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Human Safaris (also known as tourism)

(Originally posted at Womanist Musings. Posting here for archival purposes.)

Until recently I had never noticed how very creepy white people can sound when they are talking about travelling. I heard a conversation recently about travelling and one participant talked about how they could sit for hours in Mumbai just watching. Watching people. Talking all about how different everything was over there. Which is interesting in light of a story on India on human safaris. On hearing this discussion over tourism and travel, I wonder if there is a substantive difference between going on an actual human safari and any tourism by white people in PoC countries.

Now other people have written about the problems with tourism. And there are many. But I really just want to talk about how creepy it sounds. It is poverty porn, treating cultures of colour like they are commodities to be consumed; it is exotification, etc. This is most visible white photographers taking pictures of poor Black and Brown people (often without consent). But it is also visible in the travel narratives most people use when describing their trips. There is a tendency to focus on differences and to convey aspects that the audience will find shocking (e.g., “What? You can smoke in elevators in China? Amazing! They spit a lot in China? Gross!”). It is othering. And it is creepy as shit.

What is creepy about this voyeuristic consumption is that is almost feels like gloating. It is the white colonial gaze going out into the world and viewing the destruction that they have wrought upon the world. And this is considered a leisure activity. This is something privileged people do when they need a break from their regular lives. Something they do for fun.

Of course this isn’t everyone. For some, travel is used as an educational opportunity. How many times have I heard white people in Canada saying that this spoiled white child or other should travel so that they can see what real hardship is like? So that they can better appreciate the privileges they have built on the backs and oppression of PoC? This is a common theme in extolling the ‘virtues’ of travel. It is about becoming more cultured.

And yet, particularly in the cases of consuming pain and oppression for educational reasons, it never crosses their minds that their very action is contributing to the misery that they are viewing. Nor does it seem to cross the minds of white people that they are responsible for the misery and oppression that they are consuming. They never appear to learn the lessons that they really need. Instead they go back home feeling grateful for the systems and institution that privileges them. They feel grateful that a child somewhere is starving to death, that a woman is being trafficked, that wars are being waged and people are dying, so that they can feel fortunate that they are not poor, not of colour, not other. This is what they learn.

For fun or education, tourism troubles me. It troubles me that all these white people are travelling about the world consuming not only most of the world’s resources but the cultures and misery of PoC the world over.

Then they go back home and tell stories about how ‘amazing,’ ‘interesting,’ and ‘different’ life is in the places they visit. And I’ve noticed a marked difference in the creepy voyeuristic tales of visiting PoC places versus visiting European countries. If they talk about Europe, it is always about the art, architecture, etc., the culture as civilization. This is not how PoC places are talked about. It is always about the ‘natives,’ the strange customs, the exotic food, or whatever.

So creepy and so loaded with racism and colonial attitudes of old.