Wednesday, July 22, 2009
This is a guest post written for swpd by bookpenporch, who describes herself as a writer and graduate student based in the U.S. Midwest. She reads, writes and thinks about growing up in the rural U.S. South, and about race in literature and public discourse.
At my undergraduate institution in the U.S., 60% of the students “study abroad.” I was among this 60%, studying history in Prague and Shakespeare at Oxford. At some point, consciously or unconsciously, I did many of the things that make people in Europe annoyed with U.S. American college students: I made too much noise in my residential apartment building, refused to attempt more than a few words in the national language, and ate pizza and McDs instead of potato dumplings and blood sausages. I wasn’t the worst, though, and I knew that the less noise I made, the more I would learn, and the more respectful I would be of the people around me who happened to live in a popular tourist spot for privileged U.S. students.
Some of my college friends went to countries and cities in impoverished regions of the world on their international trips. Some had grants, some had Daddy’s Amex, some were conducting research, some were with NGOs, church missions groups, medically-focused non-profits, but almost all had a need for an interesting grad school essay or job interview topic.
And, like me, all of them returned to the U.S. with hundreds of pictures to post on Facebook. My pictures were of the ridiculously beautiful architecture in Prague and Oxford. Cultural appropriation, check. I was taking such photos from a position of privilege, but the friends and classmates I mentioned above came back with pictures that somehow grated on me much more than my 50 shots of the Charles Bridge.
You see, these pictures -- and there are hundreds of them on Facebook, and elsewhere on the net -- feature adorable children. Real children. Children that bear no relation to the owner of said picture. Children looking lost or reluctantly smiling at the beaming white person that, so this white person would like to imagine, Saved Them From The Jungles/Deserts of Africa/the Caribbean/South America/Southeast Asia. You know, for a week. And then left for a day of lounging on the country’s beautiful coast, and then for a cushioned airplane seat, and then for a comfortable desk in an air-conditioned home, where they uploaded the pictures of the poor, poor children whose lives they changed forever in just one day/week/month.
And it’s not just college students. I know many working adults who do this, too.
Wait a minute, you might say, that’s harsh. They were probably delivering medical supplies, building a school, delivering mosquito nets. Surely these photos are not evidence of a thinly veiled excuse for an “exotic” (ooh, there’s that word) vacation; this is philanthropy, global community service, not a tourism trend!
Don’t worry, I know that nonprofits sometimes perform wonders. My own husband is a medical professional engaged in public health research. Good people with good intentions often do good things for others. Got it.
But I sometimes want to say to such travelers, try to turn the tables for a moment. Imagine that a stranger that does not speak your language walks into your community and starts taking pictures of and with your cousins, the kids you babysit, and your own little ones. Also, imagine that this stranger is well dressed and the kids in your neighborhood do not have shoes. And then imagine that these pictures of your children will be posted online for everyone to see, but you don't have the internet. Nor a camera for that matter.
Then, imagine that these strangers taking pictures would feel some sense of nobility, of self-worth, of an earned knowledge about your community and life, just by owning and displaying said pictures.
To most if not all white folks reading this, and maybe even to most U.S. Americans, this reversed scenario is almost impossible to fathom, and even brings to mind the number for the local Neighborhood Watch and NBC’s “To Catch a Predator.”
Speaking of white folks, how many times have you seen a picture of a person of color with his/her arms around destitute white children in Eastern Europe? Hugging white kids at a free clinic in rural Kentucky? A white person holding a cute Parisian child she saw on the street during her business trip to the City of Love? If these pictures are out there, I haven’t seen them.
Why, faithful readers of this excellent blog, do white folks travel to exotic locations, meet adorable children, and shoot them? Is this trend, in fact, another example of the stuff white people do? I’ll offer a few reasons why I think it is, but I’m mostly interested in what you think.
Here are my thoughts:
Appropriation and exploitation -- As a white person living in the U.S., it is not only my privilege but my feel-good habit/hobby/vacation option to swoop into a country about which I know nothing, drop a few boxes of shoes, take pictures with children while their parents/aunts/cousins/grandparents watch, and to in the process somehow claim these children as my own. I vicariously experience their suffering, capture it in a still frame, and somehow feel more alive in my neoliberal, disconnected, consumerist living experience. I, the almighty white woman, have been to Africa and nursed her children out of the throes of malnutrition and disease. Her children are my children. Madonna, meet Malawi.
In these photographs, children are exploited to build social capital. It is so last year, so K-mart middle America to take a vacation; real liberals wouldn’t do that. I can’t help but think of the commercials for Sasha Cohen’s new movie, Bruno, in which he adopts an African baby because Angelina and Madonna have one, and in which he also states, “I’m really into issues. Darfur’s a big one. So what’s next, what’s Dar-five?” Your “experience” in South America can become just another item to check off the bucket list, a line on your resume, fodder for a great graduate school application.
Assuagement of our dear friend, White Guilt -- Sometimes I think this phenomenon is another one of those things we white folks do to feel better about our privilege, a visual reminder that, though we might not be able to do much about the fact that we like our Nikes and we like them cheap, we can sleep in the only concrete room in a village for a week, drop a few boxes of malaria meds, and call it even. And even come home with invaluable souvenirs to remind us of just how much those sweet little children looked up to us! I have four cars while a billion people (most of whom don’t happen to be white) on the planet are starving, but I went on a missions trip, and look how happy I made this malnutritioned little boy!
All of the above reminds me of the quote that macon borrowed about a year ago for a rather similar post, from bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other”:
The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate, assuages the guilt of the past, and even takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection. Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other.
And yet, in these photographs one doesn’t just become the Other; s/he becomes in a sense the source of the Other, the womb from which the life of the Other springs, the nurturer, protector, guardian and savior of the Other. A white woman holding a Honduran child like she conceived, birthed, and nursed him assuages white guilt. It also exploits the Other by reestablishing the hierarchy in which white people are the source of all that is good in life, including both the poor, suffering, adorable Other-child, and the aid that will end his/her suffering.
Maybe that’s a stretch; more likely, it’s not.
What do you think?