwasher to put himself through college in America, the horror, the horror. Then his parents wanted to go see him in America too, and they went for six months, which was considered a huge deal… but again, whispered stories about how his mother wanted to stay longer, and in order to support herself she had to work as a nanny. That was also considered beneath us.
So I come from a certain subsection of Indians for whom this “going to foreign” deal is a complicated business in terms of power structures. Do we take the prestige and much-needed money from leaving but accept the dishonor of working menial jobs? Or do we stay and keep working “respectable” but low-paying jobs in poor, unglamorous India?
Bani: The immigrant’s dilemma.
Nandini: I also think it’s interesting how we carry our hangups with us when we travel. I have relatives who will rant at great length at their racist experiences. “All the white guys in my office get birthday cards and cakes, but I don’t”, etc., but then again, have no trouble turning right back around and being shockingly racist towards darker skinned people.
And along comes a white liberal American saying how white people are the source of all racism, and I can’t help feeling that’s turning the rest of us into noble savages or people without humanity.
Bani: It shows a complete lack of global historical context.
Nandini: To be sure, white supremacy is the source of a lot of racism, but things like casteism or colorism – which are arguably shades of racism – aren’t fiction!
Bani: I remember moving to Ecuador the first time, five years ago, and it was kind of on the heels of a falling out I had with several radical POC groups I was involved with in the States. It wasn’t until I started living in the South that I realized how white-centric our politics had been. How much of our energy they took.
Colorism, racism, white supremacy – specifically, anti-black racism and anti-indigenous sentiments – run MAD strong here. My concept of what it meant to fight racism completely changed. And I mean, over time. Of course, it’s still changing. Having grown up in the States, I will always be used to a single narrative on what that means. It’s regional.
Nandini: Regional is exactly it. I’ve always had this idea that people of the same perceived racial group can have very different (and equally valid) reactions to a Supposedly Racist Thing. And you’re right, it all comes down to regional pressure points.
Like, to a person living in India, Gwen Stefani putting on a bindi to make a fashion statement is just complementary and mildly flattering (if they have heard of her). To an Indian-American it is cultural appropriation, right? With real harm done to the Indian-American community. I’d always tried to articulate it as living in a country where you are the majority and you have the privilege of being secure and unshakably the ruling culture.
Bani: Also, when you’re an immigrant, you’re reeling from one form or another of displacement. You tend to hold on tighter to your culture, or assimilate. It’s not that black and white, but in my experience, it does seem very extreme. You’re either really offended or don’t understand at all what the fuss is about.
Side story: a friend of mine here is Afro-Ecuadorian. She has a fro. She lives in a artist-traveler-hub kinda house, and foreigners are ALWAYS touching her hair. The way she reacts – positively – has always stopped me from acting on her “behalf” – telling them not to do that. And I honestly have fought the urge to many times. But I thought, who the fuck am I to tell her what to be offended by?
One day, I was watching a video in English, something made by black American women along the lines of “why you can’t touch my hair.” I explained to her what I was watching and she was so pissed! She wondered why anyone would give a shit one way or another.
Nandini: But I struggle with all this. I don’t live in India anymore even though I keep going back for visits because my family lives there. It’s easy to point fingers from the outside, right? And not at all productive. And then, my location means that my expressions of frustration fall on white ears more often than not and that is deeply uncomfortable for me too.
Bani: Oh yeah. When (foreign) white women complain about sexist men in Ecuador, I feel caught.
Nandini: How do you deal with that?
Bani: Honestly, I’ve always sided with the men. I say, who are you to be coming here and judging All Ecuadorian Men based on the one or two you’ve slept with? As if white men in their home countries aren’t sexist! Which, really, is not “siding with men”, but unfortunately, it does put me in this #NotAllMen position, you understand, because they’re talking about my family and friends. But you can’t come here for your thesis or your bs volunteer job for a year and claim yourself as an expert on our men.
Nandini: Oof, that makes me feel a bit like shit. I had such terrible experiences with street harassment and street sexual violence in India that when a white woman complains about it, I feel solidarity more than anything. I can’t help it. Of course, it often goes off into the “gosh, Indian men!” direction and then I get all outraged and say angry things about racism. I feel caught too.
Bani: Well, notice I didn’t mention street harassment. These were about consensual relationships, not victimization that white women were feeling. I kind of feel like that’s another animal.
