Tag Archives: WOC

People of Color with Western Privilege #Dispatch: Pooja Makhijani

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.

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.

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!

“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The Guardian

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.

Bani: Absolutely.

*Tweets used with permission by both Lalami and Cole

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The Revolution Will Go Viral: Kwame Rose, Freddie Gray and the Baltimore Uprising

Hey people, so I injured my knee either swimming, hiking or running alongside vehicles hoping to jump on them in Ecuador last month – on acid – and now I’m watching Fall go by from my bed in Queens, New York, unable to walk. Getting better is the most important thing for me right now, which means working less and earning less when I need it the most. If you wanna support me in any way (besides donating, obvs, which you can do by clicking on the Donate button on the left column or sending cash money to heyitsbani@gmail.com via Paypal) you can share my work with folks you know, collaborate with me, come over with bottles of liquor (a popular option with my friends), lend me books, or send gushing statements of solidarity.

Click on image for full article
Click on image for full article

Anyway, before the fit really hit the shan I was able to profile Black Lives Matter activist Kwame Rose whose confrontation with Geraldo Rivera on Fox News went viral during the Baltimore Uprising earlier this year. If you like it, share it (and credit me!) and follow up with the organizing going on in Baltimore right now, where just last week 16 activists were arrested for demanding a meeting with police commissioner Kevin Davis.

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Next week, my #Dispatch interview with writer Pooja Makhijani on what words like expat, migrant, refugee, exile and immigrant really mean will be up. In the meantimes, you can follow me on the facebook, the twitter, the instagram.

“Don’t Step Foot There” #Dispatch: AfroLatino Travel

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.

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Dash Harris grew up in Panama, Brooklyn and the Poconos. She attended Temple University for broadcast journalism, business and French, and is the owner of In.A.Dash.Media, a multi-media and video production studio. She is a co-founder of AfroLatino Travel and Negro, a docu-series about Latino identity and the African Diaspora.

Bani Amor: Alright so let’s get into it! Please introduce yourself, what you do, what AfroLatino Travel is and your place in it.

Dash Harris:  I’m Dash, co-founder and team member of AfroLatino Travel, the travel and culture resource of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Bani: Can you give us some background on AfroLatino Travel? How it started and why.

Dash:  I’ve traveled extensively throughout Latin America over the past six years for my documentary series [Negro: A docu-series about Latino identity]. I’m personally and professionally drawn to predominant Afro-descended communities and regions and I noticed when I would inquire about how to get there, most people would immediately question why did I want to go *there* or remark that it was “very dangerous.” Basically code for too Black.

It was especially jarring when I inquired about how to get to Palenque de San Basilio. I was told it was “dangerous,” so I asked if they knew the reputation that Colombia has on a global scale and if they were perturbed by it, why impose that thinking on a particular town that actually does not even have a police presence as it is tiny and everyone knows everyone. Crime is almost non-existent in Palenque de San Basilio.

To find out how to get to most Afro-descended regions, it was a feat of information-gathering from many many sources, mostly personal blogs, and I thought that there has to be another way for folks to access information, especially other Afro-descendants interested in connecting with the wider Diaspora. Being from one of those “too black and dangerous” regions in Panama, I thought it was time for a way to do tourism that was not exploitative and actually is led by locals who are consistently blocked from access in the industry.

Gabino, my tour guide in Palenque said the only tourists that visit are white, and he would love to have more Afrodescendant tourists visit.

Besides, these regions are always the most beautiful – beautiful weather, great food, great people and with profound and powerful history not only to the greater country they are in but also the Afro root that has sustained its very existence. And it’s more of an “adventure” because these places are hard to get to, which is a blatant exhibition of the marginalization and neglect of the state toward the population that resides there.

Bani: Reaching Black(er) regions in Latin America can be such a relajo. I remember my first time traveling in Ecuador I Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.45.32 AMopened up a Lonely Planet guidebook and was reading the Esmeraldas section. It came with a warning not to visit there and to watch your shit if you go cause you’ll get robbed and in the same sentence mentioned that it was a majority Black area. If we think about the extent to which anti-Black racism affects travel and access, it’s pretty extreme.

