Jamaica Kinkaid – & my Activism Fail

That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world – cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you. They envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.

Excerpt from A Small Place by Jamaica Kinkaid

I encountered Kinkaid in my Rhetoric of Tourism course. I was researching the Sex Tourism industry in Thailand (if you were wondering). Kinkaid gave me language about how I felt about tourists while I lived in Thailand as a young girl. I was surprised as I read it how much of the sentiments I could relate too, it was spot on and very telling on how tourism can affect the local population. I was there maybe the first five years of my life. It really spoke to my young mind’s understandings of the scarcity and instability we had in a single parent home and having been in a ‘third world’ country I saw many occurrences that wouldn’t have been the norm here.

Examples would be when there was a flood during monsoon season and my mom picked me up from school and walked us home on her back. Another example when I was walking to school I watched as several adults holding a young boy’s (not much older than me, a kindergartner) head together blood dripping onto the wooden plank beneath them, shouting instructions to others to doctor him – assumably they couldn’t get to/afford a hospital, but who knows I was just walking to school.

The point being when I saw tourists I felt the envy Kinkaid spoke of in the excerpt. They were different from us, they didn’t speak like us, they didn’t adhere to customs or the manners I was taught. Yet, they were able to get all the fruits of life that I wouldn’t be able to get in my circumstance.

As I grew up, I always heard people going to Thailand on vacation and I only went for funerals, it seemed like.

At that time when I was in New Zealand the semester beforehand I saw a lot of racism towards Pacific Islanders and, coincidentally, went to Thailand for my aunt’s funeral. I got to hang out with a lot of Pacific Islanders. South Pacific paired with Aotearoa Māori Indigeneity really upticked my politicization of land rights, sovereignty and consciousness of political representation. The furtive gazes of the White Kiwis at my brown skin and presence became more and more burdensome as the months rolled on. Walking through town became a nuisance by the end of my time in Wellington. Five months was enough for me to realize that without a strong network of solidarity that environment could have broken me. I’m still SO thankful that Nesi, a Tongan classmate, reached out to me and took me to Pasi House, that saved my study abroad experience. I was lucky.

When I returned to the states I was still a little lost and it wasn’t until the next semester after gathering my thoughts and taking my Sex & Power class that I mentioned in my last post that I began researching my place in the social justice movement. I began connecting with indigenous rights groups and showing up to more BLM actions on campus. It got to the point where I felt like I was taking on more emotional labor than I could handle and I began to withdraw.

I was participating so much so that I participated in an action against a play in my last semester. I’m ashamed to say I DIDN’T DO MY RESEARCH & I am not ashamed to admit my mistake. We were doing a die-in of a play on UT campus that had a blackface character. The catch was it was a play with one of the most diverse casts placing brown and black students at the forefront AND had a black female dramaturgist.

The irony of the entire situation was the dramaturgist and I were participating in the same Performance Art Conference and I had just recently basked in a lecture she gave in one of our sessions. She came to confront us after the action was over, telling us she was letting us have the space because that’s what we came for and asked us why we felt the way we felt and explained her positioning. I felt like shit.

Later that night (because the conference was still going, coinciding with the play’s run) we saw each other at Sahara Lounge, so I apologized to her and told her I didn’t think it through and was there in support of my friend because I only saw a small sliver of the story from them. Her response, that I still remember to this day because she was hurt but still trying to educate me, was ‘you have to be more careful in doing research of causes that you participate in because your body is on the line. ESPECIALLY, in this example, it’s a Die-in, your body is a prop to push the narrative that your against the play that I worked really hard to show. Yes, this was part of our history but this was one of the most inclusive casts we’ve had and now it’s going to be oversimplified to the play that had blackface in it’. I hurt someone that I wanted to be in solidarity of. It was an activism FAIL if there ever was one. That was the last manifestation of resistance I was in.

Anyways, I think it’s very important that we uphold one another’s dreams and beliefs. Seeing the multiple sides of a situation is always important, but in the case of creating space and taking action ‘protesting’ something we should make sure we are fully invested in it not just a few toes in the water. Knowledge is always power.

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