You, too, may be a tool of imperialism
In mid-January, Kristen Gray, a queer Black woman and a self-proclaimed “digital nomad,” was deported back to the United States after spending a year living in Bali. Gray gained international attention after posting a Twitter thread encouraging fellow Americans to move to Bali, describing perks like cheap housing, low cost of living and LGBTQIA* friendliness as reasons to make the move. Then she linked her e-book—titled “Our Bali Life is Yours”—which described how to follow in her footsteps, including tips on how to enter Indonesia during a pandemic.
Her thread and eventual deportation prompted a dual outrage online from both Indonesians and Americans. Indonesians were angered by Gray’s invitation to gentrify and imperialize Bali by taking advantage of the exaggerated worth of USD in Indonesia. Gray advertised her stay in Bali as a “luxury lifestyle” and bragged about the treehouse that she had been living in (only $400, a steal compared to her $1,300 apartment in Los Angeles), leaving out the poverty that many Balinese experience there, as well as the fact that rich foreigners and expatriates continue to push out natives by raising housing prices. She labeled Indonesia as queer-friendly—which it very well may be for her, as a foreigner with economic leverage in a tourism-dependent city—but in reality, LGBTQIA* Indonesians are still fighting to be free from discrimination, derision and persecution. She used the small experiences she had in a tourist spot to summarize the whole of a vibrant and varied city, and then invited other Americans to similarly gentrify those same areas that had welcomed her. Indonesians were right to be mad.
The other source of outrage, however, was less justified. Many Americans rose in defense of Gray, citing racism and homophobia as the root of the anger that had risen over Gray’s Twitter thread. Faced with an honest conversation about the privilege that Americans have in countries that they use for tourism, they rerouted the conversation to themselves, in spite of the history America has of imperialization in Indonesia. To be clear, I am not suggesting that anti-Blackness doesn’t exist in Indonesia, or removing it totally as a motivator of the response towards Kristen Gray. But it’s worth acknowledging that many Americans—including some Black and queer Americans—were unable to engage properly with a discussion on American privilege, imperialism and the power dynamic between westerners and natives in countries like Indonesia.
Witnessing this back and forth on the nature of privilege and who can wield it, I couldn’t help but think about the Wash. U. community. The frame of mind that led Kristen Gray to exploit Bali is not dissimilar from the mindset of American tourists in countries that seem “exotic,” exciting, and non-permanent after the vacation weekend is over. Many students here would admit to or even vehemently agree with the privilege they experience in St. Louis, in Missouri and in the US as a whole. But I don’t know how many have thought closely about the effect their tourism dollars have on the countries they have visited for Spring Break. I don’t know how many can relate the privilege they have at home to the privilege they have when they go abroad.
Now that vaccines are emerging, many of us are looking ahead to the end of this pandemic. I know I’m already making plans about the things I’d like to do and places I’d like to see once I no longer have to worry about contracting or spreading COVID-19. But as we look ahead towards resuming our various global travels, it’s important to remain critical about it. A resort is not representative of a country; a weekend in a city is not comparable to a lifetime contending with the long-term virtues and vices of a nation. Countries—especially those known for and dependent on tourism—are not playgrounds for rich foreigners, nor should they have to cater to you. We cannot afford to ignore the impact we have on the places we visit.