Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Exotification & the Vegan Traveler September 2, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 9:20 pm
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I’ll say it up front: I love to travel. I love to see new places; I love trains, planes, buses & big huge backpacks (so much better than cruddy suitcases!). But I’m conflicted about it. I know that when I travel I am also carrying the baggage — & privilege — of being an American, with a certain amount of financial privilege, & the privilege of speaking a language that is considered, for better or for worse, the closest thing to a global tongue right now. What does it mean for me to travel to other parts of the world? I try to be conscious of issues of exotification, but sometimes I wonder if leisure travel, especially to a country or culture not “your own” (which I realize is a complicated issue for many people, self included), inherently makes the places & people you’re visiting subject to exotification.

We’ve talked about how frustrating this stuff is recently. I thought I’d examine some specific examples of the ways in which vegan travel is discussed, in light of that, & throw it open for discussion.

In the May/June 2008 VegNews, we have a profile of Vancouver, Canada. One blurb, entitled “Exotic Eats,” describes a local Afghan restaurant (with aspects like sitting on floor pillows, allowing you to “dine like kings and queens by candlelight,” highlighted).

The same issue also has a longer article on Laos, which opens by talking about how the country is seeking to make tourism a sustainable part of its economy, unlike Thailand, whose beaches have suffered from tourist litter & degradation:

Eco-lodges and eco-tourism agencies are popping up all over Laos to help Westerners decide which sustainable excursion suits them and their budget.

Also mentioned is that Laos has been relatively ignored by tourists because of “its rough history of almost constant occupation and conflict.” We learn that “during the Vietnam War, it earned the unfortunate title of the most bombed country in the history of warfare.”

What’s missing here? How about a connection between, oh, the colonialist & imperialist Western powers that led to the bombing of Laos & the countries presumably sending the most tourists to Laos now? The comment about Thailand indicates a recognition that tourism can be a very bad thing for a country in some ways, & of course an article dedicated to tourism won’t make any serious critique of the practice, but to me there’s a big piece of the puzzle missing.

The article goes on to extol the virtues of handmade fabrics & “authentic” food (a concept that definitely needs to be questioned), as well as the cheapness of the country — what a “half-hour massage back home” costs gets the author a 2-day trek through Laos. She also lauds a vegetarian buffet costing 50 cents.

Hey, I’m a budget traveler. But pinching pennies in, say, the Netherlands is very different from pinching pennies in the global South/a developing nation/the Third World (I hate all those phrases). To me, there is something sinister going on when the low cost of travel to one of these places is mentioned as a bonus.

The other item in my not-scientific-at-all review is Herbivore‘s recent travel issue. Do I have to say up front that I like Herbivore? I feel like critique is often met by accusations of “just being a hater” or something, & I dislike the urge I feel to proclaim my affection for the magazine right before critiquing it, just to disarm that reflex reaction (it’s the whole “be a ‘nice’ POC & maybe they won’t get mad when you call them out” thing).

Anyway, I was dreading this issue. Hey, I came of age as a Riot Grrrl zinester. Do you know how many shitty punk travel zines I’ve read about how some dude went to Southeast Asia & had some spiritual revelation & bought tons of cheap drugs, women, & beer? Overall, I was kind of relieved after I read the issue, but there were still things that made me pause. And I’m sure a lot of people will say, “Hey, people were just trying to be funny!” But that’s not an excuse.

One problem with the issue’s presumed readers is made clear in the article on Tanzania:

When you, a typically hip Norte Americano vegan, think of different ethnic cuisines that make your mouth water, does Tanzanian food come to mind? Perhaps a better question, can you name a single food item eaten in far-off East Africa? Can you find the country on a map?

(& hoooo, if you haven’t figured out yet how I feel about the word “ethnic” as applied to food, well… go read). I do like that the author recognizes the different socioeconomic factors in being able to consider veganism; he says that he doesn’t “expect poor people in countries with limited income to become vegans,” which is a more complex recognition of world food politics & economics, sadly, than I’ve seen some other vegans grasp.

