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.
A young Black woman that I know worked for a small, Black-owned restaurant. She was the general manager. The owner was an older Black man (around 50-60).
She created the business plan, pricing points, menu offerings, and general ideas for how the place would run. It’s only fitting since she has a business degree that targeted hospitality and restaurant management. She acquired the designer for the social media spaces and maintained the social media accounts. She cooked some of the food at her home, since the kitchen area was small there. She also supervised the lower level staff on the days (most of them) when the owner was not there.
However, this is where the happy, productive side of the story ends. The owner pretty much refused to hire any other Black employees. He already had a general manager that was almost overqualified, severely skilled and amazingly creative, who he was paying a substandard wage. He refused to hire any Black men, despite the restaurant being located in an area that is almost 70% Black. He would only hire White or fair-skinned Hispanic women as employees, and rejected the general manager’s ideas for hiring. One of these White employees stole from him. One of the Hispanic employees barely spoke English, which is okay, except for his patrons were not Spanish-speaking, so that presented challenges. He often wanted the menu changed to cater to what he thought White patrons would want, despite again, being in an area that is almost 70% Black and primarily having Black women with children as his patrons.
Eventually, the Black woman that I am speaking of, his general manager, quit. The restaurant started doing poorly as he started rejecting her ideas. Shortly after her departure, the restaurant was closed. I passed by it the other day and saw it closed.
I really wonder how many Black business owners are shooting themselves in the foot trying to please White consumers who don’t shop at their businesses and refuse to hire minorities from their own communities? I think this is really sad.
Now true, Black customers can be difficult for Black businesses. I know this as a professional photographer. I’ve had many Black customers who wanted my work for free (or a “hookup” price) but gladly pay a White male photographer almost double my rate even when his work was not at the level of mine. I’ve had Black male potential customers who’ve tried to be inappropriate via emails or calls and never really wanted to hire me for photography in the first place. I’ve had Black women customers who expected me to shoot a “social justice” event for free (which would be fine, in context, but wait for the next part) yet paid all of their White vendors. Internalized White supremacy can complicate business relationships. At the same time, I’ve had many GREAT Black customers (when I did consumer photography; I’m actually changing the type of work I share/create for next year), who were wonderful. I’ve had many clients of many backgrounds who rocked, and many who sucked. It’s the nature of business.
Still though…with this particular restaurant that I started this post with, the owner CLEARLY had signs that his general manager’s ideas WORKED. He blatantly ignored them because in his mind, a White employee or a White customer is what makes a business great, not…money…from Black customers? Again, that restaurant is closed.
Related Post: Customer Service, Tips and Race
A couple of years ago, I was at a restaurant with a friend having a quick bite to eat. I saw a Black man who appeared to be homeless enter the restaurant. When we finished our meals and were ready to continue our downtown stroll, the man quietly came over to my table and stood. In a soft-spoken and kind voice he asked if he could have my chicken. I wasn’t even thinking when I told him that the chicken was bland. He said “I don’t care…I am hungry.” The way he said the word “hungry” gave me chills. Here I am worried about the taste when he simply wanted to eat to survive. Privilege checked. I gave him the food, he smiled, and we wished him a good night.
A few nights after that, I was at a fast food restaurant with a friend. The friend and I were finishing our french fries where a man loudly came over to our table and sat down. I get enraged and disgusted by any person, especially male, invading my personal space. He began to talk loudly, almost screaming and kept pointing at a friend of his. I immediately stood up and told my friend that I was leaving and was not going to listen to this loud, rude man. He got up and began to insult us. My feelings were not hurt though. I have decades of dealing with aggressive, insulting men (unfortunately, most of them were/are Black men) from the neighborhood I grew up in, jobs I’ve worked and even cyberspace. The man finished the encounter, yelling over his shoulder as he left, and ended with some negative statement about my mother (who happens to be deceased). Once he was further away and I looked at him, he appeared to be homeless as well. However, his mental faculty seemed rather normal upon first glance (first glance—obviously I didn’t conduct a psychological exam) and he did not smell like alcohol. He simply was rude.
I thought about the differences in these two men’s approaches. Both were older Black men. Both were homeless. Both encounters occurred in inexpensive restaurants. One chose to treat me with respect and spoke to me kindly. One chose to be belligerent and didn’t even ask for money…or food. Of all of the women in the restaurant, my friend and I were the only Black ones. For that or some other reason that I am not aware of, he deemed us not worthy of respect and only accosted us, no other women or persons in the restaurant.
Now what can I surmise? Nothing. I cannot assume that all Black men or all homeless men are kind, based on the first encounter. I cannot assume that all Black men or all homeless men are crude, aggressive and disrespectful because of the second encounter. Even with almost two decades of highly aggressive verbal battles with Black men and enduring almost limitless street harassment, I still have had many positive interactions with Black men as classmates, clients, colleagues, friends, social media buddies and boyfriends. I have a good relationship with my father as well. Critiquing what’s bad ≠ ignoring what’s good.
The lesson I reminded myself of is that positive and negative can come from anyone, even two people who seem incredibly similar in race, age, life circumstances and location. Though who we are and what we’ve been through shapes our attitudes and behaviors, we still have some choices in how we behave. I still believe that men (individually) have the capability to be decent if they decide to (though said decision is STILL impacted by living in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal society), but ideologies and institutions such as patriarchy, male privilege, sexism, misogyny, misognoir, street harassment and victim blaming are things that MUST be critiqued, unpacked, deconstructed and recognized. IF anyone, male or female, feels that doing so is the “hatred” of men, they must not think very much of men…at all.
Sorry, but I am fresh out of applause for Chik Fil-A simply because they decided to take “a much closer look” at how they allocate their funding in regards to anti-gay groups. So…after that bigoted nonsense they engaged in recently, deciding to keep some of their own money is supposed to make me go “wow, they had a change of heart!”
I am not easily impressed. Not donating to something doesn’t mean that you stopped being homophobic or any other type of bigot. Think about this, only about 1% of Americans actually donate large amounts to political campaigns. If we used the act of donation as an indicator of who is bigoted or not, America would be virtually intolerance-free.
Sure, money is power. But…honestly, that display of hatred while stuffing their faces that some Americans engaged in with Chik Fil-A had more impact than checks they’ve signed. Sometimes the propaganda and how it is portrayed can be equally or more powerful than a check.
Spokesperson for said:
The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect -regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.
Please. This is not growth. This is “the media firestorm surrounding our bigotry towards the LGBT community hurt our reputation, so we have to re-evaluate things” NOT a true evolution on LGBT people or marriage equality.
Oh and…companies are MOST CERTAINLY POLITICAL. No corporation is “apolitical.”
Yeah, their food was good. I say was, because I don’t go there anymore. I am heterosexual, but I am not interested in spending money with them. They are entirely too ridiculous.