A few months ago an essay of mine, Beyond Binary, was published in Archer Magazine’s THEY/THEIRS issue dedicated to non-binary gender identities. It’s the first time my travel photography has been published in a print magazine, and an internationally-circulated Australian one, at that!
It is when I’m moving in between places that I feel the most pressure to be pinned down. As a travel writer and diasporic person of color I spend a lot of time in transit, and it’s this condition that reveals to me time and time again that places, like identities, are always in flux, and that borders aren’t as binary as they’re made out to be. Borders, like the gender binary, cut right through me, through so many of us. They attempt to neatly and quietly delineate difference no matter how much it continues to overlap, intersect and blur. It is between the constructed binaries of place, language and gender that I feel the most at home and most under attack, for it is these in-between spaces that are the most heavily policed.
Get your copy of the magazine here or see where it’s stocked around you here.
How we move through the world, whether it’s how we or our ancestors came to be where we are now; a trip to the bodega as a visibly trans woman of color at night, or to countries we have no connections to but are guests in, varies phenomenally from person to person, but those journeys are all informed in some way by capitalist imperialist cishetpatriarchal white supremacy.
In “getting real” about this topic, I wanted to reiterate some points that I see getting lost in posts and such about “decolonizing travel” that are necessary to the discourse. I don’t want this to be some sort of trend or shorthand for “diversity.” Central to this is…
If communities don’t have sovereignty or the self-determination to shape how they want their cultures to be consumed or communicated, their economies to be governed and their environments to be treated, then tourism and travel culture are only a continuation of imperialist practices.
Tourism as a response to ecosocial disasters, or preventable crises brought about by intersecting inequalities that meet at the environment, is often touted as unilaterally positive. Once a devastating natural hazard afflicting marginalized people pops up on Western social media feeds, we’re pressed to pray, to donate five bucks to the Red Cross, and then to visit the affected place, whether to aid in the reconstruction effort or to just “boost the economy” by tipping the hotel masseuse, I guess. But calls to “fly and buy” serve those who have the most to gain from disasters, and when you consider how much the tourism industry not only takes advantage of aid money for development but also contributes to climate change in already vulnerable regions, it becomes clear that this response is a capitalist ploy working to exploit Black and brown bodies while they’re still warm.
I go on to use Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the water crisis in Bali as examples of how tourist entities drain local communities of resources that are desperately needed before and after disasters. Also, mass tourism sucks for the earth. Read the article in its entirety here and if you got thoughts, comment below!
Hey people, shit’s been quiet around here because I’ve been writing like a motherfucker. I’m excited to have a wealth of new pieces get published over the next few weeks and will share them all right here. If you’re in New York, stop by Apogee Journal’s eighth issue (which you can pre-order here) launch party at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop next Thursday, December 15th at 7pm to see me read a story of mine and say hey. If you weren’t supporting diverse publications and spaces like Apogee and AAWW (and the work of diverse oppressed peoples in general) before, you def should now, before El Cheeto-in-Chief exiles us all to an island somewhere.
In other news, the POC Travel Book Club’s talk on bell hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place this past Sunday was dope. We discussed running away and going home, searching for severed roots and the trauma of displacement. We talked about our relationship to the land as people of color and the possibilities that come with staying put, of not traveling. Sign up here to join us for next month’s talk (book TBA).
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!
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.
hey kids, so I was chillin the other morning and thought, a casual online monthly book club focusing on travel books by people of color would be awesome! to gauge interest in such a club, fill out this form and share it with other folks you think might be down. all you gotta do is be a person of color and have an interest in travel writing and social justice.