At the end of 2014, the Holy Grail of travel blogging events took place in December, the White House’s first ever Travel Blogger Summit, where 100 “influential travel bloggers” were invited to take part, some flying in all the way from Australia. That’s us up there in our formal dinner party attire in front of the elaborate White House Christmas decorations. Okay, not really. We were at San Juan airport, on our way back from celebrating Christmas on the beach in Puerto Rico. Which is pretty much like being at the White House.
From the White House:
“Last week, the Global Engagement Directorate at the National Security Council hosted a summit with 130 of the most influential travel bloggers and digital media outlets. The summit was an opportunity to discuss U.S. government initiatives and strategies for encouraging American students to study, volunteer, and work abroad.”
The senior policymakers discussed some wonderful initiatives to help increase the numbers and diversity of Americans going on these programs, particularly those from low income communities. And I love this sentiment from Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff: “Bottom line is we don’t see the cost of foreign travel or foreign study as separate or apart from the cost of college.” Hell. Yes. Funding and grants are excellent starts to creating a culture of foreign travel amongst Americans and the recent video by Obama announcing Community College will be free for everyone who wants to attend is a MONUMENTAL step in the right direction. As a college and university instructor in NYC, I see first hand the crippling effects money has on my students and how liberating it can be when they aren’t as worried about it. And as a traveler of color, it brings me joy to hear the opportunity to travel may be available on a large scale to an entire generation. Maybe the American Gap Year will be a thing in the years to come.
So, it was very disappointing that this event was organized primarily with White travel bloggers and educators in mind. Here is a link to the official video, which encapsulates everything problematic about the event. A lineup of super important White people (were ALL the important People of Color celebrating Kwanza that day?) talking to a room mostly filled with other White people (travel bloggers and educators) for a whopping 45 minutes about their plans to diversify American student travel and bring about some major changes in the culture of education. They’re speaking in code, so I’ll translate. Diversity, low income, community college, “more” Americans, “all people,” “more accessible.” They’re talking about People of Color. To People (mostly) Not of Color.
I teach creative writing in NYC, with travel writing and sometimes blogging as part of the course. My students at Borough of Manhattan Community College are as diverse as New York City, coming from all over the world. And while they love writing food and travel narratives about everything from eating Mofongo in Queens to the worst bus ride they’ve taken in Pakistan, they see travel blogging as a “White thing.” Not because that’s how it is, but because that’s how it’s being presented through the media, White travel bloggers and their participation in thoroughly White “best travel blogs” lists and panels and conferences. People of Color aren’t supposed to want to travel or write about travel. Or for that matter see themselves in books, or on TV or movies or advertisements. If there’s an alien invasion this year, boy are the aliens going to be surprised at all the People of Color.
There were some travel bloggers of color in attendance. If you squint, you can see tiny specks of brown in the stark Whiteness of the group photos. In Hostelling International’s own words: “the bloggers were largely handpicked by HI-USA.” Awesome. This inherent racism is of course not something exclusive to Hostelling International or the White House or TBEX or AWP or Book Con, or any other conference. It’s standard protocol of how well-intentioned White people organize things: all White-male panel on Children’s Literature at Book Con (which blew up in their faces and began the movement, WeNeedDiverseBooks), all-White travel and food blogging panels at AWP, the ubiquitous Whiteness of TBEX. List after list, including some using highly complex algorithms and Alexa scores, which should just be titled Top 100 White Travel Blogs or Top 50 White Travel Blogs.
And all of these things help re-enforce the notion that people of color don’t travel, or write, or draw in high traffic on their travel blogs. Which of course is total bullshit and a wholly constructed reality. Nobody travels more than People of Color. Just ask the Nomadness Travel Movement with 8000 members, all POC, from across the globe.
I also wrote a list using a special “race-neutral” algorithm and somehow ended up with with Ten Awesome Narrative Travel Bloggers of Color and there are plenty, plenty more. The travel bloggers who attended the Summit have written posts on Christmas decorations, the benefits of studying abroad, travel pieces on the White House, but only two posts written on the lack of diversity. I get it. Nobody wants to risk sabotaging relationships and potential sources of revenue by doing the right thing. There’s branding to think about. And who, in their right minds, would criticize the first and only event travel bloggers have ever been invited to at the White House? These two badasses that’s who: badass #1, badass #2. Nothing kills the sexiness of a fun travel blog like using highly charged terms like Racism, White Privilege, or White Supremacy.
