Let's get practical: How can you decolonise your own travel writing?
Practical tips for checking your own copy for bias.
This is the final newsletter in the Unpacking Media Bias takeover by Meera Dattani and Shivani Ashoka. Their newsletter is an essential resource for any writer looking to create inclusive, unbiased content that doesn’t perpetuate colonial structures and ideologies. It’s completely free to receive, so hit subscribe below:
Over the last few weeks, you’ve heard from some of the travel editors, writers and content creators we rate the most. They, among others that we’ve been lucky to work with on Unpacking Media Bias, are proof that racially diverse talent is already out there—despite claims to the contrary.
And, look, representation does matter in travel writing—but so does intent and access. If you’re an editor, that means actively seeking out and hiring marginalised talent for roles or commissions that aren’t specifically about racial discrimination or ‘diversity’—and, where you’re getting paid, paying them too. It means doing what you can to create a way in and a way up, whether that’s mentorship or looking outside your usual pool. It also means not having an all-white panel discuss diversity and inclusion practices in travel (yep, that’s still happening…).
Something we discuss often with our readers is the importance of context—and how, left unchecked, our own experiences, privileges and background could spin a feature, source or subject into dangerous ground. And a tack we see a lot—particularly around the narrative of countries in the Global South as we all look to build a more conscious industry—is about becoming a ‘voice for the voiceless’. But, as Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
In other words, it’s time for writers—particularly us in travel—to listen more than we speak. That doesn’t mean not bringing personality into our writing, or that travel writing can’t be fun or funny, and it doesn’t mean perspective has no place—but perspectives need to be informed ones. A little research goes a long way. And yes, we do need to stop centering ourselves thoughtlessly in travel writing.
Individual ideas of consumption and exploration often stray into toxic Empire nostalgia—and can bounce off racialised, gendered and classist tropes. There’s also a troubling tradition of rugged-looking white men ‘othering’ foreign cultures and trying to tame ‘the exotic’, particularly in broadcast. If communities aren’t given agency to decide how they want their cultures to be consumed and how their environment is treated by tourists, the travel industry will just keep propping up those imperialist structures. Remember that the ‘sense of place’ we try to evoke is someone’s home, not an endless resource to extract from. We need to be honest, not shy away from uncomfortable truths, ask (sometimes, brave, bold) questions, and keep integrity at the forefront of our work.
Thoughtlessness can break a piece. But critiquing it can make it so much better. Pictures, particularly of the marginalised and oppressed, are rooted in cultural, economic and political power—many subjects are in no position to refuse them (and that power imbalance is an op-ed in itself...) So when you’re on the ground, think about the concept of informed consent, i.e. when you ask a source to sign a release form, are you giving them the option to say no? Make sure any images of people of colour don’t uphold damaging stereotypes—for example, those that depict Black Africans as poor and helpless, in need of the West.
When it comes to thoughtlessness, there are also several words we can do away with, unless context allows. Using ‘colonial’ as a positive, simply to describe spectacular architecture, belongs in our Room 101 of travel words. It says nothing of whose land it is on, or who built it, usually local, colonised people. If you do use it, give it a little historical backdrop. (As for ‘colonial charm’, we’ve put that in the dustbin inside Room 101).
Other words worth re-thinking include ‘authentic’ (is it really and what do you mean?), ‘exotic’ or ‘strange’ (do you mean it’s different and/or are you ‘othering’ a culture?), cheap (particularly in the Global South; it’s all relative), and ‘the locals’ (no place has one set of local people; they fall into different groups like any community, city or region). We can also avoid romanticising ‘dilapidated buildings’ and ‘faded façades’ without context, use local place names instead of (or at least, as well as) coloniser ones, and not use ‘Latin’, ‘Asian’ and ‘African’ if that’s not exactly what we mean. Being specific, not general, is one of the best rules of any writing.
This extra care extends to other components of a feature, for example, ensuring names and captions are accurate, but also asking for full names. The number of times we’ve seen Western hoteliers given a full name and job title, but the guide goes by ‘Jonah’. Or worse, captions like ‘lady at café’—for the owner of the very café that the writer claims has become their regular morning stop as they ‘travel like a local’.
We also need to factor in different groups within the publication’s target audience and be specific about who we’re talking about as well as the issues they face. Lumping all Black and brown people into one group is counter-productive because issues, such as safety and racial profiling, are different for different groups. Our audiences aren’t homogeneous, so an understanding of the spectrum should be standard practice. That’s why diversity of writers, photographers and editors is as important as diversity of the travel experience on-the-ground.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each issue of Unpacking Media Bias breaks down subjects we thought we knew, through a new lens. We have incredible contributors—from both in and outside the press—who know their stuff, and we all learn as we go. Come and join us, if you want to learn more because, as we like to say, it isn’t just black and white…
Finally, a heartfelt thanks to Lottie and Steph for letting us take over their brilliant newsletter—we’ve had a blast, and hope you have too.
Further reading & resources
More voices for a bigger picture - Noo Saro-Wiwa, Times Literary Supplement
Getting real about decolonising travel culture - Bani Amor, Medium
These places in Europe have an unexpected connection - Tharik Hussain, Fodors
Meet the women advocating for more diverse perspectives in travel media – Sarah Khan, Condé Nast Traveler
By only seeing the world through a white lens, we are all missing out - Ash Bhardwaj, Telegraph
My journey around India in 80 trains – Monisha Rajesh, The Guardian
Barbados: a new sense of identity – Shivani Ashoka, Condé Nast Traveller
How to reverse the 'colonial gaze' when you travel – Meera Dattani, Telegraph
This was the final instalment of the Unpacking Media Bias takeover. Lottie and Steph will be back with business as usual in November’s series, which is all about photography. Got questions? Hit reply to this email.