A photograph taken in Japan is captioned, “A pair of Harajuku girls, captured in their native habitat.” Yes, I agree that humans are animals, too, & thus like animals, we have habitats. Nevertheless, this got my back up because the issue I’ve seen too often is who doesn’t get compared to animals.

Next up, a tour of Chicago has the following to say about a South Asian restaurant:

Do you remember that part in Temple of Doom where Indy and Short Round are at a feast and they cut open a snake, letting a million tiny snakes pour out? Well Devon Ave. on the North Side is the closest you can get to that in the Midwest, and there are plenty of places here where monkey brains aren’t on the menu.

Yeah, because Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom is clearly known for its accurate portrayal of Indian culture… ?

The same article talks about Chicago’s branch of the Soul Vegetarian restaurants, started by:

African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem… An exodus to Soul Vegetarian East is a great way to get out of your usual stomping grounds and meet some vegetarians you never knew existed.

There are definite assumptions about who might be the “you” that was unaware of these veg*ns.

Also in Chicago is a restaurant at which the author orders:

“Arepas and Black Beans,” a deconstructed corn cake chilequile…. I didn’t know what arepas were the first time I ate here, so maybe they should just change the name to the ‘This shit’s the Bombaquiles’ so everybody knows they rule.

Again, like mofongo, it’s probably only unusual or unfamiliar to certain parts of the population, yes? I really hate cutesy “I guess [this ‘foreign’ name of a food or restaurant] must be [‘foreign’ language] for delicious!”-type quips, by the way (like in the article on San Francisco: positive reviews posted on a restaurant wall must mean Papalote [the restaurant’s name] “is Spanish for ‘marketing'”).

Next we head to Milwaukee, where there’s a “stereotypically weird, darkly-lit, scarlet-boothed Chinese restaurant.” Huh. Weird is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? And how is our beholder here situated, culturally?

Then there’s Thailand, which our guide proclaims is “not, contrary to what you might have heard, just for cats and conjoined people.” Oh, thanks for the clarification. Cuz I wasn’t sure. Really.

The issue ends with a guide to Mexico, where apparently in small villages they “eat some crazy shit and will expect that you won’t blink at being offered fried crickets or cow brain tacos with a side of bone marrow for good measure.” How exactly is that more disgusting or “crazy shit” than, say, foie gras? Yes, vegans think foie gras is disgusting & horrible — but I also hear echoes of how omnis sound when they talk about how gross balut is (implication: wow, what crazy shit those weirdo Asians eat!) without recognition of their cultural location (or that their own “weird shit” is nasty too).

There’s one other article I’d especially like to get some thoughts on: the one on New Orleans. Here’s a snippet:

The Lower 9th Ward might be the most interesting, though lots of clean up and bulldozing has happened. Take Claiborne Avenue straight over the Industrial Canal and you’re there. As you go over the canal, on your left, you’ll see that the levee that was rammed through with a barge and has since been repaired. You only need to drive around with your eyes open to see the damage, it’s extremely obvious. While you’re over there, why not check out Fats Domino’s flooded abode? It’s on Caffin Avenue a block North (lake side) of St. Claude. Other spots in town that are good for a voyeuristic gander: Gentilly, Lakeview, St. Bernard Parish, and New Orleans East.

My initial reaction was disgust that anyone would suggest such a tour. To go & gawk at places of such human suffering? I couldn’t understand it. The only vaguely similar experience I have is that of dealing with tourists in NYC who want to go & gawk at Ground Zero; the bulk of the ones I’ve seen clearly aren’t going to pay respect, it’s a notch in their tourist belt between Times Square & the Statue of Liberty. But I’ve never even been to New Orleans, & I wonder if there is some local context that I’m missing that would make this understandable. How do people flooded out of the Lower 9th Ward think about people going around to peek at the ruins of their homes?

