It all paints a very ugly picture, but a picture that escapes the logic of the casual traveler’s presentation of events on social media. The touristic gaze is a sanitizing one: the violence of poverty, of xenophobia, recedes into the background, as do certain bodies; bodies relegated to the margins of the tourist’s photos, videos, and ultimate worldview. The tourist, though, can’t always ignore this ugliness, especially if one is a person of colour in a land simmering in racism. It seeps into interactions, into words that may be foreign but follow looks—stares— that are perfectly perceptible. Hostility is a universal language.
There were times I felt–whether we were walking around town, or down to the beach–that I was attracting attention that wasn’t friendly. But that was easy enough to ignore; dirty looks dissolve after all, in a second. Our hostel in Sorrento was almost exclusively white. There were maybe four or five people of colour staying there in total, myself included. But most of the staff, the cleaning and cooking staff, were Tamilian. I noticed my interactions with the staff shared a friendliness that was missing in their interactions with the rest of the white people staying there. The familiarity with which they spoke to me was both inviting and discomforting, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Perhaps the discomfort came because though this was a small thing among other small things, it reminded me of the existence of the racial landscape. It was almost as though I thought that if I could observe this landscape politely from a distance, I could prevent myself from becoming entangled within it. After all, a vacation connotes escapism. I came to Amalfi to escape things like depression and loneliness, as if they were ghosts that could chase my existence only as far as the edge of the Atlantic. But I also came to indulge in fantasy. There in Italy against the most idyllic of backdrops, I could pretend to be rich and glamorous. What I didn’t realize—and what I should have, of course—is that no matter the extent to which I could construct and live out certain fantasies, I couldn’t indulge in the fantasy—and escapism—of whiteness.
A tense, almost-confrontation in the Tyrrehenian sea reminded me both of not only the color of my skin, but also of my political privileges. An afternoon one day at the beach in Positano: I swam out far again, ready to float once more when an old, sunburnt Italian man swam over to me. He had been staring in my direction for a while, but I had chosen to ignore it, until he suddenly appeared in front of me. Without so much as a hello, he said, “You’re from New Delhi.” It wasn’t a question but a statement (and rather unpleasant in tone.) I laughed nervously and said that I was from India originally, but not from New Delhi, to which he responded abruptly, “I knew that.” He then proceeded to ask me where I was from, and how long I was staying. The tone of his voice suggested that he wouldn’t have appreciated if I in fact, lived in Italy. I felt uncomfortable—maybe because this was all happening in the water, far from the shore—but I told him I was from Canada and that I was just on vacation. He nodded, and without another word, he swam away from me. I spent the rest of the afternoon uncomfortable and unnerved.
I don’t know why I thought I owed this man any answer, why I felt that I had to satisfy him. Our conversation had been fraught with tension that I find hard to explain. But when I spoke to him there was a promise of confrontation in the air that was only dispelled once I revealed my Canadian identity. It was as if I needed to reassure him I wasn’t like the Indian or South Asian workers living there, that my stay was only temporary. I thought back to the sweet young Tamil girl cleaning the rooms at the hostel. She was probably my age or even younger; I imagined her swimming in this water, encountering this man. How different the ‘conversation’ might have gone.
My citizenship was my escape from the conversation, and I felt relieved, and then ashamed, at the fact. I had the privilege to leave such confrontations and return to a prism of placid multiculturalism. If Italy was a place to escape to, I could also just as easily choose to escape its first signs of xenophobia with the right passport. There might be a bit of guilt, even discomfort at having the ability to easily leave. Liberal guilt of any kind though, can quickly resolve itself, disappearing comfortably into a glass of Limoncello at sunset. And what good is discomfort if it invites no further action, beyond a slightly troubling dinner party anecdote?
My citizenship was my escape from the conversation, and I felt relieved, and then ashamed[.]