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...because it's not always black & white
No more of the 'shame game'

Last week, travel writer Monisha Rajesh tweeted a side-by-side comparison of the copy she’d filed to a British publication and what later appeared in print. Her factual reference to Darjeeling’s history—as the summer retreat for the violent British Raj—had been edited out; which took her subsequent observation (about Indian families drinking tea and shopping there) out of context. And, context isn't expendable. Without it, stories become revisionist. In this case, the historical context was important to show that Darjeeling has become accessible and available to Indian travellers too, not just Brits cooing over its ‘faded colonial elegance’ (please don’t ever….) and sipping G&Ts. It puts them back on an even keel. But how did that editorial ‘oversight’ happen?

In order to justify slavery or colonialism, humans had to create divides, to make such practices seem more palatable. After all, there was no notion of race until the mid-1400s, when Gomes de Zurara, a Portuguese writer, was commissioned by his slave-trading leaders to write a puff piece, and quite literally invented ‘blackness’ (and therefore ‘whiteness’) as a construct. The offshoots of this might all seem shocking now—particularly when we look at how ‘Africans’ have been painted as savages and given animalistic qualities (offshoots of which still linger today) to justify denigrating other human beings and locking them in cages. But an ingrained sense of shame (no matter how bonkers that seems, given none of us were there) is exactly how this stuff happens. The shame we should feel is for our complicity in propping up pervasive structures that were created for us—and that often happens through a lack of context.

Take the skin-lightening industry as another example. Sure, it’s a billion-dollar problem in India and other former European colonies, but where did that desire for whiter skin come from? Why do we assume those citizens aren’t lobbying for change at the highest level? We still write about ‘underdeveloped’ countries anthropologically, through a Christopher Columbus lens, whereby we ‘discover’ a foreign land and enforce certain ideals of society on them… only to realise actually, it’s full of people who had been living there for years.

It’s become second nature to categorise and compare different cultures with our own, rather than take them for what they are. And we’ve been conditioned to use Western society as a benchmark for civilisation, even though it doesn’t always deserve to be. Have we considered what it looks like for a ‘developed’ country to decide that underprivileged children should go without food over Christmas, leaving it to a 22-year-old footballer to hold an entire government to account?

Many writers tend to avoid historical context—perhaps because it’s ‘complicated’ or because an unconscious sense of shame might take away from the ‘paint palette’ of the piece. But if we’re going to tell stories, we should tell the fullest one possible, putting any shame, faux or real (and for an event in which a writer presumably played no part), to one side, in the interests of ethical journalism.

It’s hard—this stuff is ingrained. Age-old propaganda has created deep-rooted divisions of alienness and otherness and, of course—for the travel hacks among us—our line of work was originally created to facilitate colonization and the slave trade (there were just so many lands and people to ‘discover’...) The perception of alienness, which the African continent has come to represent for Europe, has manifested itself once again with Western coverage of the ‘End SARS’ protests, which have led to calls for UK sanctions to be imposed on the Nigerian government.

So again, context is critical. West Africa was the transportation hub that fuelled the transatlantic slave trade, followed by a period of rampaging British Imperialism across the globe. Nigeria has a long history of dictatorships and corrupt military rule which is entangled with this history; leaving out the ‘why’ and ‘how’ when we write about it or call for action won’t help anyone understand the landscape—or why years of hurt and anger are coming out.

Equally, we could fast-forward to events of the last four years when Donald Trump sent in the US military to attack peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters. Was there similar coverage encouraging the imposition of sanctions on the US or calling for a halt in trading? One thing the pandemic has shown is that the ‘developed’ model we’ve been fed doesn’t work quite as well as we thought. And the cracks are showing.

We have a responsibility to provide context, and give an honest depiction of a place, a group of people or a culture. That starts by treating them with respect, by honouring their stories, and learning to separate fact from the sense of shame associated with uncomfortable periods of history. It’s a fundamental part of understanding how we came to be where we are. 

Shivani and Meera


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

Writing Tip of the Day

Who are you quoting in your feature? Do you have the right voices? Have you gone out of your way to find the best, whether that means most qualified, most refreshing, most interesting, people? Or are you using the usual voices heard for that topic?

And do you have enough variety of sources? If you're writing a beauty piece, is your expert including tips for melanated skin too? If you’re quoting a tourist board in a travel feature, do you have a local voice of influence? What about female and minority voices? To truly tell the story, you need voices that represent the story.

The Sense Check

"Is saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ political?"