Dash: I’ve been trying to get to Esmeraldas for theee longest. Oh yea the anti-Blackness in travel guides. Fun! One time I picked up a few travel guidebooks on Panama and sat down with Lamar to read the section on Colón together to see how obscene they could get. One woman had never heard of the Black christ of Portobelo (Panama) and I was like WHO THE HELL DOESN’T KNOW ABOUT THE BLACK CHRIST? The same with El Chota (Ecuador), a soccer player-making region that the state doesn’t invest in. It makes no sense. Fútbol being a religion – invest in that!

Bani: Nope, those are always the most underdeveloped areas, especially touristically. Ecuador’s current #AllYouNeedIsEcuador tourist campaign leaves places like Esmeraldas and El Chota in the dust, for instance.

Dash: Per usual, and it isn’t until our regions are recognized nationally or somewhere else that the state then says “yea that’s us.”

Bani: The fact that folks don’t usually correlate Blackness with Latin America has something to do with how the tourist industry still markets these places.

Dash: Absolutely – BUT wanna partake in Black cultural manifestations – the music, the food, the party. We are allowed to do that, fine, just don’t go beyond that – the sports, the sex tourism. When I was in Managua I was a SPECTACLE which was so mind-boggling to me as there are Afro-Nicaraguans. The mestizos pointed and stared like I had five heads. That never happened to me in my entire life and I’ve traveled to many places with under 10% afro-descendants. In even the whitest places, it didn’t compare to the othering in Managua.

Bani: What did you make of that experience?

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.45.12 AMDash: That Nicaragua has a lot of work to do. When I mentioned I was going to the coast, a hostel owner said, “Oh yes, that culture is really about partying and they do the maypole and eat fish but here in the capital it’s more calm, more laid back,” and I’m like, “So they do the maypole everyday or just on May 1st for the annual maypole celebration?” It is severe othering, which is interesting because I saw a lot of afro-descendants among those mestizos.

Bani: Leading into my next question, which I hope is not redundant, what would you say is the significance of what you’re doing with AfroLatino travel?

Dash: Helping to connect the African Diaspora (in the Americas) in ways that benefit all involved. Now of course we’re mindful that not all can travel so we are speaking from a privileged perspective. Afro-descendants don’t own their labor when it comes to their access in the tourism industry and limited access is getting even more limited because of multinationals encroaching on and even running them off their very land. So AfroLatino travel connects travelers to locals because locals can explain and show their own culture better than anyone else can.

Bani: Of course. What do you see as a result of bridging diasporic folks and locals? What change, if any, do you think it brings about?

Dash: That’s the best part!! OK so I have a short anecdote. I was in Orinoco chatting with a Garifuna drummer; my partner is a drummer and I was talking about the Batá drums. I came back with videos I shot in Cuba and it turned into this really dope dialogue about Afro-Cubans, Garifunas and Afro-Panamanians. They were loving it and so was I. All of that is to say: magic happens, man. When you get long lost cousins together, magic happens. I don’t know what else to say really.

When you get long lost cousins together, magic happens.

On a cultural level, socially, psychologically, mentally, and yes, economically, the goods and services paid would be going to the afro-descendant community and not the establishment. That’s the malembo element of AfroLatino travel. (Malembo were the friendships Africans made whether in the crossing of the Atlantic or in the Americas; they were bonds that made them feel a deep obligation to help one another, and that’s just how I feel, serving and building with my community continent-wise, because America is a continent *ahem* as we all know lol.)

Bani: Jaja. I think it’s that affirming of each other’s experiences that’s so powerful, in the face of violent rampant erasure.

Dash: Yes! You’re more eloquent with it lol. I remember one time in Utila, Honduras, I’m sitting on the corner chilling with Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 12.41.00 AMsome elder men and a young girl selling mangos and one of the guys was shocked that I was hanging out with them because tourists never talk to us. They were English-speaking afro-descendants in a Hispanophone-dominant country; my family shares that history in Panama, so it was like, ok, I’m among family. I don’t really feel like a tourist.

Bani: Like I started out saying at the beginning of this talk, white tourism is (generally) mad different from what POC experience when the travel. In your story, you were a part of the community in a way. And from that comes a dedication to tell stories about those places and their people with some justice.