Racism. White Privilege. White Supremacy.
Enter The Whiteness
Let’s start with books. Paper ones. Specifically travel narratives. Of the Top 87 “greatest travel books of all time,” or 100 or 10 or 25 or whatever arbitrary number is being used, it is very rare to see a writer of color in the midst of all the White voices. Sometimes V.S. Naipaul will be on the list, but not other well known novelists who’ve also written travel narratives, like Michael Ondaatje, Vikram Seth, or Zora Neale Hurston. Lists with straight up travel writers might mention Pico Iyer, but never Hector Garcia, Mungo Park, or countless others whose voices are drowned out and not regularly stocked in bookshelves. Here’s a wonderful list by my friend and fellow VONA alum, Bani Amor wrote: Top Ten Travel Books by People of Color.
Whiteness has very little to do with white people as individuals. It has everything to do with the System that houses it all, making sure minority voices are all but invisible. White, as a color, means nothing. The list changes every few decades of who gets to be in the club and who stays outside, hoping to get past the velvet ropes. Not that long ago the Irish, Italians, Poles, Jewish people, Russians, and heaps of folks that were put into the category of “you people,” weren’t considered White. Now they’re all in the club. Fun fact: a pivotal case from 1923 centers on Bhagat Thind, a Sikh Ph.D student at U.C. Berkeley, who argued that high caste Indians should be let into the White club so they could receive the same privileges of being White in America. It was denied of course, because while the judge admitted Indians were Aryan and therefore Caucasian, they still don’t fit the “popular” definition of the term. Now we’re not supposed to refer to White people at all because they’re the default image of a human being.
Systematic Racism. Racism that isn’t really considered racism because nice, well intentioned White people are involved in organizations, where nobody sees race (I’m COLORBLIND, yo!). Nobody at these events comes out with a red marker (I hope) and says, “remove all the travel bloggers of color from this list.” Travel bloggers of color aren’t ever on the list, or considered to be part of the conversation in any meaningful capacity. If they’re considered, it’s usually as an afterthought or as tokens.
It is absolute fantasy to think that backpacking through India, studying in Italy for a semester abroad, or teaching ESL in China can be a shared experience, pretending that gender, sexual orientation, disability, or race don’t matter. Travel is not the great unifier. All of these things play a pivotal role in how we experience a place. Although POC do have shared experiences under White systems of oppression, our individual and collective experiences are very diverse. Black people traveling to brown countries aren’t going to be met with warm hugs because all POC are friends and have one collective history you all probably learned about in your World History course.
Traveling (and teaching) while Brown presents its own challenges that I quickly found out about during my first solo trip to South East Asia and was promptly fired from my first ESL job in Sichuan Province, China for not “looking” like I spoke English. I had the Visa, contract, numerous email confirmations, and was taken out to a fancy dinner. Countless teacher-travelers of color all have similar stories. Black travelers, however, bear the brunt, especially in India. And the weirdness of being Black in Asia is that you can be a celebrity with crowds being friendly and wanting to take photos of you, touch your hair, compare their light skin with yours, to the potential for blatant racism with police harassment and being denied accommodation because of “safety.” The unifying factor in all of these stories is the outrage felt by our White colleagues and fellow White travelers. They are outraged by the blatant racism of a fellow traveler being denied a hotel room, or entry into a restaurant. But this outrage stops short of actually doing something, or not benefitting from their glamorous White skin. In my case, nobody even complained.
White supremacy is still sharply felt all over the world, even in places without White people present. Try buying skin cream anywhere in South East Asia without skin whitening bleach (a 4.3 million dollar industry in India alone). Or find a T.V. or movie star or model in a magazine with complexions that remotely look like people in the streets. And English, man, English is King, a signifier of high class, upward mobility, where it’s a sign of prestige that kids don’t read, write, sometimes not even speaking their native tongue in favor of English.
The 100 influential bloggers on the list compiled by Hostelling International are wonderful writers with social sway, but they represent a fraction of actual travel bloggers out there. These are adventurous folks who have taken travel blogging to full on rockstar levels with a lot of hard work. But there is a lot of unchecked privilege here. Frequent all-White press trips, tweetups in brown countries often exclusively with other White travel bloggers. Entitled language without acknowledging the entitlement.
Here’s a passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that sums everything I want say:
Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”