Says Shivani Ashoka, journalist and advocate for racial diversity in travel media
‘We all want to save the planet, but there’s little point talking about the environmental aspects of sustainability if you don’t tie in the societal factors that are fundamental to its success – by just banging the drum about how to extend the life of the earth, we ignore that there are entire communities who are still fighting for basic human rights and who don’t want that reality sustained. It is our job, in travel, to uplift them, support their livelihoods and reframe the wider understanding of what sustainability means. The end goal is that everyone is equal, but right now we have a duty to recognise race. As a woman of colour, I need to hear more voices that speak to my heritage, to see different skin tones represented at the highest points of my industry and to read narratives that I can identify with.
When we write about travel, it’s so important to really think about how we tell stories and to be sensitive with the words we use. I remember reading a piece, as recently as last year, by a British writer who went to Charleston, South Carolina, and spoke to the decorative charms of plantations and “colonial elegance”. Do I need to explain why this is an inappropriate way to describe that landscape? Colonialism, for millions – including myself – speaks to persecution and oppression, so when I see it used in a positive light, I feel that a duty of care isn’t being taken. Writers and editors alike should research the brutality inflicted by the British Empire on its colonies; not only to be able to spot how its structures still shape our society today, but also to understand how it provided the framework for how black people in other countries, including the USA, continue to be enslaved.
This includes social-media content. As readers and consumers, we’re all getting braver about calling out cultural appropriation when we see it. Getting “Happy Namaste Day” emails from brands for International Yoga Day triggered long-standing issues around the misuse of ‘namaste’ in Western yoga, which promotes the physicality of the practise over its core philosophical ideals. Namaste, as a sacred and respectful greeting, means “I bow to the divine in you” and, for those following the Hindu faith, it’s a daily reminder of their beliefs, values and how their religion guides them to treat others. Instead, we’re bombarded with crass spin-offs that take us further and further away from what we liked about yoga in the first place – and end up distorting how it works. The education – or re-education – element is crucial: we want to understand what we’re saying and why. Now that everyone has woken up to that, I hope we can effect change for the better.’