Eating the Other.


Photo: a cup of saffron ice cream on Heaven Street, Tehran.


There’s a famous essay of this name, by bell hooks, written in 1992. It describes the tendency of young white Americans both to consume other racial heritages and to seek out sexual encounters with other races as a means of personal transformation, i.e., just another reassertion of white dominance. I resisted reading it for a long time because I’d read the beginning and thought, “Well shit, this is what I do.”

In Tehran I went to House of the Artists, in the center of a beautiful sculpture garden in the middle of the city. There was an elegant restaurant where I ordered a latté served in a tulip glass. Later I wandered up and down the stairs, in and out of photography exhibits, in and out of an art opening, where the painter seemed to be explaining his work to fawning students; then up to a cinema where there seemed to be a grand film premiere, with the director posing for smartphone pics. I didn’t understand anything except by context, ambiance, and body language. But I was just manically, wordlessly happy, and had the very intense feeling that I needed to come back—to the House of the Artists, to Tehran, to Iran itself—because I have important things to learn here. Something about austerity and longing. Something about restraint and decadence. Something only a very ancient culture could teach me.

And then I think of bell hooks’s essay. I fear it explains my motivations completely. Am I just eating the Other, sampling cultures a la carte, unable to enact any social dynamic other than consumption? I want to argue with hooks and say, “Doesn’t everyone have their own agency?” And of course they do have full agency, but from within different spheres of privilege. Or I might say, “Am I not just as willing to be eaten as eat?” But again, of course that doesn’t mean the same thing, coming from me. I belong to the white American capitalist hegemony. There’s no risk of loss; except the continued constant one, of whites’ own humanity diminished by other races’ dehumanization.

The way travel feels to me is not that I’m eating a culture, but that I’m remembering it. Like segments of my genome are lighting up, or my cells are remembering other phases of being, the atoms themselves remembering all the paths they’ve taken before they became a part of my body, and maybe seeing all the paths they’ll take in the future.

But in that formulation, there’s no regard for the Other, just myself and my feelings. Moreover, hooks describes it, too: “The [desired] message again is that ‘primitivism,’ though more apparent in the Other, also resides in the white self.”

I am a racist person, as we all are; products of a racist society. I crave absolution from bell hooks, of course, and permission to travel and seek contact with people different from me. But it’s not my place to ask that, and not her—or anyone else’s—place to give. So I have only my own counsel, and that of the individuals I meet. I hope it means something, at least, to understand the landscape. That it will help me to cause least harm in my travels, and even some good. I’m vividly aware of this in Iran, especially, a country that’s been so long estranged from my own.

In the essay, hooks hopes for a middle way:

“Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other…whether or not desire for contact with the Other, for connection rooted in the longing for pleasure, can act as a critical intervention challenging and subverting racist domination, inviting and enabling critical resistance, is an unrealized political possibility…acknowledging ways the desire for pleasure, and that includes erotic longings, informs our politics, our understanding of difference, we may know better how desire disrupts, subverts, and makes resistance possible.”

That is a possibility I am trying to realize.


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45 Comments on “Eating the Other.”

  1. Beckett says:

    Beautifully put! I’m intrigued to go read Hook’s article now. Three thoughts that occurred to me on how to escape the dilemma:

    1) We could approach our actions from the point of view that Western hegemony won’t last forever. How does our relationship with other cultures change if we imagine America becoming like Spain, or Western Europe + America becoming like South America? You could also construe this from the perspective of a diminished or fallen empire, such as the UK compared to its 19th century glory or Greece compared to the time of Athens and Sparta. Putting an expiration date on hegemony strikes me as increasingly realistic in light of trends like the shrinking size of the white majority in the US and the increasing economic power of China.

    2) We can understand traditionally Western traditions like democracy and capitalism as lacking some fixed essence. To be a “consumer” of other cultures, then, does not have to have a single, uniquely Western meaning. As other cultures take on, react to, and transform democracy or capitalism, they can teach us about the limitations of our own understanding of things like happiness, justice, or the common good. Our obligation in this context would be to give the criticisms and experiences of other cultures a higher order of attention and weight, precisely because Westerners stand in a position of relative institutional power and forced this interaction on the rest of the world for our own interests.

    3) Option 2 construes the special ethical obligations that follow from being in a position of institutional power in historically Western terms. (More precisely, it frames the responses of other cultures to our traditions as “experiments” in living that we have a special responsibility to learn from.) A different alternative is to try to understand what those ethical obligations would be for someone in the actual culture that you’re engaging with. How would Iranians see the benefits or harm of your visit? If they understand it as good for them, does it matter what it means to you? Perhaps our concern about being a consumer of Others can become a negative way of imposing the same Western hegemony as before by foreclosing the possibility of difference in meaning.

  2. Wow this was great and I agree, well put!

  3. mirrorgirl says:

    It sounds like you think a lot about how you affect the world around you. I guess we all have a tendency to think we can take what we want, when we want it, and forget how it would feel the other way around.

  4. chistanote says:

    I know how it does taste. it is divine

  5. mustaphabarki2014 says:

    Reblogged this on Engineer Marine Skipper.