Dash: Absolutely! Yes! Exactly! I said this with the travel guides saying “don’t step foot there” it’s like, um, there are actual human beings that live in these places. It is disgusting. Whites always gotta insert themselves in every corner or crook ever. Just leave us alone!

Bani: And centralize themselves in every single thing. The majority of travel writing books should just be called The White Experience in X Country. Alright, let’s wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts? Plans for the future of AfroLatino Travel?

Dash: Just that aside from our trips, tours and informational content, expect more accessible afro-diasporic travel, cultural exchange and sustainable community building coming to an app near you.

Bani: Can’t wait!

I do this for free but my tip jar is open – send $ cash money $ to heyitsbani@gmail.com via paypal

Dreaming, Planning, Mobilizing

hey people, thanks for being patient during this lapse in posts. I left nueva york and am back in ecuador but instead of living in Quito like before I’m just traveling around for the next two months. I spent a week at Alas de Luna – encuentro de arte femenino in Cuenca which was organized by one of my best ecua feminist panas. The city has been freezing and gorgeous and I’ve gotten to chill with mad ecua women artists doing rad things in dance, theater, music, film, writing and activism. A highlight was splitting a tab of acid with one of my favs – rapper Black Mama – after her set that closed the encuentro. Then I took a bus back to the selva amazónica with a friend and spent the week chillin’, writing, taking little trips, being queer in nature, dreaming up big plans for the revolución with my friends, and swimming in the river.

So I’ve been planning and mobilizing over the last few months and I’m excited to announce some cool projects, namely a WEBSERIES on street food and decolonization, an online roundtable discussion on decolonizing travel media with dope panelists, a live event in NYC along the same lines, a new column for Chica Magazine, a new zine, and other things I do for very little credit and basically no pay. I’m excited that our next #Dispatch interview – my series with travel writers and personalities of color – will be a roundtable discussion on Traveling While Trans. Three trans or nonbinary writers/activists/travelers of color will share their experiences in crossing borders, boarding planes, TSA fails and why they travel. So stay tuned for that! And if you’re a traveler/writer/activist of color and got shit to say about place with an intersectional and critical lens, get in touch! (e-mail is in about page)

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feminist graffiti in cuenca

Next week I’ll have a post up about my second time at the nation’s only multi-genre workshop for writers of color, VONA. Read about my experience at #VONA14 and the importance of travel writing by and for people of color here. In the meantimes, like our FB page to get mad stuff in your feed daily and to join in on some thoughtful convo, follow me on Twitter cause I’m constantly raging against the machine over there, and follow me on IG cause y’all like pretty photos and that’s what IG is about, I guess. For now, I’ll leave you with some sweet travel moments over the past few weeks.

The Link Between Tourism & Settler Colonialism in Hawai’i #Dispatch: Maile Arvin

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.

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Maile Arvin is a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar who writes about Native feminist theories, settler colonialism, decolonization, and race and science in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific. She is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnic Studies at UCR and will be officially joining the department as an assistant professor in July. She is part of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association working group and a member of Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a Pacific Islander feminist group of activists, poets, and scholars located in California and Oregon. You can find some of her academic writing here.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself, the work that you do, and how your identities play into that work.

Maile Arvin: So I’m Native Hawaiian, and my family is from Waimanalo, a small town on the windward side of O’ahu. I’m an academic – I research and teach about race and indigeneity in Hawai’i, the larger Pacific and elsewhere. Being Native Hawaiian grounds my work, motivates me to write about Native Hawaiian lives and histories in complicated, respectful ways.

One of my current projects is working with Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a group of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander feminist women, many of whom are also academics but also poets, activists, artists. We support each other in the academic world and are accountable to each other. We talk to each other a lot about current issues that affect Pacific Islanders, usually in news that erases the existence of Indigenous Pacific Islanders altogether, and sometimes write up responses on our blog, muliwai. We’re currently working on a response to the movie Aloha. Or maybe more about the criticism of the movie that is entirely focused on Emma Stone’s casting.

Bani Amor: Word. That leads me to my next question: I often find that travel media and tourism are complicit in settler colonialism, in that it still purports an archaic, false image of indigenous peoples as smiling caricatures who are ready, willing and able to serve at the beck and call of the (white) tourist. Any idea why this is especially the case for Hawai’i?

