Sunday, June 15, 2008

think they have the right to go wherever they like

[cross-posted, with a long and interesting comments thread,
at Racialicious]

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.

--jw (an especially insightful reader
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.


  1. Macon,

    Thanks for writing this blog, this was well worth reading, which i will probably read over and over again. I am sorry i am without any comments, as you already know, i have been a witness to this type of events with other white travelers. Again, thanks for sharing. I will be posting something soon, I will let you when I do.

  2. Wow.

    What a punch in the gut-this made me tear up a bit.

    Your words are powerful and I have witnessed my mother do this time and time again, to my chagrin and embarrassment.

    Have you resolved this feeling?

  3. macon,

    I, too, will read this over and over again. It is haunting. The writing requires soul searching.

    When I went to Yahoo news and saw an article on Bush visiting Europe, just after reading your post, the language used, even about visiting other white cultures, suddenly seemed to corroborate your point metaphorically, white access magnified to the power of the president.

    I don't know if you'll agree in this case, it was just a synchronicity for me. The power of your post is to see our very language and actions differently:

    Bush soaks in Europe like only a president can

    By JENNIFER LOVEN and DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press Writers 36 minutes ago


    It seems President Bush is learning to enjoy the perks of traveling abroad as the most powerful man in the world.

    this super-glam European tour

    In Rome, he commented happily about leaving the city "with a little extra culture — and a little fatter."

    Even so, he skipped Berlin in favor of a helicopter straight to the German countryside from the airport, motored through Rome without stopping at the Colosseum and stayed in Paris without visiting the Louvre or Notre Dame just blocks away.

    These sorts of experiences aren't on tour guide lists. They are special sights unique to the access offered world leaders of Bush's stature.

  4. @lhunfindel:

    Have you resolved this feeling?

    No. That dead man I wrote about at the end of the piece is still walking. I'm still trying to revive the parts of my humanity that have been numbed, atrophied, or deadened by my training into white American masculinity. I'm making progress, but I don't know if that work will ever be complete since, to such a powerful degree, we become what we've been told we are.

  5. 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.

    Macon, I'm fascinated that you didn't see, and perhaps still don't see that yours is the face of the race that people the world over SHOULD NOT EASILY TRUST. I'm almost certain, or at least hope, that many of the non-white readers of this blog can easily understand, as I thought you would have, that the white - european historical record of expansionism, white supremacy - racism, imperialism, militarism, pillaging of native lands and genocide of native people throughout the world is something that many non-white people across the globe have got to be aware of, perhaps innately on a conscious or even unconscious level. Could that have possibly been the reason for the older boy's cautious reaction towards you? Not on an individual or personal level but rather as a representative of the collective that looks (and acts white) like you do?

  6. Great piece.
    It's curious, The choices you made seemed clearly....different to me. There things I would not have chosen..I wonder what prevents me from that? Black & female, I've still got the western thing going. (I hope it's understood where I'm trying to go with that :-/)

    I also wonder what it's like to travel (internationally) while black/brown? That show is never on the travel channel.

  7. I can relate to this as a privileged American, even though I am a WOC. I have often felt this same unease in my travels to the Caribbean. I like to go on cruises with my sisters, knowing full well that it is a shallow vacation, during which I will enjoy the beaches and the pina coladas and never really experience the culture of the places I visit. On one such trip, we were visiting Jamaica, and were incredibly excited about it and decided to eschew the packaged tours and venture out on our own. The ship stopped in Ocho Rios, and my sister and I just started walking around the downtown area. What we were met with was a lot of sexist catcalls, lots of exhortations for money, and a great feeling of discomfort. The city reminded me of SouthEast D.C., near where I grew up, only with an accent. And tropical vibe or not, it was simply poverty. Every time I glimpse poverty on these vacations, I feel guilty and confused as to my part in it. On one hand, I am putting money into the local economy, and on the other hand, I am this vile American tourist stopping by for a break from my life in a "paradise" that is a complete fantasy.

    Roxie, there are a couple articles on TheRoot that address the issue of black Americans traveling:

  8. Wow.

    There is a lot of information here. I need to reread this post a few times to process it all.

    Some of the things that went through my mind were: envy that you got to visit Indonesia or an Asian country where my own racial appearance may not be seen as foreign (as I have not had that experience yet); feeling guilty for being Asian and not emaciated; being very disturbed and disgusted that people's private funerals can be a tourist attraction and that people wanted to take photos.