  6. Reblogged this on cheyennebraem and commented:

  7. hmmkiki says:

    I may have to read the essay aswell! I loved how u wrote about the way travel feels to you. .. and the mention of going and taking from a culture I guess is something I do and never really thought about it. Good piece.

  8. Kelsey says:

    I was fortunate to do a lot of overseas traveling as a teenager, and really struggled with the feeling that just by being an outsider in a place I was fouling it up a little. It is a beautiful thing to find familiarity in a different way of life than your own, but I noticed that no matter how careful I was of local customs, I still managed to offend some – if not by my own actions, then by how they were re-told to others. People see what they expect to see, and many will see a traveler as disrespectful to other cultures. I was able to reconcile this feeling by noticing the other reaction that people have when you visit their culture, which is to be amazed at your interest in their everyday life. I tried to show how I appreciated things that maybe were considered not special by locals, and to spread the message that where I was from had a lot of problems too (a hard sell in some places!). Good to bear in mind the negative, I think, to always try to minimize it.

  9. Reblogged this on fanfavourite2's Blog and commented:
    Great idea

  10. Sulfen says:

    As a Hispanic I have always loved Chinese food. It’s interesting stopping to think about your behaviors.

  11. Saffron Icecream!!!!! Wow

  12. mr_pandit says:

    Reblogged this on Site under construction and commented:
    Saffron ice cream reminds me of tropical masala tea I once had it amidst the Lake Wanaka in Queens town, New Zealand

  13. Your post and hooks’s essay made me evaluate my trips to the UK and Egypt. I agree, I was tasting/consuming the Other culture in an attempt to gain enrichment without giving of myself, without truly interacting. But I’m in a weird place when it comes to fully digesting your essay and hooks’s argument, because I am not white. I am Indian American, raised by Indians, educated by whites in Texas, and married to a white man who I am sure hooks would love to analyze. As an immigrant’s child, I am the product of parents who came from a colonized country and whose place as immigrant Others is still labeled “colonized,” and of educators who teach the good word of white American capitalist hegemony. hooks leaves me confused and marginalized–actually, non-existent in a world of black-and-white discourse. Reading your essay, I want to say, like you, “I fear it explains my motivations completely” when it comes to travel, because it does. However, the sin seems reserved for whites, and I am once again placed in an other, undefined category. hooks’s criticism of white power seems to inadvertently strengthen it by still showing the Other cultures as passive, by simplifying white motivation (I am referring to her observation of her students calling dibs on women of other races), and by neglecting to address the experience of those outside America’s historical white-black conflict. That being said, I love and appreciate your essay for making me think early on a Sunday morning. I haven’t looked at essays by scholars like bell hooks in a long time, and I loved the flashback to grad school 🙂

  14. iledevix says:

    Incredible insight into a topic I hold rather dead. Thank you. 🙂

  15. bradshawkarrie says:

    Reblogged this on bradshawkarrie.

  16. jemimafish says:

    I can see where your coming from and that’s very reasonable. well put. 🙂

  17. Reblogged this on agnestompul12 and commented:
    Unique 🙂

  18. Engineer's Digest says:

    An odyssey of soul and mind

  19. nasshakouri says:

    I really like the way you write. =)

  20. tmgrigg says:

    Reblogged this on tmgrigg and commented:
    I bet this is awesome!

  21. bufferkiller says:

    You have given me much to reflect on, Ms. Byrne. Thank you.

  22. creamy29 says:

    Reblogged this on creamy29.

  23. Reblogged this on my health and fitness and commented:

  24. Thanks for this beautiful thought provoking share. When I travel I don’t want to ‘consume’ either.

  25. Reblogged this on Psychology & Statistics Tutor:Mentor and commented:
    Critical reflections~

  26. martinatumblr says:

    Beautiful words. It made my desire to travel even bigger. In my opinion, we are indeed a product of a racial system, but we are not defined by it: we have the choice to have new experiences and overcome our instincts, discover that we were wrong but in order to build different and better ideas.

  27. Anney says:

    I always find food and eating to be a significant part of my travel experiences … it is great to have some ‘food for thought’ from you – thank you!

  28. David Ruggerio says:

    Enjoyed your blog

  29. Marvellous! I really love your blog!! Pls visit us, we are Spanish girls that are working on a school projet!! Thank u so much!

  30. russogeena says:

    Very beautifully written! This is not a way I have thought of things before but I have recently been thinking of my travels to Europe and how the places that weren’t tourist traps were the best part. While I am familiar with Bell Hooks, I have yet the pleasure to read this essay and will be sure to do so after reading this blog post. I also enjoyed that this post violated my expectations of what it was about after reading the title and seeing the picture.

  31. MixIC says:

    Reblogged this on Mixic.

  32. Cornelia Frances says:

    What an excellent essay! Have been thinking a lot about travel writing, traveling and tourism since reading nayyirah waheed’s poem ”tourist’ which reads:
    it was all about you, anyway.”
    So this is both fortuitous and incredibly incisive.

  33. chefcatalyst says:

    Loved this! I am definitely intrigued to go read this book now as well.

  34. To travel is to consume. The two are synonymous.

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