“And herein lies the problem. So many people agree that diversity is great and local perspective is great but few actually want it.”
Tey, one half of Get Gone and Travel, recently pointed this out, and it can’t be said enough.
I wrote a post about the problems I have with travel blogging/writing that went semi-viral. It made a lot of points: homogeneity, lack of inclusiveness and representation, superficiality, unwillingness to discuss politics and history, and the invisibility of local voices. The responses, good and bad, were fascinating.
Expectedly, some people disagreed with parts, or all, of the post. Almost all of them (except a few trolls) were all for more diversity, in theory. But in practice, their support for diversity and representation only went so far.
The easiest opinion for people to agree with was that Instagram and travel blogs are often shallow and unrealistic. Many also agreed with the point about homogeneity. As soon as it went from “seeing more people like me” to “seeing fewer white people and more people of color,” the next herd of followers fell off.
Why am I bringing race into this? Why am I attacking white people? Why do I hate myself? (lol) Not all white people are privileged. Some people worked really hard to get where they are and don’t deserve to have it taken away just because they are white. (Read up on whiteness and white privilege here.) Although I definitely never threatened to go take down all the blogs written by white people (which would include my own), a lot of people seemed to read a move from the generic push for “diversity” to actual mention of race as an immediate threat.
The final point was the one I considered to be most important, and yet, it was also the hardest pill to swallow for many readers:
“Why are white people and people from the Global North the loudest voice and most prominent authority on brown countries and cultures from the Global South? Why don’t we ever read about a NICARAGUAN’S perspective on Nicaragua? Why are the people who are living in the destination you’re writing about totally erased. Non-existent. Or represented as one dimensional, ignorant stereotypes. Or criticized. Or pitied.”
This, after all, was the most threatening – now we can’t even blog about other countries? Too far. This would kill travel blogging altogether.
This is the point I’d like to expand on in this article.
Why more local voices? How is travel writing neo-colonialism?
While I think that even paying more attention to news and opinions coming out of Western Europe would be an improvement, this is about the fact that we don’t often listen to local perspectives on Peru. Or Cambodia. Or Botswana. We don’t often grant people from the Global South the authority and credibility to speak on their own countries. They don’t have the right to define their own country and culture to the outside world. By and large, white people do.
This is why it’s called neo-colonialism. This is why it’s called white supremacy. Once again, white people from the Global North are being handed the pen that gets to write the present and future for brown countries in the Global South. Information ranges from #fakenews and propaganda about how Mexico is nothing but drug cartels and Cubans are jailed for eating meat to misinformed representations of cultural habits and customs to more subtle but insidious articles in which all the facts might be correct on the surface but, being an outsider, the writer swaps out the nuances and complexities that make up real cultures for confused generalizations and stereotypes that promote subcsoncious racism.
I’m talking about Instagram accounts about Cuba that feature 100 photos of resorts and beaches and cocktails and 1 of an actual Cuban, and of course, it’s an old man smoking a cigar. I’m talking about how travel publications don’t want to hear pitches about Costa Rica that don’t involve yoga retreats.
I’m talking about when a blogger writes about how annoying beggars in Cambodia are and fails to so much as mention the country’s bloody history and the Khmer Rouge regime created a cycle of extreme poverty that endures today. I’m also talking about the writer who turns an entire country into tragedy porn, going to volunteer at an orphanage and using brown kids as props in their photos or writing about how sad and poor everyone in Haiti is, with no mention of history, race, and politics, and then leaving a link for people to donate to the Red Cross, where their money will surely disappear into a black hole along with all the other Red Cross donations that are unaccounted for.
I’m talking about the white girl who thinks that a 6 month backpacking trip through Latin America gives her the authority to write think pieces and critiques about “machismo” culture (remember when #45 called Mexicans rapists? Do you think your blog posts are helping?).
When we make other cultures invisible, one-dimensional, ahistorical, and other (“exotic”), we make it incredibly easy for others to dehumanize them. We reinforce the current, oppressive power dynamic between the Global North and the Global South, and we allow others to continue propogating racism and white supremacy.
Couple this with the fact that most widely read travel writers and bloggers are white, and the problem is compounded. The fact is, us white people tend to have our blinders on when it comes to things like neo-colonialism and white supremacy, because we’ve never experienced them. People of color are often better equipped to approach other countries with a nuanced perspective and an understanding of their complexities and histories.
