Bani Amor is a genderqueer travel writer, photographer, and activist from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador. They explore the relationships between race, place, and power and teach other authors to “dismantle coloniality” in travel writing. Because the genre was born during European expansionism, its tropes can inherently offer a colonial point of view. That can be found in the way we position the destinations we travel to and whether we prioritize the viewpoints of a privilidged tourist class without concern for what it costs the places and the people who live there.
Out Traveler spoke with Amor about their work, whether all travel is colonizing, and what we can do to change things.
A friend of mine recently commented that all travel is colonizing. Do you think that’s true?
No. I say that because I think it’s important to be specific about what we’re talking about, since “travel” is usually implied to describe leisure tourism abroad. I like to reframe travel to consider all migratory experiences, from people displaced due to the effects of imperialism to those stolen and trafficked into slavery, to just how we all navigate our local communities. When we limit this word to only apply to a small minority of monied, usually white Westerners, we limit the scope of the conversation and exclude needed visions for actual change in this space. In that regard, when oppressed peoples visit each other and share resistance tactics, analysis, and joy, radical change occurs. Look at Marcus Garvey in Costa Rica or Malcolm X in Egypt or Angela Davis in Palestine and Black Lives Matter activists in Cuba. I also see how Afro-descendant people traveling to Black regions in Latin America or on homegoing journeys to the African continent, for example, like the tours that groups like AfroLatinx Travel organizes, places that the tourism industry warns us not to visit because of perceived danger or seemingly poor infrastructure, can bring about healing and solidarity for those communities and those deep, deep wounds.
Angela Davis, here speaking out about being fired from UCLA for socialist leanings.
How do we decolonize the travel industry?
You can’t decolonize a capitalistic enterprise like the tourism industry. Decolonization is about the sovereignty of Native communities, brought about by a return of land so that self-determination can be possible. Abolishing systems that keep power imbalances intact (for instance, there is no decolonizing travel while borders are still in place) is central to this project, as is paying reparations to Black African and Afro-descendants for centuries of colonialism and slavery. Only then do I believe that truly just forms of travel can be achieved.
How does participating in the “mass tourism industry” lead to greater social inequality?
It’s about taking advantage of the social inequities already in place that allow for such an enterprise to flourish in the unsustainable ways that it does. No matter the intent, and, often, the form of travel chosen, a class of people enabled by systemic disadvantages arriving in a place benefits a small class of corporations and individuals at the expense of those who have to contend with its consequences — namely, displacement. …the presence of this class of travelers prices people out of their homes and transforms their economies and cultures into one of service to the foreigner in power. As long as these systemic inequalities exist and there’s money to be made, we’re really just making a minority of people richer at any cost.
Tourists are often encouraged to “help save” a place by returning to a destination after a disaster. Does that really help?
No, it often doesn’t. As we see now, the health of local people is put at great risk (like, um, death) by the loosening of travel restrictions, forcing people to return to work…too soon. Just send money to the overwhelming number of individuals and organizations that need them.
What does decolonized travel look like? How can we recognize it?
There is no “decolonized” in the past tense. To quote Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang from their text “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” “decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.” This movement has been in progress for a long time and decolonization as it pertains to travel is going to look different to each community working towards it, so it’s up to their visions. Decolonization begins at home. If you are a settler or a settler migrant as I am, you need to be reckoning with what that might look like locally first. Our identities, historical and interpersonal relationships to place, and location within the pyramid of hierarchy inform how we move outwardly. I look at the landmark book Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i as one such framework that could be replicated across the world.
Can you share some of your tips for dismantling coloniality in travel writing?
We look at the history of the dominant narrator in travel writing and dismantle what that internalized colonizer sees, thinks, and the ways that manifests in our writing today. Colonization could not have taken place without a written narrative of Western imaginaries of the Other, so I believe that travel writing, which is really just the story of the world, is crucial to the movement toward decolonization. We identify these stale worldviews behind the language often used to death in travel writing and look to more creative ways of breaking the old formula of the genre. Just turn that shit upside down and look at it for real, behind the veneer of good intent and leisure at any cost. That’s kind of what queer theory is, right? The travel writer is in desperate need of an identity crisis, and that’s where queering the travel genre comes in.