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.
“Language has always been the perfect instrument of empire.” — Antonio de Nebrija, Granidtica Castellana
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.
This article originally appeared on BaniAmor.com and is republished here with permission.