Maile Arvin: For Hawai’i, because it is actually a U.S. state, there is this incredible sense of entitlement that white Americans in particular feel to being at home in Hawai’i. Since World War II in particular, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was this narrative of Hawai’i as being the place that militarily makes the rest of the U.S. safe. And along with that, there is also a need to justify and naturalize U.S. military occupation of these islands that are over 2000 miles Hawaii-postcard--OTRCAT.comaway from the U.S. continent. So Hawai’i becomes this feminine place in need of the masculine U.S. military to safeguard both Hawai’i and the rest of the U.S. And Native Hawaiian women in particular become these symbols of a happy, paradisical place, a place where white military men will have fun, will get their own Native Hawaiian girl.

Then there’s just the economic situation of Hawai’i. The two biggest industries are the military and the tourism industry, so a lot of Native Hawaiians have to work for one or the other. So there will be a lot of Native Hawaiians working as performers, staff, etc. in Waikiki hotels. And they are asked to project a certain image, which is in line with this old but also current colonial idea of Hawai’i as a carefree place, a vacation place for white people.

I think there is also sometimes a sense that the U.S. has “helped” Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians, through “civilization” and through conferring statehood status on Hawai’i. So Native Hawaiians are supposed to be grateful to white Americans for those things. Which actually signify settler colonialism and genocide.

Bani Amor: Right! Travel media – mainstream and “indie” alike – seem to hold on to this theory that the tourist presence = savior presence, that indigenous people somehow *need* tourists to better their economy, keep things “civilized,” i.e. colonization is progress. In Hawai’i, does the tourist presence ever feel like another form of occupation?

Maile Arvin: Absolutely. Which is not to say that Native Hawaiians hate all tourists. But just that tourism is this structure that furthers U.S. occupation of Hawai’i. One example is that Waikiki, the site where most hotels are clustered on O’ahu, can often be actively hostile to Native Hawaiians who look out of place there. The City Council keeps passing these resolutions to ban anyone from sleeping or lying on the sidewalks. Which is a blatantly anti-homeless measure that forces Native Hawaiians out of sight of most of the tourists.

0245df7f927adca0db31a24729f65474I live in California, and a lot of people who live here go on vacations in Hawai’i. Sometimes they ask me where to go, or they just want to tell me about where they went. And usually they go to outer islands, not O’ahu where I’m from, to Moloka’i or Kaua’i islands, where I’ve actually never been. I’m glad many people love Hawai’i, but it’s hard not to feel upset sometimes when it seems like my Californian neighborhood has seen more of Hawai’i than I have. But then again I wonder what they really see, and think about how much they must miss.

For Native Hawaiians, it’s really important to try to have a relationship with the places you visit, or at least to acknowledge the relationships that other people from that place have with that land. So it’s not really about just seeing as much of Hawai’i as possible but having relationships, honoring responsibilities to places.

Bani Amor: Yes, and it’s hard to communicate that to (white) people who want to visit our lands. It took me 21 years to be able to get to Ecuador, where my fam is from, and leading up to that time white people would like to tell me how many times they’d been there, what they did, what I should see when I finally go. It was torture! And when I’m living in Ecuador (white) people are always talking about the Galapagos, a mostly inaccessible place for actual Ecuadorians. I’ve never been, nor has 99% of my family.

Maile Arvin: Yeah! It’s really hard to get people to truly acknowledge how much privilege structures their ability to travel places. To not just try to explain it away, but to sit with that however uncomfortable it may be. It’s also hard to get them to see the ways their comments are often structured by the expectation that Indigenous peoples are tour guides or that there is one authentic Indigenous experience that they can casually ask for and receive.

Bani Amor: Yup, it’s a transaction. Places are sold to tourists as brands and their consumption of place forces indigenous Hawaiian_rights_activists_line_Kuhio_Highway_alohaanalyticspeople to become culture hustlers, in a way. Getting back to perceptions of tourists – do you feel that there’s a sentiment that some or many Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiians have towards tourists that the media is intentionally erasing?

Maile Arvin: I definitely think the media (local or national) does not see Native Hawaiians as a primary audience, and so even when there is reporting on Native Hawaiian issues, it is often very shallow and tries not to make any non-Native person uncomfortable.