I’ve also since heard that there are disaster tours (paid, not self-guided) & souvenirs in New Orleans specifically to raise awareness of how bad the situation there still is, & also to reap some much-needed cash. That I can understand, as grim as it seems to me — after all, so much of tourism is pandering to baser instincts due to economic imperatives. What do you all think? Again, I realize I’m very ignorant of local context, & would like to understand better what’s going on here.

(The article did offer up another assumed comment on the cultural background of readers, when suggesting that a Vietnamese farmers’ market sold “unidentifiable vegetables.”)

Anyway — POCs out there, have you encountered similar strains as I’ve detailed in this (long-ass) post in vegan travel writing? How do they make you feel? Have you found yourself falling into these traps (do you fear, like me, that you might have & not realized it)? What kinds of experiences, if any, have you had with tourists seeking to explore your culture?


15 Responses to “Exotification & the Vegan Traveler”

  1. Such an excellent analysis. I read through the Herbivore travel issue and used it on my trip to Portland. I didn’t even pick up on some of what you’ve written about, which goes to show how ingrained exotification and othering is.

    I too must qualify my critique of Herbivore by stating how much I love that magazine and am so sad they won’t be printing it after the next few issues (I can’t really sit through an issue of Veg News, mostly because I’m a magazine snob and can’t stand their stock photos and cheesy headlines). Anyways, I went to the Herbivore store in Portland this summer and met Josh and Michelle and they were really lovely and gracious to my boyfriend and me. I wanted to buy some back issues. I picked one up and there was something about white trash recipes and recalling your childhood. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it so my recollection is not accurate. But basically, there was this assumption that Herbivore readers all grew up with the same food references and those references were very clearly labeled as white. I don’t think it was intentional (but that’s the problem) and it was meant to be tongue in cheek. I just remember feeling excluded and decided to buy My Sweet Vegan instead.

    Assuming everyone has the same references, assuming that what is new to you is somehow “weird,” “exotic,” or “foreign,” to everyone else reading your words, not letting the people of color group read a statement at a conference, all of this is a big fucking problem.

  2. johanna Says:

    Thanks Joselle! I am relieved that the first comment isn’t along the lines of OMG YOU HATER YOU REVERSE RACIST BLAH BLAH.

    I remember being disgusted w/the “White Trash Vegetarian” column in the first issue (racism & classism in one short phrase!) & was glad to see they phased it out later.

  3. Meep Says:

    I should go by the shop and see it for myself.
    I, for one, hate tourists because I grew up in a tourist town. Instead of building up our local economy, we cater to people who breeze through town and leave our beaches a mess. I imagine it’s worse in Thailand and other places because of the implicit colonialism (and possibly human rights violations).
    The only travel-writer type I can stomach is Anthony Bourdain because he at least treats the people he meets like human beings.

    I try to avoid making things seem exotic, though I feel like I have a weird fascination with Scandinavia.. I hope that if I ever go to Norway or Iceland that I avoid these things, though I find it’s hard to make things seem exotic after you make friends.

    Also, I think that foreign things in general makes people uncomfortable and to cope, the reaction is usually one of objectification. So how do you help people stop objectifying concepts or tangible items?

  4. joshivore Says:

    hey johanna,
    i appreciate your kind words about the magazine as well as your critique. most of what you mentioned escaped me too and as joselle pointed out, it shows how deeply exotification goes.

    i will offer up two things: the tanzania reference the author intended as a jab at ourselves. it may not have come off that way, i can see. we did a lot of poking fun at ourselves actually.

    and the white trash vegetarian column: the author of that column, shawna kenney, grew up in a trailer park in the south, very poor. her use of “white trash” was a reclaiming of a term that was used against her all the time growing up. i’m sure opinions on that will vary but i decided, when she pitched the column, it was hers to reclaim and not mine to reject. we got a good amount of criticism about that name from people who didn’t grow up poor and white in the south and praise from people who did grow up poor and white. i’m sure the feedback wasn’t representative but i did find it interesting. we had people offended on behalf of others and the others thinking it was funny and appropriate.

