Using Identity Politics to defend Kristen Gray’s Exploitation of Bali is Reductive and Dismissive

Many of you who frequent Twitter may be familiar with the Kristen Gray Bali fiasco that took place a few weeks ago. For those unfamiliar, some context; Kristen Gray is an American tourist who ‘moved’ to Bali with her girlfriend after finding it difficult to get a job in the US. She gushes over the cheap cost of living, how ‘queer friendly’ it is and emphasises how easy it is to get a visa whilst actively and irresponsibly trying to encourage others to do the same during a pandemic. All this included in an e-book that she made costing about $50 to gain access to. On the surface and at first glance, it was an innocent thread about a Black woman who decided to travel to another country and found happiness. I have to admit, I was initially drawn into the story due to my own experiences as a Black expatriate (I grew up and spent 17 years in the tiny Arabian Gulf country of Bahrain) but it was ultimately because of that experience that I began to start questioning the truth behind the façade.

An Indonesian follower of mine made a post expressing her annoyance with the situation. She pointed out that the only reason westerners like Kristen found places like Bali easy to live in was that, among many other things, they were American and got paid in US dollars. Hers was only one of many angry revelations by local Indonesians who expressed rightful anger at yet another American coming to their country and taking advantage of benefits that oftentimes were not accessible to locals themselves, especially during a pandemic. I began to think about my own background, being from a country in the ‘global south’ (Trinidad and Tobago) with a history of colonialism and a partial dependence on tourism and I empathised. I often found myself slightly disgusted at the attitude and conduct of many western tourists. There was always an aura of arrogance that followed them, almost as if the rest of the world had a duty to serve them and could be used as a form of escapism from their problems. But one of the questions that constantly gets asked by the citizens of these countries is, ‘where do we go to escape you guys?’.

The concept of passport privilege is quite real and it is shown in the way Americans and many westerners can just pack up and travel to places without a second thought. Often, they do not need to think about applying for visas and if they do, it is never a long-complicated process. The value of an American passport especially, outweighs any other characteristic an individual possesses. Many of us non-American, queer Black people have not had the pleasure of experiencing that sort of privilege. American’s lack of awareness of this speaks volumes in regards to their obliviousness of their standing on a global scale. Kristen’s case also highlights American’s lack of fear over immigration rules, this considering that she was on a tourist visa, working and living in Bali as normal, either not aware of the issues with this or simply not caring. Regardless of her motives, it is impossible for me to ignore the fact that if the tables were reversed and those of us without the advantage of a passport were to have this same attitude when going to western countries, especially America, we would not be afforded the same luxury. In an age when immigration rules in the west have become tighter and more guarded, along with the influx of refugees and asylum seekers to these countries, it is demeaning to even think that as it gets harder for people who need it, it is getting easier for those who don’t. In many ways this misuse of privilege and above the law brashness can be seen as a symptom to a greater issue; neo-colonialism in tourism.

Kristen’s actions, however, resulted in people coming to her support, seemingly ignoring the fact that she had done wrong. As a result of the justified outrage going viral, news of the Twitter thread and its contents made its way to the Indonesian authorities, especially as it appeared that Kristen was breaking the law. Her deportation was imminent and many American’s believed that it was due to her race and sexuality, more than it was for violating Indonesian immigration rules. The excuse used to defend her actions being that she was simply ‘seeking refuge’ in Bali because she’s a Black lesbian and the US was not safe for her. While no one is denying her struggles in the US, it is ill-informed to think that the US is the only place where Black people, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other groups are suffering. It perplexes me how often westerners, Americans especially, do not see that and describing Bali as ‘queer friendly’ confirms this whilst ignoring the troubles of Indonesian’s own LGBTQ+ community. Growing up questioning my sexuality in another predominately Muslim society, on top of being in a Christian household allows me to empathise and value the safety of being in the proverbial closet to avoid backlash.

People from the ‘global south’ and so-called third world have been fleeing these regions that are supposedly so attractive to westerners in order to be able to safely live out their truth. The irony of falsely advertising a place as something it’s not, based on an outsider’s perspective can create danger for those a part of persecuted groups. Americans and their weaponisation of identity politics to defend their potentially harmful actions not only dismisses the identities of those they are disrespecting, but also creates a precedent that if you are of minority group, you are unable to do no wrong. Using your race and sexuality to deflect any criticism leaves no room for growth or improvement for actions. No one should be above any kind of criticism because they are a part of a persecuted group, especially because it leaves the conversation of the damaging affects of tourism on the back-burner. Black majority countries have been having these conversations for years, especially in the wake of the post-colonialism era seen throughout parts of Africa and the Caribbean. The pandemic has seen an influx of tourists of different races from the western world. These nations have an economic reliance on the industry, and a surge in demand from people seeking out somewhere to ‘unwind’ has meant that instances of other ‘Kristen Gray’s’ have more than likely occurred outside of Bali, Indonesia. The fact of the matter is, that this issue is not an us versus incident. If anything, it is actually a perfect learning opportunity for westerners to educate themselves before they venture outside their bubbles.

As a lifelong third culture kid, I do not discourage people from travelling and the purpose of me highlighting this is more to promote self-reflection and education in one’s actions when one chooses to go abroad. I also believe that this case is a good learning experience for potential expats, because moving abroad is not as simple as moving houses. There are many technical and legal channels you must go through before you can even begin packing. However pure her motives were in moving to Bali, ultimately some of Kristen’s careless actions caught up with her. You must be willing to own up to that and not hide behind labels to justify your wrongdoings.

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