Tag Archives: prejudice/discrimination

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

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I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

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The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie


[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

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Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and at Mondiaal Nieuws in Dutch.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

Reimagining Barbie: Villain or Victim?

Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.

Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do.  It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”

Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.”  It was a bold and bizarre marketing move.  The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her.  It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.

But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project.  Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating.  We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women.  In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.

But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?

What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us?  This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project.  Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin.  What if  Barbie is a victim, too?

Excerpted with permission:

14 1a 53Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering.  Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection.  We’re all in this together.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is Walking Overrated?

A few days ago, Juliano Pinto kicked off the World Cup with a first kick.  It was a media stunt designed to make us verklempt.  Pinto is a paraplegic who wore a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton to make his move.

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We were to be awed by the technology, too, of course, which is being developed by the Walk Again Project, a scientific consortium.  Says the leading scientist on the project, “With enough political will and investment, we could make wheelchairs obsolete.”

Red Nicholson isn’t having it.

Ask any wheelchair user, particularly one who’s been in the game a while, and they’ll tell you that they’re far too busy living their life to sit there worrying about whether or not they’ll ever walk. We just get on and do.

From his point of view, the exoskeleton is for people who aren’t in wheelchairs.  Getting “non-walkers to walk again,” he says, is about making everyone else happy.  As for him, he says, he’s fine:

My wheelchair is a very capable tool and to be honest, the last thing I want is to be strapped to a District 9-esque robot and become a puppet in some corporation’s half-baked execution of an obsession…

In the meantime, he says, everyone’s concern with getting him to walk again suggests that he, and everyone else who uses a wheelchair, is living a pitiable life.  “These stories,” he says, “are unwittingly invalidating a unique way of life for millions of people around the globe who are really happy with their wheelchairs.”   So, he goes on record: “This is not my dream.”

William Peace, an anthropologist who also uses a wheelchair, goes further, arguing that the exoskeleton is harmful to people who are newly paralyzed.  The scientists developing the exoskeleton are “sell[ing] the dream of walking to newly paralyzed people who cannot imagine life as a wheelchair user.”  This is bad, he says, because it encourages people to reject their new body instead of accept it.   He writes: “the exoskeleton is symbolically and practically destructive to a newly paralyzed person.”

Instead of focusing on the one thing people using wheelchairs can’t do, Peace argues, we should focus on all the things they do everyday:

Work, make a decent living, and be autonomous. Own a home even. Have a family. Get married. In short, be ordinary. Walking is simply not required for all this nor should it be glorified.

Nicholson concurs: “My life as a wheelchair-user is a very good one.”

So hey, able-bodied media: quit making me feel like wheelchairs are a shitty, sub-par option. Stop beating your exoskeleton drum. And most of all, let go of your obsession with walking, because it’s totally overrated.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Louis C.K. on Assortative Mating

Usually, you want to match up with someone at about your level, or a little higher.  The trouble is that many people overestimate their own level.  Maybe that’s especially true of men.

One summer many years ago at the tennis courts, a guy I didn’t know  came over and asked me if I’d like to play. I hadn’t arranged a game with anyone, but I didn’t want to wind up playing some patzer.

“Are you any good?” I asked. He paused.

“Well, I’m not Jimmy Connors,” he said (I told this was many years ago), “but neither are you.”

In chess and other games, serious players have ratings. Give a roomful of possible partners, they can sort through the ratings and find a match with someone at roughly the same level.  It’s called assortative mating, though that term usually refers to the other kind of mating, not chess.  It’s the basis of the conflict in this poignant scene from “Louie.”

Vanessa is not a ten, neither is Louie.  According to principles of assortative mating, the tens will wind up with other tens, the nines with nines, and so on down the attractiveness scale. One problem in the “Louie” scene is that Louie seems to have an inflated view of his own attractiveness.  He’s aiming higher than Vanessa.  That’s typical.  So is the importance that Louie, the man, places on physical attractiveness. This excerpt begins with Louie telling Vanessa that she’s a really beautiful . . . . He can’t bring himself to say “girl”; he’s probably going to say “person.” But he’s obviously not saying what he thinks.

Or as Dan Ariely and colleagues concluded from their study of HotOrNot members:

[Men] were significantly more influenced by the consensus physical attractiveness of their potential dates than females were. [Men also] were less affected by how attractive they themselves were . . .  In making date choices, males are less influenced by their own rated attractiveness than females are.

Another dating site, OK Cupid, found a similar pattern when they looked at data about who gets messages.  They asked their customers to rate profile photos of the opposite sex on a scale of 0 to 5. They then tracked the number of messages for people at each level of attractiveness.  The graph below shows what women thought and what they did – that is, how attractive they found men, and who they sent messages to.