  5. johanna Says:

    Hey Josh, thanks for your comments. I am generally a big fan of reclaiming words, so I can appreciate the intent re: the “white trash” thing (though it escaped me reading the column). My problem w/the term “white trash,” whether reclaimed or not, is that it implies that general, unspecified “trash” wouldn’t be white people, if that makes sense. “White trash” being different from regular white people, & POCs being undifferentiated “trash.” I’d be curious as to what side any poor & nonwhite readers came down on the debate about the column title.

    The Tanzania quote I understood as mocking ignorant Americans (certainly it’s not a problem limited to vegan communities here) — sorry if that didn’t come across. I meant to point out that at least one article seemed to be aware of the level of understanding about this stuff among likely readers.

    Meep — Would you ever use the word “exotic” to describe Norway or Iceland? I’m curious, because Breeze asked about this in the comments a few posts back, & I said that I knew some people obsessed w/Scandinavia (I’m half-Finnish, so I possibly encounter them more than usual) but had never heard them use the term “exotic” specifically to describe what they found appealing, & I wondered if it had to do w/the general whiteness of the countries — has anyone ever talked about, say, exotic Germany?

  6. T Says:

    I’m really glad I came across this article, as it covers some issues I wouldn’t think of combining.

    Although I don’t read a lot of “vegan travel writing,” I travel quite a bit and being vegan informs many aspects of where I stay, what I pack and where I go. But its not often that I think of the effect of my veganism on my subconscious evaluation of a culture and the way I may later present it to others. It definitely has several effects though!

    For instance, instead of friends and family talking about whatever the destination may be, the hype tends to be “Har har, good luck finding vegan food in ____, all they eat there is goat brains!” (I’ve heard this said about Ireland, Cuba AND Istanbul alike.) This sort of comment always baffles me, as meat is generally more expensive and there are few places on earth where vegetables don’t grow.

    But on my end, my experience in a different culture tends to be heavily colored by my ability to eat well there. For instance, Lyon, France didn’t seem very “friendly” to me because there was nothing but pork, while Turkey was great because there was so much vegan food being sold by street vendors. But its wrong to have a view of entire city, country, even culture being dictated by whether they cater to your, admittedly limited, food options. And as vegans, we should be used to people exotifying us for eating say, tofu or quinoa.

    So how does one see the “real” place and left the veils of being American, vegan, female, ect? I’m not quite sure.. but when trying to get beyond “the gaze” isn’t it helpful to try to talk to the person you’re gazing at?

    Thought provoking stuff.

  7. johanna Says:

    I just wanted to say re: my comment above that I’m aware that there is a growing population of nonwhite folks in Germany — I didn’t mean to exclude them when I wondered about whiteness & the term “exotic.” Heck, there’s a growing population of nonwhite folks in Finland. But it does seem like, to a large extent, their cultures are still seen largely as white ones (or at least that’s the impression from people I encounter here in the US), & that is what I was addressing.

    T — I am fascinated that you got the goat brain comment about Ireland! In a way that’s kind of heartening to me, since I usually hear that sort of thing thrown around exclusively in reference to “weird” non-First World countries.

    I think dialogue & talking to people helps, but sometimes it ends up w/someone making someone else into a token — like what happens to POCs in the US frequently: how do “your people” feel about this or that issue? Dialogue is important but it can’t just end up with someone seeking to mine someone else for info about the culture… taking taking taking, if you know what I mean.

  8. Doris Says:

    I have to say, when I read the first sentence (without reading the title) I thought the article was going to be about the environmental impacts of jetting around the world, which of course is related to privilege.

