This is a response to Hofit Kim Cohen of the solo female travel blog Vanilla Sky Dreaming. Earlier this week, she stirred up quite a bit of debate in the travel blog community for her controversial post, “Why I Completed Hated Oslo, Norway.” The post has since been taken down, but as of now it’s still available here, courtesy of Bloglovin.
In the post, Hofit discusses fearing for her life as a blonde, Israeli female in a Norwegian city heavily populated by refugees. She describes a forgotten city littered with trash and graffiti, drug deals going on in broad daylight, and lots of Muslim men walking around in “traditional” clothing. In a hysterical state, she ran into a 7/11, which was run by—you guessed it—Muslims, and she didn’t dare phone home, lest she be attacked for speaking Hebrew. She spent most of the trip holed up in her fancy hotel room, where the foreigners couldn’t get her.
The post went to a darker place emotionally than most travel blogs will ever venture into. It has been slammed by other travel bloggers as being “disgusting,” “racist,” and oozing with white privilege. Hofit has been mocked in some online travel groups and even removed from others because many in the community don’t want to associate with her. Here’s why I think that’s unfair.
In a response to her initial post, Hofit talks about where she’s come from. She has experienced war twice in Israel, suffers post-war trauma, anxiety and panic attack disorder, and knows what it’s like to constantly have to run to bomb shelters and sleep with your shoes on. In the comments, she has also mentioned being a victim of rape. Reading between the lines I think that is where her strong, glaring, obvious, and irrational fear of Muslim men may have come from. As most of what she saw of Oslo was limited to what she could glean from the windows of her expensive hotel room, her article was based on emotions, not reason. And she has a right to her emotions, even if they offend.
Is she privileged? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean her life has been easy. Knowing that she obviously suffers anxiety makes it difficult for me to come down too hard on her, as that’s the last thing people with anxiety need. She should be challenged, not attacked. Lashing out at her because she offended the travel community is unfair because she wouldn’t have written such a post if she wasn’t hurting to begin with. It’s natural to want to hurt those who have hurt us, but calling someone with PTSD “disgusting” or “racist” solves nothing. As human beings we have to move beyond these base eye-for-an-eye instincts. Conversations about racism, prejudice, and stereotyping are important to have, and shunning her sends the wrong message because it shuts down that hope for conversation.
Some bloggers have mentioned that they tried to speak to her, but have been met with nasty, defensive retorts. I think that Hofit should be shown kindness and thoughtful counter-arguments, and if/when she refuses to engage in a meaningful discussion, she should just be left alone.
Hofit’s post actually reminded me something I read years ago, when the West was waging a media-war against India. It was written by a white woman named Rose and published on CNN, titled “India: the Story You Never Wanted to Hear.” (Ironically, it was the story everyone wanted to hear. But I digress.) Rose traveled to India on a student trip and had a horrible time, feeling the gaze of swarthy men upon her at every turn, at one point even spending an evening curled up in her hotel room in the fetal position, clutching a pair of scissors to avoid the scary hotel worker she could hear breathing outside the door.
“When I went to India, nearly a year ago, I thought I was prepared…I knew that as a white woman I would be seen as a promiscuous being and a sexual prize,” she actually wrote, in earnest. “I was prepared to follow the University of Chicago’s advice to women, to dress conservatively, to not smile in the streets.”
By literally preparing herself to be viewed as a sexual object and to not smile (terrible advice in India—or anywhere—as travel writer Candace Rose Rardon points out in a response post), Rose had set herself up for failure. She saw the India she wanted to see, and she hated it because she went there ready to hate it.
I can’t entirely blame her, because the university’s clueless “safety” tips make about as much sense as the tips I got at my own alma mater, when a police guest speaker told us just how simple he thought it was to prevent campus rapes. (His speech spurred an international movement, in which both Canadian and Indian cities took part.)
I rolled my eyes the first time I read that CNN piece three years ago, but I did acknowledge to myself that the writer seemed unhinged (she describes herself as a “student; angry vagina” on her CNN profile). I don’t want to judge either Rose or Hofit too harshly when they obviously suffer from their own unaddressed, internalized issues. I don’t think that either of them were in the right place mentally to take those trips in the first place.
The difference between Rose and Hofit is that Rose went abroad expecting the worst, and Hofit went expecting the best. She writes that she had dreamed of visiting Scandinavia for years, but when she finally got to Norway with the thought that she had saved the best for last, she was shocked to find “not a single blond or white person in sight.” An eye-roll inducing comment to be sure, but in a nutshell, she was unprepared to meet her worst fears, and that shock resulted in her panic. Now doesn’t seem to be the time, but I hope that someday, she can face the causes of her fears and heal her anxiety.
Fear is not rational. Neither is hate, regardless of who is spreading it. That’s why I think that if we, as bloggers, can’t talk to Hofit without calling her names, it’s best to say nothing at all. With all of the horrible things that have happened in the news lately, the world could certainly use a little more compassion. Once we gain the ability to get out of our own heads and see things from another person’s perspective, we can start making real progress toward making the world a better place.