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...because it's not always black & white
One narrative just ain't enough

Think back to your last trip. Yeah, we know it may have been a while ago. As travel hacks, we hear your sighs and feel your pain. But, do you remember googling things like: ‘What is Doha like for Black women?’, ‘Is Russia safe for the gay community?’ or ‘Is Amsterdam wheelchair-accessible?’ We suspect this'll ring true for some. But why do people end up having to google the ins-and-outs of things that aren’t exactly niche experiences? Travel, at least pre-pandemic, had never been so popular across the board, yet the industry's storytelling has not opened up in the same way.

At this point, it’s widely accepted that there’s been a monopoly on voices in mainstream media. We understand that variation is a good thing—whether that’s in travel, fashion, beauty or culture—for the perspectives and richness it brings to that publication or broadcast. But those different perspectives also bring concerns to the forefront that we may not have considered and they’re often the same ones that play out in everyday life, not just on holiday.

Female travellers, LGBTQ+ travellers, travellers with physical impairments or easily-identifiable religions, will all experience the same place differently. Moreover, they'll often have to assess whether they'll have a positive experience—and, if not, where on the comfort scale that might sit. Until 'othered' people have the space to talk about their experiences, they'll remain buried in internet forums and 'niche' publications and we'll continue to put the burden on those people to dig for necessary information. Statistically, most hacks in the UK are straight, white and able-bodied, so it’s little wonder that marginalised groups are often excluded from the narrative—as travellers in their own right—and actually end up positioned as ‘friendly’ or ‘exuberant’ supporting characters or as an afterthought for companies or publications wanting to appear more diverse.

But, what can you do? Firstly, be mindful when commissioning. Don't automatically withhold a gig in the Middle East from a queer writer; give them all the details straight up, be honest about what's required and leave it to their judgment. Secondly, step outside your comfort zone when on assignment. Sure, you can’t change your skin colour or your sexuality, but you can be more analytical. This doesn't mean asking a hotelier or designer whether they think their surroundings are LGBTQ+/Black/Muslim-friendly—a query almost guaranteed to elicit an enthusiastic agreement—but finding out how inclusive it is for yourself. What if you ditched the pre-booked car service and jumped on the metro with everyone else; how would your host react? What would you see?

Thinking and asking about issues—and being bold enough to actually write about what you see—is a step forward. Destinations do not exist for tourists, after all. Post-pandemic, social concerns must be covered by sustainable travel too. And, by 'sustainable', we mean every sense of the word. It’s not sustainable if it extends the life of a planet where some suffer and others thrive.

That’s why a breadth of voices, perspectives and backgrounds is vital—as well as variety within that diversity. One Black writer doesn’t speak for all Black experiences—even if many are asked or expected to position themselves that way—any more than one female journalist speaks for all womxn. Race, disability, gender, sexuality and religion are facets of someone’s make-up and life experience—not all of it.

No-one wants tokenism either, i.e. superficial dips into diversity and inclusion, before going back to normal practice. This doesn’t mean ticking boxes or quotas in each section, supplement, issue or episode; it’s about creating tangible space across the spectrum by hiring, commissioning and telling well-rounded stories. After all, you can't be what you don't see. If someone wants to depict a 'classic' Parisian experience, fine, but why would that mean ignoring the city's North African community (Netflix and Emily in Paris, we’re looking at you) or reverting to type to capture the romance of the city? Incidentally, you wouldn't ask a French journo just to write about France, so try to keep the same energy here.

Finally, think about it from your reader's perspective. Being a Londoner rarely involves tea at Fortnum's and a bed at The Ritz, so few would be able to identify with a piece that’s wholly about those things, even if they're conservative and 70+. It'd also be stale and pretty ageist (not to mention unimaginative: there are far more effective ways to disguise a freebie...) We need a healthy mix of voices to create a patchwork quilt of all colours and fabrics; one that’s so tightly-woven, you can’t see the holes.

Shivani and Meera


P.S. If you missed any of our newsletters, you can read them here.

Writing Tip of the Day

When travelling, there are questions that should crop up by stepping a few feet out of your comfort zone (or, as travel hacks, often out of the cosseted itinerary that may have been arranged for you). If you don't see any homeless people, where are they? How do locals respond to the vulnerable or marginalised; are they concerned or dismissive? Are there many Black people around you? What's accessibility like for people with disabilities—are there even any there? Would a queer person feel included by the brand or business you're raving about? Did you notice solo womxn taking public transport by themselves, after dark?

A different lens might shed light on why, for example, certain neighbourhoods are always depicted as ‘dodgy’. Are they actually unsafe for visitors, or is that a stereotype that’s been perpetuated over time? Is the city centre a homogenous affair, while ‘other’ communities are segregated to the outskirts? Many live, work and thrive in these places, that invariably become ‘gentrified’ by the arrival of middle-class people, suggesting that they won’t be given economic value without visibility from a certain (often white) demographic. So let’s try to think laterally, when researching and writing, before using loaded words that are heavily influenced by our own biases.

The Sense Check

Do we need more nuance when quoting 'great men' like Churchill, who may be a war hero to some and an Empire brute to others?