    I was just thinking about the issue of exoticism and travel the other day, and how those old Mastercard commercials used to bother me. They were probably from 3 or 5 years ago, and in one commercial, a middle-aged white woman is traveling to Ireland with her mother and they go through the price list of the trip and it ends with something like, “sharing a pint with your mom in the pub where she met your dad: Priceless.” In another version, a white couple journeys to the Great Wall of China, and the ending line is something like, “Crossing off #5 on your life’s to-do list: Priceless.” Assuming that Ireland represents roots and familiarity, and one of the great icons of Chinese history and culture is just another notch in the belt of the Great White Traveler.

  9. “I’ve never even been to New Orleans, & I wonder if there is some local context that I’m missing that would make this understandable.”

    I’ve been there. My husband grew up there so I saw the Lower 9th when we went there after Katrina ruined his mom’s home. It was… heartbreaking. Her home (not in the Lower 9th ward) was completely ruined. And she couldn’t bring herself to step foot inside it.

    But, here’s the thing about the Lower 9th ward (and in fact, much of NOLA at the time, six months after the flood) – no one was there. It was empty. It’s not like peeking into someone’s private life. it’s like visiting ruins left from war. The only people there were tourists and artists.

    “so much of tourism is pandering to baser instincts”
    I suppose, but… I don’t know. I live in Vegas and we’re a tourist city and I suppose you could say a lot of what Vegas offers is “base.” I’m sure that’s how most people feel. That’s probably why it bothers me. I really hate to think of my city that way. In fact, I consider gaming to run the gamut. Betting, wagering, gambling… well, that’s what happens on Wall Street, too. It’s not just on The Las Vegas Strip.

    I haven’t read it, but I think I’d be offended by “White Trash Vegetarian” simply because I’ve been called “white trash” often enough that it still stings. I can understand if someone who identifies as WT wants to reclaim it (in fact, that’s what my mom does), but it still rubs me the wrong way.

    Sorry I keep leaving comments like this, but I don’t know how to share stuff with you and the other writers here in any other way.

    What do you think of this:
    “Because of these missionary and universalizing tendencies, veganism creates a number of problems within a diverse anticapitalist movement. These problems are especially volatile when it comes to race, owing to a few coincidences: people of color are more likely to require meat for a healthy diet, to have a more ecologically friendly tradition of eating meat, as well as a food culture that is more rooted, less undermined by consumerism, and thus one with which they identify with more strongly. For all these reasons, vegans can come off as particularly insulting and racially exclusive when they insist that a vegan diet is healthier for everyone (not true, some people are healthier when they eat some meat) or when they propagate the peculiar mathematical view of food that a vegan meal, as a lowest common denominator, is the only dietary option that is inclusive to everyone. This is often justified with the argument that “people need to learn that a meal does not need to include meat” as though it were just some ignorant habit and not a fully developed food culture in its own right. A culturally inclusive compromise is not a vegan meal, but a meal with vegan as well as omnivorous options. Predictably, veganism misses out on the merits of pluralism in favor of a decidedly absolutist worldview.”

    I feel like the author makes some unjustified leaps and assumptions both about vegans and about people of color. What do you think?

  10. Ico Says:

    Hee hee, goat brains in Ireland?

    I’ve been there a few times — I have family there. I have to say that while I haven’t encountered goat brains there, on the whole it’s rough being vegan because there are no soy products. None. I’d go to Chinese restaurants in hopes of tofu and there would only be vegetables and rice.

    As for the Temple of Doom reference — OMFG, someone actually tied that godawful movie to Indian cuisine? I can think of few films that are as outrageously racist and offensive as that one.

  11. johanna Says:

    Doris — oh yeah, the environmental impact of travel is a whole ‘nother issue/blog post! That’s a really good point about those Mastercard commercials — I don’t think I’ve seen either of them but your analysis is spot-on.

    Elaine — I wasn’t under the impression that the Lower 9th Ward was repopulated — that link I posted about Katrina makes it quite clear that lots of the people of New Orleans no longer live there. I wasn’t thinking it would be people peering in windows at people — that would be even worse!

