The Hotel as Metaphor for Cultural Oppression

Last weekend was the SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend, packed with all sorts of interesting stuff. I went to several panels on writing (including one on writing about spies!), was on a panel myself about diversity, sat in on the mass autograph session with Nalo Hopkinson on my left and Linda Nagata on my right, and heard some great readings from Daryl Gregory, Samuel R. Delany, Sofia Samatar, and Nicola Griffith. I met some good people, had a drink mixed by a robot, and all in all had a good time.

But… the event also reminded me of how much I loathe hotels.


In the diversity panel we were talking about race, and I was trying to describe to the mostly white audience how easy it is to not even be aware of being a member of a dominant culture. One’s own power is taken for granted. I couldn’t think of a good metaphor for the experience.

I was also grumpy with the hotel because I am a vegetarian (non-vegan) and there was almost nothing for me to eat. At the hotel bar, I was limited to chips and salsa or hummus with veggies. I couldn’t even eat the fries, because they were cooked in duck fat. The hotel restaurant menu included 3 varieties of salads but only one non-meat appetizer and no entrees. The side of creamed spinach was cooked with bacon. I could have had some of the other sides, but I really didn’t feel like paying ten dollars for three asparagus spears or a dollop of potatoes.

The hotel provided lunch for the SFWA board meeting. Cold cuts. The potato salad had a bacon-based dressing. I was stuck with a cheese sandwich and some greens.

Essentially, I as a vegetarian was invisible to the hotel.

I wondered how many meat-eaters would look at the menu and notice the lack of vegetarian dishes. I suspect most wouldn’t. They would be busy looking at what they wanted among the meat dishes. This must, on a very small scale, be what it is like to be a minority. The majority doesn’t even notice the exclusion.


There are other things about hotels that I hate: the wastefulness of the small plastic-packaged toiletries, the lack of recycling bins anywhere, the stairs tucked away and a bit creepy to be alone in so that one takes the elevator from 2 to 3 instead of walking, while pious notes in the bathroom says the hotel cares about the environment so please consider reusing your towels. Really now?

But what I most loathe about hotels is the reek of profit. 15 dollars for a continental breakfast. Opulent lobbies (with check-in counters that are probably too high for a person in a wheelchair and an almost entirely minority staff, who probably are not paid fabulously well). Special rewards and perks. Spa service. Don’t worry about money, they say. Consume consume consume! Spend without consideration of the cost! Feel rich! Count the impractical pillows on your bed! Then go home to your ordinary little house and be dissatisfied with your life, or return to your power boardroom and devise new ways to make more money.

The check-in person asked me if I had stayed in the hotel before, and when I said I hadn’t, she launched into her patter. I’m paying for a façade, a stage set. Whenever I come home from a hotel, I feel a little bit unclean. Cheated. They don’t actually give a damn who I am but they try to convince me they do. I don’t like being lied to.

I will concede that I enjoy walking into a clean bathroom every morning. But I’m not sure the emotional exhaustion of spending several days trying to maintain my integrity under the weight of ruthless capitalism is worth it. Instead of relaxing me, hotels grind me down.

Being in a hotel, where nothing is for me, where I am only there to be used, where there is no way to change the system, makes me realize how very difficult it must be to be part of a minority culture. I’m lucky. I can leave the hotel, go back home to a place where there is no meat in the refrigerator and the comfortable Ikea furniture fairly represents my income. Return to the messiness of cats and kid and study with lots of windows and greenery around me. I’m not invisible or unheard in my own house. I imagine that marginalized people feel as though they are in a hotel – all the time. Trapped.

It would be awful.


The hotel as a metaphor for cultural oppression won’t work for everyone. No metaphor will. But this realization – which illuminates to me why I never have as much fun at conferences as I hope to – is going to be tremendously useful to my writing. It hits me in an emotional center that will allow me to better write about what it is like to be outside of a culture, powerless. To be lied to on a daily basis.

So that’s my real take-away from the Nebulas. And I’m grateful for it.