Martinique Lewis

Martinique Lewis
Diversity in travel consultant, Nomadness Travel Tribe creative lead, Black Travel Alliance president, & creator of The ABC Travel Greenbook

"When I hear people say 'Black Lives Matter' is a political statement, I cringe. How is stating and showing that someone’s life matters ‘political’? Since when did being ethical, operating out of integrity and human decency, get mistaken for politics?

And then I have to remember where I'm at. I have to remember that systematically the odds are stacked against you as a Black person the moment you're born. I have to remember they think you're lesser than and that's why your schools, neighbourhoods, healthcare, and your ability to advanced in life will always look different from others.

‘Political’ is defined as ''relating to the government or the public affairs of a country''. Nothing about the statement ‘Black Lives Matter’ relates to the government as ours doesn't protect us and tells people to stand back and stand by. Black lives WILL ALWAYS matter, and no, it's not 'political'."

Diane Burnett

Diane Burnett
Trainee counsellor in Sussex, England, after eight years living and working in DR Congo, Sudan and Tanzania

"No! But sometimes it feels like I am being pushed into a political corner just because I recognise that in the USA, African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated and fatally shot when they encounter law enforcement officers.

And in the UK, we absolutely have systematic racism and that for BAME people, our day-to-day lives are very different to that of our non-BAME fellow citizens.

When I first heard the saying, I thought it was genius. It so succinctly expressed how I saw things. How can it be political to highlight clear facts? So I strongly push back on politicalising BLM. It should be an issue that unites us all, whatever our political leanings.”

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?

A forgotten war? 50 years ago this year, Nigeria’s Biafra war ended. But not before at least over a million people (some estimates say two or three million) had died.

It is one of the biggest events in Nigerian history, following independence from British rule in 1960 when a gaping hole was left in Nigeria’s power and wealth structure, a not uncommon side-effect of ill-thought-out Imperialist departures.

In 1966, a violent coup in which senior Nigerian army officers, mostly of the Igbo ethnic group (therefore labelled as an ‘Igbo coup’) assassinated key politicians, saw the nation fall under military rule. Massacres against Igbo in the north led to thousands being killed and around a million fled for the then-Eastern Region.

In 1967, the Igbo people formed a separatist state, the Republic of Biafra, in southeastern Nigeria, led by the 33-year-old military officer Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. It was the start of a brutal 30-month civil war that didn't end until 15th January 1970. Most Biafrans were untrained soldiers, often on the cusp of starvation, fighting a better equipped Nigerian army. In 1970, Biafra surrendered. More people had died from hunger than anything else.

There’s been no official ‘truth and reconciliation’ following the secessionist campaign and today, many Igbo feel Nigerian politics has no place for them. At the time, it was the world's first televised war and while many images shocked those who saw them, a national 'no victor, no vanquished,' policy has led to many Nigerians describing it as a near-collective amnesia of this life-defining event, removed from curriculums and national narratives.

Spotlight on...

This END SARS website offers up-to-date information on the ongoing campaign against SARS (Special Anti Robbery Squad), a branch of the Nigeria Police Force. It also provides verified donation links and a list of resources, from which social media to follow to volunteer opportunities and mental health support.

Wanderful, an online global community of women travellers, has recently launched an Anti-Oppression Toolkit for Travel & Culture Creators. It includes a glossary of terms to better understand intersectionality, a how-to series on practising diversity, equity and inclusion in creator work, and an upcoming series of webinars with travel industry leaders on how to move towards anti-oppression.

Reading Room
Gal-Dem: Photography via Canva GAL-DEM: Western intervention is not the answer

Sanctions destroy lives, so stop asking the West to intervene in Nigeria, says Fope Olaleye.

Marcus Rutherford: Xavier Laine via Getty Images HUFF POST: The contradictions of “Johnsonism”

Paul Waugh on how Marcus Rashford exposed the fault lines In Boris Johnson’s government

Wall Street Journal - Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly WALL STREET JOURNAL: The amazing, horrifying age of exaggeration

Hyperbole was more fun in Mencken’s age. Today it’s become ugly and fanatical, a weapon in a holy war.

How to Ciizen with Baratunde PODCAST: How to Citizen

Writer, activist and comedian Baratunde Thurston talks to activist, lawyer and Sikh faith leader Valarie Kaur about her book, See No Stranger, and the act of being a citizen.

“We don’t see things as they are;

We see things as we are.”

Anaïs Nin, French-Cuban American diarist, essayist, novelist and writer

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Unpacking Media Bias
United Kingdom

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