[cross-posted, with a long and interesting comments thread,
When you look from outside at your own white people and their actions you can't help but feeling alienated. This is something nobody can do for a white. And perhaps this is an unconscious knowledge whites have - because if this happens you don't have this feeling of belonging anymore. You realize as a white that this white world [that] is meant to be 'your place' isn't your place. And what follows is a sometimes quite painful journey. You leave the comfort zone of 'whiteness' because surrounded by whites only no longer makes you feel comfortable and being 'exposed' to whites can then become quite stressful.
Difficult to explain what I mean, I guess, but I hope that some can follow my thoughts.
of “stuff white people do”)
About ten years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Indonesia with three travel companions. We visited several of the islands and did the usual Lonely Planet things (yes, I did have a copy of Lonely Planet’s Indonesia), seeking out places to sleep and eat on our own, looking for authentic cultural practices, and avoiding the (white) crowds.
We congratulated ourselves on being different from "tourists," those people on package tours that kept them safe and clean from the more “seedy” and contaminating features of a crowded, relatively impoverished country. But now I realize that in some ways, I was worse than those tourists, and that the habits of being that I’d acquired from my life-long training into whiteness contributed to that effect.
I wasn’t a “tourist” doing a “tour” of Indonesia. I was a “traveler.” Maybe even an “adventurer.” My companions and I sought out sights and experiences that were “off the beaten path” (the clichéd nature of that phrase alone should have tipped us off to how much our supposed independence was in itself a kind of conformity). We hired guides with cars to take us to weird little villages and deserted beaches, quiet restaurants and cheap inns—places that Indonesians themselves actually used, or so we thought. And when we bought souvenirs, we tried to find authentic Indonesian stuff, not the cheap t-shirts and masks and pots and feathered things that were clearly made for those other “tourists.”
Before Indonesia, I’d been to other places in the world on similar terms, and I’d also worked as an English teacher in other countries. I think that overall, my extended encounters with other people, and thus with their very different perspectives and practices, gave me some different ways of looking at America, especially its peculiar racial obsessions. Maybe because I’m a rather introspective person, I also began thinking as well about my place in the world as a “white man.”
That mode of introspection was accelerated in Indonesia. Something about myself as a “traveler” hit me there, and that trip actually killed my itch to “travel.” It made me wonder just what the hell I was really doing when I ventured outside “my space,” and why I thought I had the right to do it.
Some experiences in Indonesia made me a bit of a stranger to myself. I suddenly wondered, for one thing, if I was really so different from those pampered hordes of American and Australian and British and German tourists. Having thought more since then about my status as an American, and especially as a “white” American, I now see that having been trained into whiteness made me feel especially entitled to go wherever I liked, and to do pretty much whatever I pleased when I got there, as long I was willing to pay for it. And pay for it I could, because the places I went to were cheap, man, a real bargain!
I think the thing that hit me came from the extreme poverty that I encountered while poking around on one of Indonesia's less “touristy” islands. I’d never seen such poor, hungry people as some of that island’s inhabitants. One especially disturbing encounter came after we’d hired a car to take us to a quiet beach, where I had an incident with a couple of strangers that echoed all too closely another racially charged encounter, that famous one Camus created in the bewildering sunlight of an Algerian beach.
Our driver, who spoke enough English to work with us (or rather, for us), had given me a business card that some Australians had made for him—the card identified him as “Johnny Asshole.”
As we grabbed our towels and set out across the hot, white sand, “Johnny” (who insisted on being called that) told us again not to go more than a hundred meters down the beach in either direction.
“Not safe!” he said again, refusing to answer my question about just what the danger was.
As Johnny waited for us under the shade of a tree, we splashed around in the water for awhile, happy to have this beautiful spot to ourselves. It was a warm, totally sunny day, and the water was a shimmering bluish green that I’d never seen before. When we climbed out and spread our towels for some deeper sun worship, I saw that Johnny had fallen asleep. I looked up and down the beach, which seemed to curve for a quarter mile or so in both directions around a bay, and then I decided to take a walk.
I strolled along the water line, marveling at how fine and soft the sugary sand was, and how quickly my footprints disappeared in the gently lapping waves. I was so transfixed by these sensations, and by the beauty of the place and of the whole day, that I hadn’t noticed a little boy standing in front of me until I almost walked right into him.
He looked to be seven or eight years old, and he wore nothing but a pair of ragged shorts. I gathered that he didn’t speak the one language I spoke when I said “hi there,” and he didn’t respond. He had a split coconut in his hand, with what looked to be a straw sticking out of it. The straw had been fashioned from some sort of plant, and he held the coconut out to me. I didn’t have any money, though, which is what I was guessing he wanted, so I shrugged, waved my hand, and said, “No thank you.”
Then I saw another boy, coming at us quickly from the tree line that was forty or fifty feet away. This was an older boy, and instead of a coconut, he was carrying a machete. Like the younger boy, he wasn’t smiling, and when he reached us, he stepped between me and the other boy. He planted his feet in a broad stance and crossed his arms, with one of his hands clenching the machete at a defensive angle. His face was set in what looked to me like an unfriendly frown.
