I saw this article (The White Tourist’s Burden) and thought “this will be good, if this is what I think it is, I will love it and want to blog all about it.” But, it took the idea I liked and went down a different path. I would encourage you to first read the piece it alludes to (The White Man’s Burden) and then the piece itself.
The first thing I have an issue with is her personal criticism of her friend. I don’t know her friend; maybe he is part of this article, maybe he gave her permission to talk about him, or maybe he is actually an asshole and deserves the criticism (maybe he is fictitious). But I am assuming he is a decent fellow that does not stand out from the average person the author is writing about. I get that these things are strategies journalists use to make the story more personable, but when the story is about racist behavior, I am not really comfortable with calling out an individual who is going along with the norm. Let me unpack that statement for a moment. (1) If is an individual is acting outside of societal norms they can and should be called out. (2) The societal norm itself can and should be called out. (3) People who have the potential to make change but are acting prejudicially, even if it is the societal norm, can and should be called out. Here, the picture could have come from any white man’s facebook and she specifically addresses the actions of her friend “Jack.” Jack is acting exactly as thousands of white college students do and is in no position to change societal norms alone. Calling out Jack in a negative tone publicly is unfair, but more importantly, it is unhelpful. The appropriate thing to do would be to talk to Jack in private about the consequences of his actions and then address this story to the society fostering these beliefs. I especially think this is wrong here because we don’t know what Jack’s trip entailed, we don’t know what his mental attitude was when he was abroad, and we don’t know what he is thinking now. The fact is that I agree with most of this article, but this initial attack (and that is what it is) is a major turnoff and it alienates the target audience.
Aside from the initial turnoff, I think the article makes great points. Often, “drive-by volunteerism” is damaging to communities, does not address the actual needs, and quickly turns into an exploitative industry as the article points out. However, this is not the case for all incidents and it is possible for a white person to actually go on a useful trip. Likewise, people do need to realize that they do not need to travel to Africa to encounter poverty; it exists in their hometown.
Thus, I really don’t want to critique this article too much because I think the message is critical for people (especially white people) to hear. But I think it could be a whole lot better (see for example To Hell with Good Intentions).
My problem is this. I have my own example of a “Jack.” Jack is a real person (though not named Jack) and he has told me these things to write (so that I can remain anonymous as the author of this blog). Jack is white, American, and upper middle class. He lives in a white community where everyone has money. Without experiencing any true need and having been raised by two business-minded parents, Jack is a conservative. He has no understanding of poverty in America, let alone in the world. With this mindset, why would he have any reason to challenge the idea that “what’s good for business is good for America?” So he doesn’t. But, Jack is religious and goes on one of these trips. Did he really impact the community by spending a month abroad? Probably not. Did he do more harm than good? Hopefully not because he prepared for the trip, was open to learning the culture, and worked with a conscientious organization. But maybe.
So why does this matter? Because privileged Jack got a wider world view. Does he understand poverty? No, how could he? But when the issue comes up, he can think of actual people he has met. He cares. He cares so much that he goes on another trip. And another. And another. Then Jack learns that he doesn’t have to keep going abroad because there is poverty in America. Suddenly his views change, his eyes are opened, he sees the world for what it is. Jack has now dedicated his life to pursuing the public interest in America and abroad.
Is my Jack extreme? Sure. But that kind of eye-opening experience is more than just mere altruistic feel-good (which, why is that a bad thing?). These kinds of trips are one of the only opportunities for spoiled, privileged, white people to step outside of their comfort zones and learn and experience global issues.
The article does have one paragraph on making these trips better. But that should really be the whole focus. Yes, white people can be annoying and pretentious and generally do more harm than good. The belittling statement of “do a little good, experience something that their affluent lives do not offer, and, as in Jack’s case, have a story to tell that places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and worldly wise” is extremely offensive. Try, wealthy American realizes why sweatshops might not be a good thing. White college student sees what living on a dollar a day actually looks like. Privileged brat gets a taste of personal agency and realizes that his actions can affect the world. This is why these trips matter.
The take away:
So yes, it is probably annoying to hear Jack talk about the snake in his tent for the hundredth time. But it was probably a life changing experience for him that shaped him into the person he is today. And as annoying as it is to hear statements like “when I was in Columbia…”, I would rather hear an entire group of people say that than not have people see poverty firsthand. Because, when people do not have the emotional connection, it is a whole lot easier to accept non-sustainable, exploitative, and poverty-inducing practices because it benefits them.