“To travel is to encounter the terrorizing force of white supremacy. The concept of travel as we know it is a way of holding onto imperialism.” – bell hooks
My parents and I disagree on this 'white supremacy' thing. It begins with a stray comment about race and usually ends with me screaming “But whiteness!” and them crossing their arms and sighing. It's difficult for them to fully grasp the idea of white supremacy when it has been so deeply internalized by generations of British colonialism, and when issues of race have remained largely Western constructs that are usually superseded in day-to-day discourse by those of class.
When we travel, we are consuming culture as a commodity—from New York we buy cosmopolitanism, from India we physically extract spirituality, from New Zealand we demand virgin nature, and from Cuba we forcefully re-enact all our exotic fantasies, replete with vintage convertibles? There are several add-ons to these travel commodities—local food imparts cultural immersion, eco-lodges give ethical acumen, and fluffy white infinite thread count beds radiate luxury amidst the untamed—the ultimate colonial fantasy? #WeMadeIt? But it is also to bow to imperialism—to prove your allegiance to the system, to explore and experience a new place by the white supremacist rules of travel and surveillance and immigration. To travel is to subject yourself to feeling like maybe you acted like you had terrorist intent? Like maybe if you do look like an immigrant, hey, maybe you are?
For context, I'd like to explain (from my highly subjective point of view) what it means to to travel as an Indian passport holder with a Muslim last name. Indian passport holders require this flimsy little paper slip called visas. Visas are not procured easily—they require interviews, fingerprinting, tax returns, income statements, letters of invitation, processing fees and police background checks. To be denied a visa to a leading Western nation is to join the long line of re-applicants—equipped with firmer answers, better stamped papers and, if you've got it, maybe a little more money to grease the deal. To have a Muslim last name is to have your bag emptied out at customs, to be subjected to random searches, to be pulled out of line for the bulge of your chocolate wrapper in your back pocket, to be offloaded on busy flights, to be asked for paperwork in the streets, and to be deported with startling ease.
And yet, we travel. Because my parents work hard to earn well and we love eating falafels on cobbled streets in Europe, taking that damn Eiffel tower selfie (however ironic in intent) and because those difficult steps towards transnational travel are easily forgotten with gelato in hand and a family photo atop a historical monument. Until three months ago, transnational travel filled me with equal parts adrenalin and sticky dread and risky thrill. To make it through the immigration line unscathed was to have won against the greatest odds. To make it into baggage claim was to finally loosen my shoulders and release my resting bitch face, to unclench my jaw—to bask in the accomplishment of having arrived. How many of us count deportation on our list of achievements under the age of 17? (Hint: more than you'd think.)
I was raised traveling; when my mother mentions that I've visited more countries than she has, there is pride tumbling out of her voice. When she talks about taking her first flight at age 25, she is also referencing all the flights I've taken before 22. She wanted me to have everything she didn't grow up with, and I live in the hope of living up to all that she has given me, given up for me.
About a year ago, though, everything changed. After 19 years in line, I got a green card. My first trip as a permanent resident, with just a stamp in my passport to prove my worth and no physical card in hand, I spent roughly three hours being interrogated and questioned at LAX. Eventually, the immigration officers let me go in a gesture so sudden and abrupt that I momentarily put aside my anger and indignation in favor of sheer relief and gratitude. Thankful to those who had decided, after much deliberation, that my (legitimate) stamp in my (legitimate) passport was in fact, legitimate? That I was not a cheater, that I was even remotely worthy of visiting, loving, and feeling connected to their country (#EmpathizingWithTheOppressor). I may have won the right to travel to the United States freely, but that freedom is so closely monitored, and so easily snatched away by those that dole it out, that calling it freedom at all seems too generous.
I can now flash my California Drivers License (attained after 11 DMV visits and access to not an insignificant amount of financial resources) and (actually green) green card everywhere, and bask in the access it gives me. Immigration checks have gotten faster (once the officer even smiled at me!), and the terror of police questioning has lessened. On paper, I have become a part of this country—huge in this time of the doomed work visa lottery and harrowing immigration crackdowns and unfair deportations—and yet, I am always reminded of how tenuously I am being allowed to stay. How little these plastic cards and slips of papers mean when they are written solely to protect those in power.
My thoughts on travel have changed dramatically since reading an essay by bell hooks. I see travel as embedded in an inherently terrorizing narrative. This is not to say that we shouldn't travel. That as people of color, people at risk in the white supremacist world we live in, we must avoid the places that will take our tourist dollars happily but also hold us to higher and harsher standards of interrogation and surveillance. To travel is to be given the gift of perspective and to be set free from our own culture in order to look back upon it and see it clearer. I just think it's important to figure out how we can reclaim travel. How to separate the consumption of travel as a commodity, and the terrorism it can shepherd onto people of color from the very human notion of journey and exploration and even that big, lump-in-your-throat word: immigration.
Sana Javeri Kadri PO '16 is from Bombay, India and can usually be found making things.