Alyssa Writes

Travel Writing While Black

Thanks for this pic @TanyaHarry !

This weekend I attended some events for the TBEX conference held in Toronto and had the pleasure of meeting a number of writers and new media content creators in the travel scene. Many were leaders and innovators in the field while others were just getting started so it was an excellent event for the budding travel writer.  One thing I remarked, however, was that the crowd was overwhelmingly, well, white. I had to ask myself why is that? I thought about all of the newspapers I like to read and the faces on the bylines and I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of one person of colour.

So, at one of the conference parties, I asked the senior editor of an online travel magazine why the editorial staff seemed so homogenous—for the most part white-passing males (I use white-passing as I do not know the heritage of all of the staff, but “passing” for white essentially confers the same privilege as being or self-identifying as such. Click here for more on passing privilege). He explained that race and gender don’t influence their hiring decisions and that they choose the most qualified and talented editors and writers. Fair enough.

But wait. In a recent blog for the New York Times, I read that high unemployment among African-Americans in the United States is partially owed the nepotistic nature of job acquisition. People in power do favours for their friends, and as Nancy DiTomaso learned from her interviews—white professionals “rarely” interact with non-whites in the workplace, outside of it, or at home so job information is not being passed across racial lines. How is it that in this industry, one that specializes in cross-cultural experiences, there is a noticeable reproduction of race, gender, dis/ability…?

It is not as if people of colour are not working it in the travel world: Oneika the Traveller, the women of Travelista TV, and Brian Peters of No Debt World Travel come to mind.

I am not asking that people be hired because they are a person of colour, a person with a disability, etc., because that would simply serve to tokenize their voices. I believe that seeking out all types of people and encouraging their voices is absolutely necessary. In a room where everyone is similar dialogue is limited because you’re replicating the same discussions and arguments. Diversity changes that discourse—and as writers, what more do we value than discourse and dialogue?

Who I am—as a black, female of a working or new-middle class background—informs my travel experiences and those experiences cannot be spoken for by people with privilege that I do not have. Similarly, I do not speak for “all black people” nor can one tokenized staff member speak on behalf of all their “constituents”.  While at the conference, I had a discussion with a few people of colour working in different domains of the travel industry. We talked about how people are often surprised to learn that we are articulate, much less  worldly, cosmopolitan, polyglots!

There needs to be a variety of voices in writing—especially travel writing. No two people experience place in the same way, but there is also difference in how perception by locals influence these interactions. In Martinique, I was perceived, and therefore treated, as a Martiniquaise—usually until I opened my mouth that is.

I once went into a salon and couldn’t remember the word for something simple but that I didn’t use often; I smiled and said “J’ai oublié le mot” and wracked my brain. The woman at the desk just looked at me, eyebrows raised, like I was an idiot. Another aesthetician who remembered me had to explain that, in fact, I was foreign and French is not my first language. The first woman’s face relaxed in ostensible understanding. She smiled and handed me the list of services so that I could help remind myself. So on the one hand, people would approach me speaking Creole—great! Based on outward appearance, they felt comfortable using familiar language with me and it often helped with breaking the ice in social situations. On the other hand, people had less tolerance for my social gaffes or seemingly strange behaviour.

Black in China – Neatorama.com

This experience is unlikely to be replicated by a white traveller in Martinique, specifically. I am aware that white people pass as locals in many other countries, but again, in that country my experience, or the experience of anOther, is completely different. That is why no one’s travel writing speaks for everyone.

I’ve been told stories of people of colour being stared at where they travel to or being asked if they are Oprah or Barack Obama. I’ve been told of white people being stared at, heckled or asking to have their picture taken while abroad. I understand that the experiences can be related—but I would like to submit that there is one difference: privilege. In many countries whiteness is idolized, envied and admired whereas blackness is seen as a curiosity or seen in disbelief. The difference is being seen through a neocolonial lens of reverence (or hatred, especially in the earliest colonized countries) versus one of “did I just see an alien?”

The video below I really recommend watching, but if you can’t or don’t want to (thanks for making it this far though!) then let me break it down for you: there is a stereotype out there that black people don’t travel. When they do, it’s usually to the Caribbean or somewhere you can go shopping. As I discussed with my colleagues at the conference, why is it that my desire to travel and see the world is considered out of the ordinary? Why when I want to go somewhere other than Jamaica on vacation, people are surprised?

I’ll tell you: because you just don’t see it in the mainstream. I can’t think of any of the quintessential “travel” films with black characters (or many minority groups in the North American context, that is)—Eat Pray Love, L’Auberge Espagnole, Eurotrip… Again, I don’t think that Hollywood should go throwing in token characters and I can’t blame people for relating their authentic experiences. Okay, there was How Stella Got Her Groove Back, but come on, I’d need another blog to unpack all of the equity issues with that one (in fact, I wrote an essay on it in university). Why aren’t the Others’ stories being told?

Because of the skin colour of the majority of travel writers and the subsequent associations, travel is seen as something for the spoiled, rich and/or privileged. This is not the case—there are many people simply making travel a priority, finding budget friendly ways to see the world. There are also concerns by people of colour—about how they will be perceived abroad.

I personally believe that no one should let those sorts of things hold them back from doing what they want, but I acknowledge that it is definitely still a worry. I was looking into teaching abroad in Dubai, Korea and China, and was slightly apprehensive  about visiting these countries as a woman of colour. I happened upon two really great blogs by two black women living in Korea (The Supa Dupa Fly Seoul Sista – so clever) and Dubai which I found comforting.

If your business is about sharing travel experiences and inspiring others to travel, open up the dialogue and look for writers of all walks of life to share their voices and their lived experience.