For example, the best coverage around the Kanaka Maoli protectors of Mauna Kea blocking the road to the summit where a thirty meter telescope is proposed to be built has largely come from international media outlets or just from folks using social media to get information out. Local and national media often tries to present “both sides” in ways that are disingenuous and don’t acknowledge power dynamics. Then Native Hawaiians get called out for being “uncivil” for disagreeing with the priorities of Western science.

Mauna Kea is a very sacred site within Hawaiian epistemologies. It is the piko, or umbilical cord, signifying the birthplace of our people. But the protectors are not fighting simply to preserve the site for Native Hawaiians. They are also fighting to stop environmental destruction, and the possible poisoning of the water aquifer that would effect everyone who lives on Hawai’i Island. But the media rarely acknowledges that, they represent the “Native Hawaiian side” versus everyone else, which is a false binary.

mauna-keaBani Amor: So often, the consequences of tourism directly lead to environmental racism, is complicit projects that natives actively fight against. I’m wondering how that binary is false though, can you clarify?

Maile Arvin: I just mean that the media often treats Native Hawaiian views as this specialized, boutique kind of opinion which is relevant only to a very small number of people. When actually the knowledge Native Hawaiians have to share, and the struggles Native Hawaiians are engaged in, often impact everyone. Especially in regards to the environment. So it seems false to me to tokenize Native Hawaiians into this one box that is sometimes acknowledged, but is set up as necessarily being against the needs/desires of the larger public, when that isn’t even always the case. Does that make sense? Maybe false binary isn’t the right phrase for it.

Bani Amor: Yes, thanks for clarifying. Seems like the media has done a lot of work to invalidate those “boutique” opinions. My final question is just about getting some resources up in here so that people can do work that continues after this conversation ends: For folks looking to balance their perceptions of Hawaii, can you name drop some Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian activists, groups or creatives that are working towards decolonization?

Maile Arvin: Gladly! This is a really wonderful blog, He Kapu Hehi Ale, written by a group of Native Hawaiians and others in Hawai’i. It covers a lot of current issues in the Pacific, including Mauna Kea, and it is really creative and just great writing. To keep up to date on Mauna Kea, you can follow Sacred Mauna Kea Hui on Facebook. Another blog I love is by Teresia Teaiwa, an academic and activist working in Aoteraroa/New Zealand. And finally Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and activist from Micronesia who has a blog. Also she gave a killer speech/poem to the UN recently.

Bani Amor: Awesome, thank you!

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Your Body Is a Foreign Country #Dispatch: Paula Young Lee

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.

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Paula Young Lee is the author of several books, including Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat (2014 Winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Book Award, Society of American Travel Writers). She splits her time between Maine and Massachusetts. We started our conversation with her asking about my back problems, which I won’t bore you with, but she quipped back with a powerful statement.

Paula Young Lee:  Your body is a foreign country: foreign to you, unintelligible to others. You may find resolution by narrating it. The first novel, The Princess of Cleves, was written by an aristocratic woman who discovered the now-expected convention of the interior voice. She was writing about her thoughts, the miracle being that she had some. Now, I think the task is to narrate our bodies, not as colonizers but native inhabitants. It sounds odd because “of course, we inhabit our bodies!” But increasingly, with avatars and the internet and media projections of our perfected selves, we don’t.

I have been thinking about female body as a territory to be claimed, but one that women have difficulty claiming as their own, even when it is their own body! Narratives, reflexive gazes, these get in the way. But pain exposes the junctions.

Bani Amor: Yes, girls grow up with distorted visions of themselves.

Paula:  Exactly. So what is a girl supposed to look like, be like, act like? One of the advantages of traveling is that it shows you how others perceive you. It lifts the veil of one culture and tosses out and shrouds you with another…but just for a split second, you get to see behind the curtain. If you are paying attention.

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Bani: I feel like, as a person of color or second generation immigrant growing up in the States, I’ve always felt like a foreigner, always aware of how others perceive me.

Paula:  It can feel like a hall of mirrors trying to sort out self-perception from others’ perceptions of you. I’ve always felt like two people in one body. But I don’t think it’s a consequence of growing up a minority in a very white state. It is just the way my mind works.