I wasn’t sure what this was all about, but I thought it best to back away and return to where I’d been told to stay. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the two boys returning to the woods. The older one swung the machete loosely as he walked with an arm over the other boy’s shoulders. He was talking to him in what looked like a serious, admonishing way.
In her essay “White World-Traveling,” white American philosopher Shannon Sullivan writes about people like me—white people, that is, who feel entitled to go pretty much anywhere they like. She also writes about the resistance of non-white people (in her case, Latina and African American) to the efforts of well-intentioned white anti-racists to enter ongoing, intraracial dialogues on solutions for racial injustice.
Those non-white dialogues tend to include words, phrases, and coded understandings that outsiders don’t know about. The trouble here with white interlopers, Sullivan writes, is that in addition to obstinately insisting that they see no good reason to resist the inclusion of white voices in such dialogues, they also tend to expect that this “unfamiliar” material be translated for them. Not only does this slow down the dialogue—it can also change it. Translation for the sake of white anti-racists can also reveal modes of resistance to whiteness that non-white people don’t necessarily want to open up to white people, however well-intentioned they may be.
Sullivan has also written elsewhere about the general common white tendency at work here, which she calls a white habit of “ontological expansiveness”:
As ontologically expansive, white people consider all spaces as rightfully available for their habitation of them. A white person’s choice to change her environment in order to challenge her unconscious habits of white privilege can be just another instance of ontological expansiveness. This problem leads to the question of whether white people can attempt to change their unconscious habits and simultaneously live space in antiracist ways. While the danger of ontological expansiveness cannot be entirely eliminated, the answer to this question can be “yes.”
As I walked back from my encounter on the beach with those two boys, I did realize that I’d probably intruded on their space. Perhaps that stretch of beach and the coconut trees behind it belonged to their family. One of them might have meant to welcome me with a refreshing drink, or maybe he did want money. The other seemed to see me as a threat, which confused me—me, a threat? How could that be? I certainly meant no harm, and I saw no reason for anyone to want me to stay away. Was there something criminal going on behind those trees, something they thought I would alert the authorities about?
In other words, what that moment did for me was it shook me, in a way that I eventually realized was about ME—about who I was, and what I thought I was doing on that foreign beach, and in that foreign country. I also began thinking about what my real relations were with the people who inhabited this island, and just how they did and didn’t welcome tourists. Despite the higher regard I had for myself as a “traveler” rather than a “tourist,” it could well be that Indonesians in general were more welcoming of the restrained, contained package tourist than the Lonely Planet white guy like me, who felt entitled to enter their private spaces, and to turn their private lives into mere, exotic curiosities.
I felt even more upset about all this the next day, when my little group hired a canoe to take us across a lake. The owner of our lakefront hotel, who seemed to be the brother of the owner of the canoe, had told us about a village over there that laid out its dead above ground for a month or two before burying them. It was actually an illegal, and therefore secret tradition, he said, but he could arrange for us to see it.
We gladly took this opportunity to see something different, and didn’t mind paying what seemed like a pittance to get there. It took about twenty minutes for the canoe’s owner to row us across the lake, and as we approached the village’s creaky wooden pier, an elderly man was there to greet us. He clasped each of us by the hands with both of his own, and then led us to the bodies. And there they were, seven or eight desiccated corpses with dried flowers draped all over them. The village elder refused our thoroughly stupid request to take photographs. The four of us gawked, shivered a bit, and then headed back to the canoe.
By this time, many of the inhabitants of the village, which seemed to consist of about fifty houses, had come out to watch us. They all looked extremely thin to me. “Emaciated,” I thought, “that’s the right word.” Some had their hands out, and as we stepped onto the pier, about ten elderly people lined up along the shore. As our canoe slowly pulled away, these people walked into the lake fully clothed, with outstretched hands. They were sort of smiling at us. Few of them had any teeth left. I realized why the owner of the canoe was pulling away very slowly—it gave us more time to thrust money into these people’s hands.
I pulled out my wad of confusing Indonesian bills, reminded myself which were the smaller ones, and put some into several hands. By this time, the water was almost up to the necks of those who’d been able to venture out that far. As our canoe turned around to head away, they held their money up over their heads to keep it dry as they made their way back to shore. It didn’t look like all of them actually knew how to swim.
I hadn’t enjoyed the visit at all, but I didn’t know what was bothering me. It wasn’t the ghastly sight of dead bodies. I’d seen dead people before.
Maybe it was my own dead body. A sort of figurative “white” body. That of a white man who’d been trained to think that it’s okay to intrude on such private spaces, simply to satisfy his curiosity, his privilege-induced desire just to see something he’d never seen before. A white man who had been trained away from feeling any real empathy for such people, and for seeing them as a spectacle instead. And a white man who had also been trained away from understanding, by way of such a stark contrast, anything at all about the connections between their apparently desperate poverty and his own, relatively enormous wealth.