A couple of days ago amidst Black Twitter, a conversation about poverty, possessions and experiences erupted after someone tweeted a restaurant receipt and bragged about the price of the meal, stating that it cost more than some people’s shoes. The meal was under $100.00 and at a rather mundane restaurant chain. Besides the point of spending money at boring restaurant chains when cheaper and better foods can be had elsewhere (i.e. at small business restaurants that help families, individual and family-owned food trucks, culinary school student restaurants), the main thing that stuck out to people was the poverty-shaming involved. I reject poverty-shaming and shared tweets about it then; I also mentioned a great essay about this very topic, in a past Read This Week feature.
The conversation moved on to a really common one, buying stuff versus doing stuff. Possession acquisition versus experiences. I am used to being mocked because I don’t own a lot of things or buy a lot of things. I never have. (I grew up in poverty. I know nothing of wealth…or even sufficient “middle-class” status other than a 2 year stint during my 20s.) There are people, even some family members, who mock that I don’t own a lot of things, but if I mention anything that I know or do, I am called elitist and insulted. Because we live in a tangible consumerist society, societal favor leans towards those who own things moreso than those who do things, though individually, insults can go back and forth. (I would say that this only deviates for the very affluent to where both matter.) Since 2004, I’ve tried to travel whenever I can (which translates to scraping pennies for a long time and then using them when I have enough) because I’ve always taken to doing stuff versus owning stuff. Travel locally. Try new museums. Visit art fairs. Support local artists. Travel domestically. Visit family. Visit college campuses. Check out their libraries. Make photographs. Travel internationally. Meet new people. Talk to them. Visit monuments. See art. Learn something about the food. Think about how it compares and contrasts to the Jamaican food that I grew up on. (So many cultures have overlap; i.e. I’ve found what I would call patties as a Jamaican Black in several cultures—similar “meat pocket” concepts).
Some people on Twitter pointed out that travel is just as consumption-oriented as possession acquisition, benefits corporations just as buying objects does and at times, can harm people native to the places that are visited or where products are made. This is true. However, some people took a turn in the conversation that I could not relate to completely; I felt it lacked nuance, and admittedly when possession acquisition is critiqued, people are written off as shallow and there’s often no nuance there either.
When critiquing travel, the “Westerner” label gets used. To be clear, I am not discussing the concept of Western/industrialized nation privilege or how people use “first world/third world,” global north/global south juxtapositions to determine concepts of privilege and hierarchy. I am talking about a perception that because such privilege exists, “Westerners” approach travel by viewing people as zoo exhibits, “otherizing” people and engaging in lavish resort vacation lifestyles. I saw several people suggest this as to why they perceive travel as equally bad consumption as possession acquisition. The problem with this is that once the “Westerner” label is used, people choose the most culturally grotesque, the most affluent and in most cases, the most White privileged experience to use as the model of how “Westerners” approach travel. And while many do, I’ve read the stories and talked to the people who’ve been on the receiving end of this, using this example to describe how some people of colour travel, especially for me as a Black woman is not nuanced. While being a “Westerner” means I share certain privilege with anyone of the “Western world,” the idea that I have the financial capability or social capital through race to approach travel the way a White man does, for example, is ludicrous to me in theory and praxis. It’s simply not what happened for me.
For example, when I traveled to Japan in 2007, I went to a dinner with newly met Japanese acquaintances, I spent time with a Japanese family that are friends of my best friend’s brother, I spent time with a small business owner (of a restaurant) that is a friend of her brother, and learned about his business, I spent time with an amateur photographer that I met, I attended a photography expo (I am a photographer) and spent time with my best friend and her brother themselves. I was not in any luxurious resort (can’t afford that) chalking it up with “Westerners” of affluence nor was I using my time to gawk and bug Japanese people, the way Whites bug me in the States, regularly, as some sort of zoo exhibit. When I went to Beijing in 2008, I and my best friend (also a Black woman) were the ones gawked at and “otherized.” Multiple Chinese people asked to take photographs with us, and petted our skin, faces and our hair repeatedly. The suggestion that I travel to a place to “otherize” someone when I, as a Black woman, am treated this way at home or eight thousand miles away is something that I have difficulty processing on a personal level, though I understand the assumption others make on a theoretical level.
