Exoticism and Tourism: The Comments Section
I've never had to write a blog post about a blog post before, but there is always first time for everything. First, let me say that I cannot anticipate the reaction to anything I write. The most I can hope for is that it sparks an intelligent discussion and new ideas are brought to the forefront. Whether people will like what I say or not never weighs into my decision to express myself. On Saturday morning, I posted my blog post Exoticism and Tourism: Black Bodies and White Gazes to several travel and Bocas-related Facebook groups. Then I went deep boarding and out to lunch with a friend. The topic of sex tourism is hardly a new one- entire courses in ethical tourism and anthropological economics as well as documentaries are devoted to it - so I didn't expect much controversy. When I came back and checked my phone later that afternoon, however, my Facebook app literally crashed several times due to the shear volume of messages I kept receiving. Little did I know, I'd stumbled upon a dirty little secret.
Apparently, everyone in Bocas was talking about my blog and the interwebs was abuzz. Unbeknownst to me, the pseudonym "Jose" that I'd used in my example, assuming that it was such a common name in a Latin country that it couldn't be linked to anyone, was the name of an actual person with a Swiss girlfriend who went to Switzerland to have their baby...HA! Who knew?! But, that was just the tip of the iceberg...
Although the comments section is usually where most people's humanity dies only to be replaced by trolls, an overwhelming majority of the messages I received were positive. Many women of color were excited to see that this issue was finally being discussed publicly.
Black and/or Latino men also brought interesting voices to the discussion. For me the most poignant was one Afro-Brazilian who said that he'd participated in this form of exploitation, because it made him feel desirable in a country that didn't often recognize his kind of beauty.
White women as well lent their voices and experiences in support. There were many who acknowledged that said they'd noticed this occurring and wanted to engage in a discussion on how they could better address it in their travels. Others brought to light the other perspective about how it felt to be used for economic gains and the hurtful assumptions people made about them as walking ATMs solely because they were white tourists.
There were points of disagreement also that I felt were valid and deserved further discussion. For example, I used the term "pasty" in jest to be flippant in contrast to my previously detailed description of the Afro-Costa Rican woman, but it seemed to strike an unintended cord and hurt feelings. Then there was the topic of whether or not people of color would participate in their own exoticism if viable economic alternatives existed. I don't readily claim to have an answer to that.
But of course, everything was not positive or constructive, or else I wouldn't have to write a follow-up, would I? There was a lot of #whitesplaining- so much so that it looked like a Make America Great Again rally had convened on my blog post in certain Facebook groups. If you were the type of cop to shoot unarmed black kids, these were the people you'd want on your defense team. What was most interesting was that the overwhelming majority of the people who attacked and bullied me online were white women in Bocas who felt that *I* had no place to speak about race. Apparently, once I said the word, racism would appear in their lives, their travels, and their Bocas. Many used dismissive trolling and author abuse to attempt to discredit me as "bitter", "angry", or too ugly to attract black men. Even they couldn't reasonably buy in to that last part. Of course, they called me a racist, which I wouldn't indulge given that I have both an academic and personal understanding of the term "racism" as a power structure and its appropriate applications:
As a writer, I had never before encountered white female fragility positioned as a means of silencing black women's experiences until now. Talking about how socioeconomic inequality factored into an aspect of relationships between foreigners and locals was an affront to their sense of entitlement to the places and spaces where black bodies convened (and those bodies as well). One white female expat told me, without irony, that she was going to give me the perspective of a "real local". Another woman even was so bold as to tell me what I should be doing with my writing talents rather than writing things she didn't like. The same people who actively claimed to have black friends/family members and could never be racist, used so much overtly and covertly racist language towards me that even the Klan would clutch their pearls. The expectation was that they could scare me into writing only the things that made them comfortable (and reinforced rather than challenged white privilege) not realizing that my family had fled dictatorships and, in comparison, you can catch this fade anytime.
Attempts to silence and discredit me went on as well in the Facebook group Girls Love Travel. The blog post garnered largely positive reactions from most members and much discussion. However, on the second day, the page admin removed the post- something I've been told they'd done often when women of color discussed their travel experiences in that largely white female space. When I shared that my post had been pulled, many women spoke up in frustration with the censorship of women of color even as others attacked them for doing so. The administrator blocked me from the group only to then post a tearful video about how she wanted to only keep the group positive I was told- meaning, free from any topics that made certain white women uncomfortable. #TrailofWhiteTears
In the Bocas Open Forum, the same "not all white people" crowd had nothing to say when one troll called me slurs and threatened me. When a friend of mine joined the group and blasted their comfortable silence with outright racism, she, not the racist troll was blocked from the group by the administrator.
Luis, the main troll, is an a white Panamanian who felt somehow personally affronted enough to send me private messages that I posted publicly. He threatened to beat up black women, then thought better of it and deleted that one comment and left the rest.
UPDATED with another racist post from Bocas' expats
But there is no racism in Bocas, right?
Sadly, they had the support of a black woman who, actively seeking white acceptance, never made it out of the house and into the field with the rest of us. She never realized that they were laughing at her, not with her.
Ultimately, I did not write to condemn interracial relationships nor would I ever deny that true love can exist amongst people of different races. That was not even remotely the topic of my blog post. Instead, I wrote about one aspect of the socioeconomic realities of transactional sex and relationships in tourist destinations, a topic as old as the oldest profession. Race is involved simply because the nature of the tourism industry pushes mostly white people to "exotic" locations where people of color are predominant. Those secure in the fact that their relationships are based on love and mutual respect rather than an uneven economic power could read my blog without feeling personally affronted and move on. These are also the type of people who have a deep understanding of the differences between the words "some" and "all", the former widely used in my blog post.
The virulently racist attacks from certain white people spoke to something much deeper than not liking my blog post. I rocked the white supremacy boat by pointing out unearned privileges, exploitation, and the differences in experiences between people across racial lines in their "paradise". The facade of a post-racial society where black people had no opinions or original thoughts unless pre-approved by white people came crashing down. The attempts to bully me online were eye-opening; however, it was the public silence of most of Bocas' expat community in the face of seeing a black woman called slurs online that spoke volumes. Ultimately, I walked away from this with the realization that, above all else, the truth can be controversial, but it's no less true.
As a compliment to this blog post, check out Bani Amor's "How Not to Do Travel Writing" series here.