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Men who were rated 0 or 1 got fewer messages than their proportion in the population.  That figures. But even men who were only moderately attractive got more than their share. Generally, the fewer men at a level of attractiveness, the fewer total messages women sent. The 4s, for example, constituted only 2% of the population, and they got only 4% of all the messages.  The Vanessas on OK Cupid are not sending a lot of inquiries to guys who look like George Clooney.

But look at the men.

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Men are more generous in their estimates of beauty than are women. But they also ignore the Vanessas of the world (or at least the world of OK Cupid) and flock after the more attractive women.  Only 15% of the women were rated as a 4, but they received about 26% of the messages.  Women rated 5 received messages triple their proportion in the population.

What about those with so-so looks?  Women rated as 2s received only about 10% of the messages sent by men. But men at that same level received 25% of the messages women sent.  The women seem more realistic.

Vanessa too has no illusions about her own attractiveness. She refers to herself as “a fat girl,” and when Louie, trying to be kind, says, “You’re not fat,” she says: “You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? [pause] ‘You’re not fat.’” But it’s only when she challenges Louie’s view of his own attractiveness that their relationship starts to change.

Y’know if you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you’d see?

What?

That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together.

She doesn’t explain what she means by “totally match.” It could be their interests or ideas or personalities, but the imaginary stranger looking at them from over there couldn’t know about any of that. What that generalized other could see is that they are at roughly the same place on the assortative mating attractiveness scale.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Do People Expect Hurricanes with Female Names to be Weak?

The fourth hurricane of this year’s season will be named Dolly and that might be a problem.

Dmitriy T.C. sent in a link to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using experiments, the study found that people believe that hurricanes with female names will be less deadly than those with male names.

No, not because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Because, sexism. People underestimate the power of Victoria vs. Victor, Christina vs. Christopher, Alexandra vs. Alexander.

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Does this translate into a higher death toll due to a failure to evacuate?  That we don’t know. Ed Yong at National Geographic is skeptical The researchers compared the death tolls of hurricanes with female versus male names but were unable to come up with a statistically significant difference.  It may be because of a small sample size; they only started giving male names to hurricanes in 1979.  (The researchers contest Yong’s critique here.)

Hurricane season is upon us and, according to nola.com, this year’s hurricane names will be named Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky and Wilfred.

Maybe, to be safe, we should perhaps re-work this season’s names. I recommend Aggressor, Butch, Crowbar, Death, Evisceration, Fear, Gore, Hannibal, Ice Pick, Juggernaut, Killer, Laceration, Measles, Nerve Damage, Oblivion, Pain, Redrum, Scabies, Torture, Voluminous Agony, and Woe.

Photo: Hurricane Isabel, as seen from space. Credit: Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. Color-corrected by yours truly.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Distrust for Black Entrepreneurs

A new study finds that users of classified ads discriminate against people perceived as black.  Over a one year period, economists Jennifer Doleac and Luke Stein placed fake ads for used iPods in local online classified.  They included photographs of the product held by a hand.  Some hands were light-skinned, others dark, and they also included a second potentially stigmatized identity, men with tattoos.  Otherwise the ads were all identical.

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Doleac and Stein found that buyers were less likely to contact or make a deal with black sellers; they received 13% fewer responses and 17% fewer offers.  When they did receive an offer, the price suggested was slightly lower than that offered to presumably white sellers.

Buyers also seemed to be significantly more suspicious of black sellers.  When interacting with a seller with brown skin, Doleac and Stein write:

They are 17% less likely to include their name in e-mails, 44% less likely to accept delivery by mail, and 56% more likely to express concern about making a long-distance payment.

Black sellers did especially poorly in the Northeast, when there wasn’t very much competition, and in markets that were racially isolated or had high crime rates.

Notably, buyers discriminated against people with wrist tattoos at about the same rate, suggesting that both tattoos and brown skin inspire similar levels of distrust.

H/t to Abi Jones for the link. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday Fun: Stupid/Sexist Headlines Under Attack

Folks at The Vagenda had the idea of asking readers to rewrite stupid/sexist headlines. Like this:

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The results were fantastic. Here’s a sampling.

From @bexatrex:

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From @ledavies: 1.jpg

From @RubyJLL:1b

From @kimmibobs: 2

From @ce_corp: 2Via Buzzfeed.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Saturday Stat: Racist Beliefs about Black People Still Common

Here’s solid data on how some white Americans see black Americans:

1H/t New York Times.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.