Bani: I grew up in this hardcore multicultural neighborhood in New York City, very queer too. It wasn’t until we moved to Florida and then began traveling around the United States and Canada that I realized how “othered” people perceived me as. It just can feel uncomfortable not seeing those mirrored images of yourself in others, in your community. In parts of the U.S., it was downright violent. I think it enabled me to be able to travel to other parts of the world and stick out and be OK with that.

Paula:  I tend to respond to the emotional states of others, without expectation of help or harm. When I think about it, I have had quite a few harrowing experiences, traveling alone, but those stories aren’t the ones I want to tell. Danger and safety aren’t my focus. I’m more interested in finding out it there is hope in the world. Also, food.

Bani: There is hope in food.

Paula:  I think so. Or, at least, there can be. There is also a great deal of truth. Bullshit tastes bad. Because I like getting back in the kitchen, I have made friends around the world. There is a real difference between expecting to being served, even as a traveler, and being a person who asks you to show her how to make it herself.

Bani: That seems like the low-impact way of traveling. Food is one of the first worlds to be affected in a tourist economy.

Paula:  That’s what happens when you’re poor! Can’t take your universe with you…must adapt to the way the regular folks live. One of my dreams is to be on a cooking show that lets me travel around the world, get into home kitchens, and cook with ordinary people at home.

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Bani: And you were vegetarian for a while, how did that affect the way you ate on the road?

Paula:  I was vegetarian for a very long time, and I am allergic to all seafood. Every time I visited a new country, I would end up with a whole new set of food allergies. So I mainly ate rice. Which isn’t sustainable over time. This is partly what prompted my interest in wild food. Traveling widely also impresses you with the importance of culinary diversity. This is the opposite of the food mall, which is actually the reverse: a monolith masquerading as a motley assortment.

A bee sting will kill me. This is probably the reason why I don’t much care to dwell on danger, because if I did, I would never leave the house. My allergies ensure that I cannot take my relationship to food, or to nature, for granted. So I think about these negotiations all the time, and then wonder how to translate them for people who don’t have similar obstacles preventing them from living carelessly on this earth.

Bani: So how did you go from traveling in Europe to hunting in rural New England?

Paula:  The mechanism was online dating! I was in Paris, France, trying to find a suitable man for my friend in Boston. As I was looking, I stumbled across John’s profile — no photo, two sentences describing a bourgeois life that didn’t interest me one bit. But I felt a tingle up the back of my neck that I have never felt before, and it wouldn’t go away. So I sent him a message. He replied right away. And that was that.

Bani: Wow

Paula: The trick is being confident in yourself and trusting your emotions. At first, my friends were appalled because he’s a Republican who wears a suit and tie to work. Now they all want to know where they can find one like him. For them, it was a lesson in looks that deceive. Having preconceptions about people that later proved wrong. So eventually, a few years in, we bought a house together in Paris, Maine. The house is the subject of the next memoir.

Bani: Were you hunting before you moved there?

Paula:  No. In the memoir, I tried to convey a sense of the patience that hunting requires. Between John and myself, it took years of me running away, leaving the country, going off and doing my own thing, and him being willing to wait. (For my sister, this period remains a source of much hilarity because she likes to remind me how hard I made him work.) The dynamic is much like that between a hunter and the quarry, which is not the predator/prey axis so often touted by lad mags. The quarry is not passive, and hunters must be honorable, setting the highest ethical standards in order to land the one they want. That one is not interchangeable with others that might happen to be bopping around. Distilled, the underlying sentiment is both profoundly romantic and incredibly raw.

John says he can hear me when I think. I suspect that animals can too. You have to empty your mind. This happens when on a hard hike, for example. You can’t plot your novel, worry about the bills, or think about recipes. You end up focusing entirely on where to place your feet and moving ever forward. Sometimes I think this is how wild animals function. Feet, food, sleep, poop.

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Bani: Would you call your work travel writing?

Paula:  Not in the conventional sense of the genre. But as a short and round woman of color, it is sort of impossible for me to adhere to the conventions, yes? My perspective is just too different. I don’t so much travel as I take up residence, in the manner of a hermit crab, and snap at passers-by trying, literally and figuratively, to pick me up when all I want to do is hide quietly and study the local fauna.