    When I read the first part of your post, it also reminded me of how some white people treat Asian minorities, as if they are tourists/travelers and Asians are tour guides. For example, when white people go to "Chinatowns", they act like "tourists" and treat Asians the same way they would treat Asians when travelling to Asia. Basically, they think of Asians in terms of monetary value, that they can treat you like shit as long as they have sufficient money, because you can be paid off. To them, Asian people are worth some x amount of dollars.

    This post has a lot of information and brought out a lot of confusing emotions in me. I need to step back for a bit and think about my place in the world. I feel disturbed, bitter, sad, and privileged.

  9. Just Me, I thought it was clear from the post, especially in the last line, that there's a younger me who didn't understand the things of which you speak, and an older one who does. As you may recall, I recently wrote a post on the naive white tendency, which I had to a greater degree back then than I do now, to assume that strangers consider me trustworthy. I agree with you that this issue of trust has different valences in various international settings.

  10. Macon, point received. Thank you Sir.

  11. I can't help but but wonder if that boy with the machete has had to protect his brother from the many (white male) predators who visit his country seeking sex with little boys.

    The non-profit organization End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and the Trafficking of Children (ECPAT) estimates that more than one million children worldwide are drawn (lured) into the sex trade each year.

    These are children (many below age 10) living in dire circumstances who are lured or forced into prostitution for survival.

    Child sex tourists are typically white males hailing from nations in Western European nations and North America.

    Perhaps a sharpened machete is quite the appropriate solution to this evil crime.

  12. this post brought some issues to light that are behind my reasoning for not wanting to travel. i have only visited Germany, 3 times (I speak the language). I fear visiting a place where I do not know the language, mostly in fear of being seen as a tourist. Perhaps Germany is not hard for me because I can blend in as a German and no one knows that I am a's hard enough being seen as an america tourist, but as a white american tourist...things become exponentially more complicated.

    i don't think that I could ever travel to the carribean islands...or if I did i could not find myself at a hotel or resort. mostly because of feelings of guilt and the truth behind the exploitation of the workers...though i know that the tourist industry keeps the economies of many of these places above water....but the white man is to blame for this situation in the first place

  13. @em, I am not sure if the first association of any German meeting an American regardless race in Germany is "American tourist".
    Many will think "American GI" still occupying Germany with your military bases. And while the German government will say, at least officially, that they "appreciate the cooperation", many German citizens are very opposed to American military presence.

  14. I just found your blog (through Racialicious) and I'm very glad I did. Some people have challenged that you are white. I have no trouble believing that you are've just been very honest about your feelings and experiences. I look forward to reading much more of your blog.

  15. “To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don't cling to you the way they do back home. You're able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You're expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don't know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.”
    --Don Delillo

  16. great post, thank you!
    It also shows the way white people are actually shocked when they are being perceived and treated as a threat. Any Black male entering any space is basically perceived as a threat. That's why they get shot by the police and white women clutch to their purses in the elevator. Any white male entering -even intruding- anywhere : "duh, I guess these people don't understand my good intentions". This fantasy has to stop.

  17. As I've said elsewhere, this piece is...very a haunting way. Not sure how to describe it. It is pretty loaded. So much inexpressible things between the lines. And it touched on something that has been bothering me SO much for awhile now. Too much to write in a comment.

    But I do have to just briefly point something out. You know how you asked to take a photo without really thinking about what you're doing? Don't worry. It's not a 'white' thing. It seems to be a human nature thing. A few weeks ago two hotels got bombed by terrorists (what else could they be right?) in Jakarta (Indonesia). People died. A week later the news was reporting that locals were visiting the site 'with their families' during the weekends like tourists to take pictures of the bombed up hotel facade from across the street. So much that the mobile street food stalls had gathered in the area. Crazy huh?

    And there are plenty of other similar examples like this happening everywhere. China after that huge earthquake, Aceh after the tsunami, etc. So, it's definitely not a good thing, but it does seem to be our collective nature as humans to be thoughtless sometimes.

  18. When I was little, (I lived in KPK, Pakistan at the time) I remember sometimes seeing white people. I was really confused, because I didn't think white people would visit Pakistan, and if they did, they would stay in Karachi or Lahore or Islamabad, instead of visiting the villages. My mother used to tell me that they were hippies who wanted to buy drugs, and I wasn't supposed to go near them.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code