If you are genuinely curious to learn more about this, most of my knowledge and education on the subject is thanks to the work of Bani Amor, “a queer travel writer, photographer and activist from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador who explores diasporic identities, the decolonization of travel culture, and the intersections of race, place and power in their work.” Here’s an interview they did for Bitch Magazine where they talk about what decolonizing travel really means.
“But there are no Nicaraguan travel bloggers.” A response to arguments against the centering of local voices.
The most recent response I received was in an article written for Australian newspaper the Gippsland Times by Ben Groundwater (he did not reach out to me, so I had no chance to respond). He enthusiastically agrees with everything written in my article until the final point about reading local perspectives. He writes of my post,
“This is where I disagree just slightly. More diversity would be great, but I’m not so sure that local voices are the answer. I would love to read a Nicaraguan’s opinion of Nicaragua – but I’d be just as interested to read what an outsider has to say. The best travel writing captures the experience of a place as a foreigner. It allows the opportunity to identify quirks and eccentricities that a local would probably dismiss as uninteresting or irrelevant.
So we don’t necessarily need locals to tell the world’s stories.”
He missed the point a little. No where did I state that tourist perspectives should be totally eliminated. That wouldn’t even be a realistic proposal.
The problem is that for the vast majority of travelers, this is ALL they read: tourist perspectives. And for the vast majority of travel writers, this is all they include in their writing: tourist perspectives.
Here’s a sampling of the most common retorts I received:
It’s a nice idea, but it’s not realistic or possible. / There just aren’t many bloggers from these countries. It sucks, but it’s the reality of the world. There probably are bloggers from just about every country in the world, but I get it, they are hard to find. Firstly, it’s going to take a little more work than going to the first result of a basic Google search. Make an effort to diversify your network and the people you communicate with online and in person, and more diverse reading material will come to you. Read the tips below.
There are lots of bloggers and writers from these countries, but they’re writing in Spanish/Arabic/Vietnamese/etc. First of all, plenty of people from these countries do write in English. It’s been exported all over the globe. Most estimates suggest that over 1 billion people in the world speak English, or about 20%. Yes, even people in “developing” countries speak English. In fact, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Phillipines all have more English speakers than in the UK. Furthermore, most major books, television shows, and movies are translated into English.
Well, maybe we aren’t reading Nicaraguan perspectives because Nicaraguans are poor and they don’t have computers! Don’t be ignorant!! Part of me doesn’t even want to justify this one with a response, but FYI, there are Nicaraguans with computers. They are not illiterate either. Nicaragua has also produced some of the world’s most renowned writers, poets, and politicans; you don’t even have to try hard to find a fantastic book written from a Nicaraguan perspective.
Contrary to tragedy porn, the Global South is not 100% full of people who can’t read or write and have never seen a computer before. This isn’t to minimize the poverty and struggles many of these countries to experience thanks to colonialism and oppression, but rather to counter overly-simplistic stereotypes that paint brown countries as backwards, uneducated, and stupid.
Don’t forget that people immigrate and live all over the world. This thing called the diaspora – the dispersion of people beyond their original homeland – means that plenty of Vietnamese and people of Vietnamese descent live in the U.S., UK, and all over the world. Bani Amor, the travel writer I mentioned above, writes on Ecuador from the perspective of an Ecuadorian-American who bounces between both countries. These are also great sources.
As travelers, we can seek out local perspectives in a variety of ways, not just by finding their blogs. Here are some other ways to get insight into a country from a local’s perspective:
- Browse online travel communities with a broad international population.
- Read up on that country’s history. It takes a little effort but it’s one of the best things you can do before visiting.
- Read novels and poetry from that country.
- Watch movies and listen to music from that country.
- Branch out of the travel niche. Reading about Laotian music, politics, or food is also going to enhance your trip to Laos.
- Read up on current events and news from that country. Try to find English non-Western news outlets if you can, or check out the local subreddit.
- Seek out diasporic writers with ancestral ties to that country.
- Talk to locals while you’re there! Language barrier is no longer an easy excuse; thanks Google translate!
If you’re a travel writer or travel blogger, I believe we have an obligation to include, if not center, local voices. For my tips on how to do this, check out the article I wrote on “5 Ways Travel Writers Can Include Local Perspectives.”
I hope to include more local perpspectives through our “Like a Local” series, but I also want to start building out resources for various countries that include recommended reading and viewing. These would be articles like the one I wrote on must-read books about Central America. If you’d like to write about your country, or if you have some recommendations for books, movies, etc on ANY country that I should add to my lists, please get in touch!
What do you think about centering local perspectives? Do you have any ideas on how we, as travelers or travel writers, can be better about including them?