Bani: You’re an anthropological traveler.

Paula:  Yes, I would agree with that. So in Deer Hunting in Paris, I basically inverted the genre by observing, then writing about white rural Americans as if they were a curious tribe practicing strange customs.

Bani: Fabulous.

Paula:  The construct of leaving the country, then coming back to the state where I grew up, is a way to describe the disconnect between two forms of self — the one shaped by culture (Paris, France), and the one born of nature (Paris, Maine). White rural America is where I was raised, yet it is a struggle to call it my home.

I was instantly comfortable in France. At the time, being in Paris fed many needs. However, I wrestled with the idea of moving to France permanently, as had many of my friends — some of whom got married to a French person, others who just stayed illegally. My reluctance to take either step was evidence enough that it wasn’t for me. The city was ultimately too restless, jostling with seekers.

Bani: What are the challenges of living in Paris, Maine?

Paula:  The renovations to the old house have turned it into a giant construction zone which feels as if it will never be done. The next memoir was supposed to be an American version of a Year in Provence. Unfortunately, it is starting to turn into a Decade in Paris (Maine).

Bani: Haha, I’m sorry!

Paula:  It’s okay. It is a minefield for situational humor. I want a cat and John hates them. There is the woodpile to stack, wood to split, and the plan to hopefully set up for sheep. But all of this while a pain, is also fun and good. I want to keep doing this until I am too old. The people who used to supply our mutton were in their 90s before they finally retired from sheeping.

Bani: You def need some mutton and a kitty.

Paula:  I think so! They make me happy, but like everything else, they require a commitment to staying in place.

Bani: Which you may have now more than ever?

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Paula:  Yah, my relationship is rock solid and everything, now, builds up from it. So, on some level, going out into the world on my own made me throw out the superfluous bits, forcing me to figure out the core values I carried everywhere instead of things. He’d gone through something similar due to his divorce. So we were both very aware of and honest about who we were, and what we wanted. Which isn’t the same as having a blueprint for the future. More like quality ingredients for a potentially fantastic dish that you have to make up on the spot.

Bani: Amazing analogy. I think we’re going to wrap up soon, do you have any final thoughts?

Paula:  My usual advice is this: be honest with yourself about who you are when you are all alone, in the dark, and the rest will follow. It’s not very deep, I realize, but it’s surprising how far it can get you.

Bani: It brings it back to what we started talking about, the way we see ourselves, and how easily that can be distorted by external eyes, but being honest is definitely the first step to anything and everything, including healing those distortions.

Paula:  Yes. Sometimes we think we are seeing ourselves through our own eyes, when it turns out we’re still seeing (and judging ourselves) through our mother’s/teachers’/society’s eyes. That’s the episteme in operation, to use a big SAT word. Part of being a woman of color is having to fight through the insecurity that comes from constantly feeling as if you don’t have the power to assert yourself or your opinions inside a whitewashed space. Leaving the country helped me develop a thicker skin and to rid myself of those kinds of doubts. Now I am trying to shed the armor of my intellect. Which is why I am now writing novels.

Bani: Traveling and writing can do wonders. ■
If you’ve enjoyed this or other #Dispatches, which we work on for free, feel free to donate via Paypal to heyitsbani@gmail.com or by clicking on the ‘Donate’ button on the top right column of this page. If you’d like to donate using something other than Paypal, get in touch. 

When Community Comes Through

hey folks,

Thanks to all your support, I’ve reached my Indiegogo campaign goal and will be attending VONA/Voices workshop for writers of color this June! Plane tickets are purchased and tuition is paid. Thanks to everyone who donated, shared the link, reblogged, retweeted or sent good vibes. Your perks will be in the mail early to mid-June when I’m back in the States. Thanks for coming through!

The Indiegogo campaign doesn’t close for another 19 days, so if you’re feeling generous, all extra donations are going directly to health insurance costs. > You can donate here. <I’m also keeping the Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color of Race, Place & Adventure series going, and our next talk – with journalist Aliyya Swaby of Negrisimo – will go live next week.

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I’ll leave you with two super relevant links that some of you might have missed: MFA Vs. POC by Junot Diaz via The New Yorker, and The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media by Gabriel Arana via The American Prospect. Important!