Harsha L'Acqua, founder, CEO of Saira Hospitality

Richard Toye, professor of modern history at the University of Exeter, and co-author of The Churchill Myths (August 2020).

"There's nothing wrong with quoting Churchill, if it’s accurate and serves an intelligent purpose. However, there are lots of inauthentic quotations which can trap the unwary, and, sometimes, things he did say get mangled via the media.

The more important question is, should Churchill's quotations be treated as an unchallengeable source of wisdom? Surely they should not. Even though he said many wise things, he also said many troubling things including statements that were explicitly racist, and racial slurs. To say these remarks need to be understood in context is not to excuse them; but unless we understand the origins and societal significance of past racial thinking, we stand little chance of tackling racism now. So although we should not stop quoting Churchill, historians and commentators should stop engaging in 'battles of quotations' in which a 'virtuous' Churchill is set against a 'wicked' one. Rather, we should try to understand his political thought as a whole, and how the 'good' and the bad' quotations were facets of an ideological whole.

Journalists might well take note of Churchill's practical counsel, dispensed to an interviewer in 1901. 'You ask my advice to the young correspondent?' he said. 'It is: verify your quotations and avoid split infinitives.'”

Elizabeth Egbase, obstetrics and gynaecology doctor and medical educator

Hetal Shah, senior project manager and management consultant

"This country has an understandable obsession with World War 2, which affected the country so greatly, and Churchill is part of that nostalgia and national pride. Unfortunately, this is sometimes based on a limited teaching or understanding of the facts. I'm no expert, but I know that the thousands of Indian, black Caribbean and other soldiers who lost their lives are rarely part of the picture.

Additionally, some of the awful things that Churchill said about Indians during Empire and the impact of his decisions that led to millions starving in Bengal are hardly mentioned—I've only learnt about them in recent years. So I think it’s dangerous to portray him as an ‘untouchable hero’.

Clearly we need better education and insight when it comes to quoting ‘great men’ of the past, especially because our history impacts our present—we see that with Brexit, Windrush and other daily, smaller interactions. I feel like a change is happening already, information is more widely available and as the time gap since the war increases, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to look back with more nuance."

Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away! Please email us here and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. We also welcome any feedback or comments.

Did You Know?

British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was formally abolished throughout the Empire in 1807, via the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. That, you know. However, we rarely read about a form of bonded slavery that continued well into the 20th century: the practice of indentured labour, which implicates those at the highest level of the British establishment.

What followed abolition was the systematic recruitment and migration of newly-free and lowly-paid workers from India, China and the Pacific (known derogatively as ‘Coolies’) to all corners of the Empire—usually sugar, cotton and tea plantations on colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and South East Asia—who signed contracts to work abroad for a minimum of five years in exchange for pay, a small amount of land and, in some cases, the promise of return passage. This was agreed amid harsh domestic conditions of poverty and famine, with many not understanding the contracts they had signed via thumbprint—due to widespread illiteracy in former colonies—and the remuneration rarely being delivered. Often, many were misled about where they would work and were persuaded, via a promise of domestic labour, to sign contracts that would take them to the emigration depot for plantations overseas.

From 1834, Britain had transported around two million Indian indentured labourers to 19 colonies, on vessels with conditions similar to those of the slave ships. In 1856-57, the average death rate for Indians travelling to the Caribbean was 17% (source: historian Hugh Tinker, 1993), due largely to diseases like dysentery, cholera and measles, with many more dying upon disembarkation—at holding depots or during acclimatisation in the colonies.

Spotlight on...

Shameless self-promo! On Tuesday 27th October 2020, the British Guild of Travel Writers is hosting a second discussion around decolonising travel writing. Meera is chairing and Shivani will be speaking, along with Bani Amor, Tharik Hussain, Travis Levius and Ella Paradis about how the travel industry and travel media can better represent the places we visit by changing how we write, photograph and approach travel. Join us! Tickets are £6 and available here

So many voices need amplifying and Amaliah is doing that for Muslim women, with articles and op-eds spanning identity, relationships, soul, world and lifestyle. Plus, they have a podcast and a growing online community.

Reading Room
Out Magazine OUT: Queer Nigerians are being beaten by SARS—and I'm trying to end that

After going viral putting queer lives at the front of the ongoing #EndSARS protests, activist Matthew Blaise opens up about what's happening in Nigeria.

V&A/The Guardian THE GUARDIAN: V&A in talks to return looted Ethiopian treasures

Museum to "tell a more honest story about provenance" following a formal restitution claim by Ethiopia in 2007, for the return of important artefacts.

VICE Video VICE VIDEO: Empire of Dirt; how your banks made money from slavery

Zing Tsjeng explores the pervasive legacy of slavery in the British banking system.

Megan Thee Stallion/ NY Times NY TIMES OPINION: Why I speak up for Black women

Megan Thee Stallion on why she's not afraid of criticism, and why 'Protect Black women' should not be controversial.

“I’m very proud to be Black, but Black is not all I am. That’s my cultural historical background, my genetic makeup, but it’s not all of who I am nor is it the basis from which I answer every question.”

Denzel Washington

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Unpacking Media Bias
United Kingdom

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