Another side story: when I was a teenager, visiting my white, gentrifying friend’s place in Brooklyn, she got hollered at and said something racist to me. I don’t remember what it was, but when I spoke up, she said “I can’t help it if they’re all the same demographic!” I stayed silent.
Nandini: OUCH. that hurts. What does one even do!!
Bani: As with the white women in Ecuador, I see the uninvited, displacing presence of someone in a place inhabited by a majority of poc. Then there’s the misogyny. Women of color, who are native to certain places, we are caught under all these oppressions – we have to side with someone. But who will side with us?
That #YesAllWomen discussion completely, conveniently left out any discourse on what it means to move around the world as white.
Nandini: That sounds interesting! Please say more on the “what it means to move around the world as white” and how #YesAllWomen left it out.
Bani: The implications and repercussions of moving around the world as white. The entitlement, the lack of reflection. Because of white supremacy, whiteness is put up on a pedestal of beauty, and women of color around the world have to deal with this. Here, in Ecuador, there is a rainbow of skin colors, right? But mostly, we are dark-brown. But on TV, in the ads, the media, it’s all whiteness, all the time.
White women are rewarded for this, but when they travel – to neighborhoods of color, to majority non-white countries – there are repercussions.
Nandini: I was trying to explain this to someone who lives in Vietnam and is tired of dealing with street harassment there – to the extent that she called it racism against white women. This friend of mine is pretty feminist, and I sympathized with her completely about the street harassment but had to really break it down that THIS is sexism and THAT is racism and street harassment ain’t THAT.
Bani: That is some basic shit.
Finally, I wanted to revisit the convo that linked us up in the first place. We came into contact after I posted Teaching English in China while Black, and felt some sorta way about it. Mostly because linguistic imperialism really saddens me when a person of color engages in it and that person has US privilege and doesn’t take that into account, at all. You responded by rightly pointing out the Orientalism in the article.
Nandini: Yes, I was wishing she would just come right out and say this is racist and NOT excusable. All through the article, though, she didn’t say that. Which I sympathize with, she was in a tough situation and I think she was trying to acknowledge her first world privilege in this way, by downplaying the fact that these third-worlders had some kind of power over her. It was as if she couldn’t bring herself to believe this is possible, because she was so ensconsed in her view of “I am superior to these people, and I am here to teach them things.”
I wish that when western feminists speak of intersectionality, they would speak more of first world privilege, orientalism, and the global South. I wish we would discuss the ways in which it especially benefits USA to be the cultural center of the world.
As for travelers of color from first world countries, I really do have a lot of sympathy for the impossible bind that many of them find themselves in, and most never suspect they will ever experience these things. There are so many blogs – google “black guy in Japan” – about the utter shock and horror at the racism they experience outside of USA. I feel for them.
But they’re also usually in the business of modern day colonialism. Which they don’t see anything wrong with, and maybe in capitalistic terms they’re right, but it’s hard to sympathize when those who are willingly cogs in the machine of wiping indigenous cultures and languages out. At the end of the day they are still US Americans, and they carry cultural hegemony with them. When they travel somewhere to teach rather than learn, the thing they are teaching is US supremacy.
Bani: Starting a dialogue on that is tough, because there are many travelers of color, but not A TON, and when we feel empowered to talk on that – I mean a lot of folks my age, on social media – it’s with this double sense of entitlement. I should be able to go where I want, etc. So how do we approach places with the fullness of our identities?
When we travel somewhere, we take all that shit with us. We don’t leave anything behind. Our identities travel with us. I wonder how travel can change our identities, especially what and how we think about them.
Nandini: That identity bit, right here in the feels. To travel is to lose your fixed identity.
I think as travelers we have a responsibility to read native voices, make ourselves familiar with context and history and culture before any significant travel. As first world travelers we need to be careful not to participate in neo-colonialism.
If first world people traveled for the reasons and with the attitude that third world people do – not for the romance of living an “authentic” noble-savage life, or for the sake of writing a book about how quaint “those people are”, or to teach them how to speak and think and live like first worlders. If, instead, first world travelers went consciously for (responsible) personal pleasure, or to learn something, or to earn a living. We would travel with arms stretched out for alms, conscious that we are in this to take more than we can hope to give, conscious that this means we humble ourselves. I think that would be the first step away from a neo-colonialist mindset. Away from entitlement and towards honoring the people of the places we travel to.