The idea that since Western privilege exists, all “Westerners” travel for the same reasons, will do the same things, with the same access to capital and power, and will receive the same treatment is utterly false. In fact, I just read an essay about Black women from America who described their utterly disgusting experiences with racism, sexism and misogyny as students learning abroad. Obviously being a “Westerner” didn’t give them the endless power that people think. And again, I am not claiming that Western privilege is false. I am asserting that people of colour from the West who travel may not always be in the position to “otherize” any damn body and may actually be the “other” no matter where they go. This has been my experience. While people are quick to assume that I went to China to gawk at people from a position of superiority, I was the one gawked at and awkwardly touched there. I was the “other,” even if they are “others” to Whites. Oh and…they didn’t do this to any White travelers there. I watched. Most of the time when Whites are treated as “others” in a place, it is from an angle of implied superiority, not strangeness that should be petted or inferiority that should be disdained. White supremacy isn’t solely an American problem.
In one of bell hooks’ books, she mentioned that as professor at Yale in the past, she overheared White male students talking about trying to sleep with as many non-White women as they could, as if this would make them “real” men. She writes:
To these young males and their buddies, fucking was a way to confront the Other, as well as a way to make themselves over, to leave behind white “innocence” and enter the world of “experience.” As is often the case in this society, they were confident that non-white people had more life experience, were more wordly, sensual, and sexual because they were different. Getting a bit of the Other, in this case engaging in sexual encounters with non-white females, was considered a ritual of transcendence, a movement out into a world of difference that would transform, an acceptable rite of passage. The direct objective was not simply to sexually possess the Other; it was to be changed in some way by the encounter. “Naturally,” the presence of the Other, the body of the Other, was seen as existing to serve the ends of white male desires.
Reading about her experience with this domestically made me think of the numerous White men who travel the world for this very reason, and in the last few decades, the uptick of White women traveling for sex tourism with “brown” men as well. As a Black woman, both financially and culturally, this is not something I would do. The White women going to Jamaica, for example, to pay for sex with Jamaican men as some sort of exotic “other” is something lost on me, a Black woman with a Jamaican father. This culture is my LIFE, not an exotic “other.” Thus, the idea that I would travel to “other” someone because I am a “Westerner” is lost on me again. (Now, this does not mean that people of colour simply cannot otherize. For example, Black American men do this to Brazilian women, and then use their “exotic” sexual experiences to insult Black American women. Male privilege. I think outside of the terms of “social justice” travel i.e. a woman of colour who “volunteers” via White Savior Industrial Complex, a woman without White privilege or male privilege has a harder time of being in the position of “othering” someone else. The impact of White supremacy and patriarchy is worldwide.)
I am NOT diminishing the impact of Western consumption on the rest of the world, whether through services and products needed for experiences or the incredibly large amounts of products that are created for possession acquisition under horrendous conditions, for dirt cheap, while many non-Western economies suffer. I am not erasing the concept of Western privilege. I am questioning the blanket label of “Westerner” as it applies to travel. I know that anywhere my Black and woman body is, anywhere, my presence is questioned. I am the “other,” I am stared at, I am the one touched without permission, even in places that Americans (while ironically critiquing travel in the way I’ve mentioned) write off as places filled with “others” that someone like me, being a “Westerner,” supposedly seeks to exploit and fetish for travel purposes.
Being a “Westerner” while traveling, perhaps engaging in “equally” as bad consumption by traveling (though the claims of affluence, resorts and treating people like zoo animals doesn’t apply to my life and never has) as someone is by staying in the States and acquiring expensive possessions, has not afforded me the same status or experiences as any man or any White person. And while I understand the fervor to critique travel, especially since possession acquisition is always written off as shallow, the critique must include a nuanced picture. I don’t become a White male when I travel no more than I became one when I got a Master’s degree. And, while Western privilege and education privilege are very real things, the idea that privilege is a blanket and not a space of intersection and nuance is an idea lost on me. If oppression is nuanced, so must be privilege. (i.e. Black men have male privilege but to pretend that race does not impact this in comparison to White men and male privilege is to ignore something huge.) I am never one to ignore my privilege. For example, I check my heterosexual privilege all of the time, especially when I am in passionate conversations with LGBTQ people that I want to be an ally for. There’s privilege I’ve had here, in the States, in comparison to other Black women, for the simple fact that despite a life of almost all poverty, I still have an education and was able to travel.
Again, I truly understand that some “Westerners” travel, especially to a continent like Africa, for example, out of ethnocentric superiority, as members of White Savior Industrial Complex and for cultural voyeurism/sex tourism and more. I am not disputing how Western, especially American and British ethnocentrism impacts travel. I watched it with my own eyes. I had White American men act inappropriately towards me and my best friend while we were in Hong Kong, despite the fact that we all shared the same passport type. Being a “Westerner” or having an American passport simply does not translate into one blanket travel motivation or experience.
Buying stuff or doing stuff…I guess it will always be a debate. I just hope that it will move past one being totally good vs. being totally evil depending on the person you ask—move past the hyperbole into nuanced and thoughtful conversations.