Travelling while black can be exhausting. As a British traveller you are often perceived by Americans, Australians and Europeans as a fellow ‘westerner’ and ally. This, combined perhaps with a complete lack of awareness of what it means to be a diasporic African, can allow people to feel comfortable enough around you to come out with some wildly offensive commentaries. Such comments can range from the mildly problematic to the outrageously racist but almost all of them are truly worth analysing.
I was once speaking with a New Zealander about her prospective relocation to Dubai for a tax free wage that would relieve the financial pressures of living in London, and finally allow her to start saving. She despaired having to adjust to a new culture and worried about things like covering up in the heat and not kissing her boyfriend in public. Her frustration culminated in this sentence: “I get that they want hold on to their religious values and stuff but they need westerners”.
My lips parted as I hoped to articulate some kind of response, but no sound escaped as I stood, dumbfounded. I know nothing about Dubai. But from her description of her life in London, she definitely needed Dubai more than Dubai needed her. The patronising tone behind the words “their religious values and stuff” had me completely floored. To dismiss an entire religion, culture or way of life as if it were small print to the greater story of My Life seemed painfully ignorant and self-involved. The arrogance of this statement marked me. As an immigrant arriving into a country solely to earn a better wage that you have no intention of paying taxes on, how is it possible to still feel such a sense of entitlement?
This brought into sharp focus a term I jokingly came up with years previously to explain some of the equally arrogant and ignorant things I would hear (almost always white) travellers say. The term empire syndrome, I decided, denotes the belief that ‘westerners’ have unparalleled rights to the world because the world has so much to learn from them. Empire syndrome is responsible for phenomena such as the selectively used term ‘expat’ and domestically can be connected to our unforgivably poor treatment of refugees here in the UK. It is the worrying belief, often manifested by British travellers, that there is always some element of contribution in being British abroad. The world needs the English language, British education and good, tolerant, liberal western values and here you are giving it to them! What commendable philanthropy!
The stereotype of the ‘Brit abroad’ as loud, proud and unapologetically ignorant is a label usually tacked onto ‘lads on tour’ type holidays in Spain or Greece that will later be made into a reality TV show. Of course, not all holiday-makers in on the continent are embarrassingly drunk and those who are quietly minding their own business always go unnoticed (indeed, positive stories of working class life, generally, go less reported). But in every brash British holiday maker is the hint of an attitude of “Here! Have my culture! It’s probably better than yours anyway.”
The ‘cultured’ middle classes tend to remain exempt from this label and many travellers whether to India, Peru or Madagascar are indeed polite and respectful in their attitudes and the way they interact with people. But more, in my humble experience, are simply incredibly polite neo-colonialists. These are the people who, with a straight face, will take one cultural norm they’ve ‘discovered’ from siestas to lateness to disregard for traffic signals, to explain why [insert entire state, continent or religion here] will always be behind the west. It is culture, not colonialism, pillage, unfair international trade deals or monopolies on means of production which is at the root of global inequality. How blessed the backwards people are to have you, Mr Neo-colonialist Sir, in their midst.
Academic discourse on foreign direct investment into countries with smaller economies, usually in the case of expansion of international corporations, tends to suggest that it is good a for a country’s economy. It provides jobs, teaches key skills, trains locals for future opportunities and brings in wealthy ‘expats’ who in turn contribute to the local economy. The problem with foreign direct investment, much like colonialism before it, is that it further weaves states who are at a structural disadvantage (because their exports are mainly raw materials and their currencies are weaker) into a global system of capital, built on inequality and exploitation, which will always benefit already wealthy states.
Whilst ‘expats’ who work for multinational companies may be spending money in local economies, they are making much more for themselves and whichever company sent them. Indeed, plantation owners in Guyana two hundred years ago were providing work to Indian indentured labourers, in the same way that most of your favourite high street shops are doing so across China and Bangledesh today. They’re hardly the heroes of history though, are they?
The delusional self-importance of ‘expats’ abroad has never failed to astound me on my travels, and the ignorance around the structures of inequality merely perpetuate it. No matter how poor the wages you pay or how little tax you contribute, the message is clear: the world needs western investment, western values and westerners and you are therefore helping.
The ideology of western cultural superiority reigns supreme, undoubtedly connected to the failure to teach the real and murky history of British travel and exactly what the UK would look like were it not for the empire. Until Brits confront the reality of how enriched this country has become off the very same places that some claim “need westerners” and begin to understand who needs who, empire syndrome will continue to reign and replicate the colonialism of the past.