    As for Vegas, even leaving out the issue of gambling, I find the conspicuous consumption disgusting, as I find conspicuous consumption disgusting in general. The urge for overconsumption is a pretty base feeling, imho, & I think modern tourism in general tends to pander pretty strongly to that (souvenirs, shopping tours, etc.).

    Re: that link — I would love to see some citations for their assertion that POCs are more likely to “require” meat (& I notice they didn’t say that about dairy, which would be immediately refutable on the lactose intolerance issue). I also think the phrase “fully developed food culture” is just another way to phrase “but it’s my culture, I can’t give it up/it’s not wrong/etc.” Also I think their ideas about POCs having a “purer” food culture sound dangerously like “Oh, those simple natives! They’re so happy!”

    Ico — no tofu in Ireland? Wow!

  12. Meep Says:

    Johanna> Norway and Iceland are just countries with people who are similar to me in some general respects. When I start reading about Iceland’s colonisation by Denmark it strikes me as familiar in some ways. At the same time, when talking to white people, I characterise Scandinavia and Canada as being “exotic” partially out of irony (as most people find those places to be more mundane), but partially to mark the fact that for me, those places do represent whiteness and difference. I also find the climate bizarre (but I didn’t see snow until I was 18)

    Elaine> His argument only holds up given the following:
    1) All vegans actively participate in capitalism (or to a lesser extent, subscribe to capitalism in some form)
    2) Omnivores are fewer in number than vegans.
    3) People are vegan only for the reasons he mentioned

    This is very much an us-vs-them piece, and while he does bring up good points that I have seen in white vegans, I also think that he does not understand colonialism. There are very few societies that do not use things (or are given things, like cargo cults) that were made through First-World industry. For example (following his stereotypes), there is probably a farmer that has a sheep and is using it for milk, wool, and eventually meat. But this farmer probably has a transistor radio or a cell phone imported from somewhere else. Because of globalisation and capitalism, many objects are available everywhere and doesn’t necessarily mean that this farmer is being ecologically sound or even thinking about ideologies.

  13. supernovadiva Says:

    i know i’m late in the convo here. i have to touch on 2 things.
    1) i never have a problem traveling because i know i’m visiting someone else’s ‘house.’
    2)i’m a poc from the south and if i read the white trash section of herbavore magazine i wouldn’t have been offended. i would have known what she was doing- presenting semi homemade, easy to make, cheap food. i’m not of the culture so i guess it’s weird of me to defend ‘white trash.’ as far as i can see it’s a class and cultural issue. ‘mountain folk’ to the cajuns ‘swamp babies’ aren’t respected as ‘good anglo saxons.’ you’re even considered trash if you live in a prodom. black/ mexican community. which isn’t the case when pocs move into a white neighborhood (moving up). you’re definately trash if you marry into a black/ mexican family. i have white family members who’ve been disowned for marrying into my family. it’s definately a culture amoungst itself. you may have noticed there has been a rise in white trash/ redneck pride. there’s cookbooks and everything.
    they’re not ‘quite white’ and are ridiculed as such. whites look down on rural/ trailer living whites like some of us look down on project living ‘ghetto’ people. if the author can reclaim the word ‘white trash’ like we tolerate the ‘reclaiming’ of the n word in rap and convo- all power to her. as a person who visited family in both the projects and the doublewides, i can see the parallel. if i’m wrong, let me know. i would like to know you guys opinion.

  14. supernovadiva Says:

    oh i forgot to mention as a person who hung out on Devon street and Soul Vegetarian- i don’t know where the author was coming from.

  15. Meep Says:

    supernovadiva > This seems to be part of the class/race dynamic and how class is used as othering, so I don’t think your analysis is far-off.

    Ok, so I finally skimmed through the Herbivore issue and while it wasn’t a complete waste, there were a few parts that I found to be a bit questionable and it could have been resolved with a bit more careful editing or maybe toning down the snark-factor where appropriate. I also wish that the Soul Veg had been given a better explanation (like the one here!) because that particular description de-legitimatizes them.

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