Tag Archives: race/ethnicity: Blacks/Africans

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

2An 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.

***

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.

“Trophy Scarves”: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope (NSFW)

2At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video.  The latter is a transparent  instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.

It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.”  Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”

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The video for Blurred Lines was particularly egregious, but we see this all the time.  Here’s a couple more examples, featuring R. Kelly and Robert Pattinson in Details:

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This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.”  And, so, he does.  Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
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There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).

Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy.  Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls?  And consider this FHM Philippines cover:

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I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness  to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like.  It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare.  We’re used to it.

Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.”  The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.

The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well.  I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all.  Sometimes it’s all we got.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

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.

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

2Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

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.

Against the Idea that Sex Selection is Culturally “Asian”

Flashback Friday.

New York Times article broke the story that a preference for boy children is leading to an unlikely preponderance of boy babies among Chinese-Americans and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Korean- and Indian-Americans.

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Explaining the trend, Roberts writes:

In those families, if the first child was a girl, it was more likely that a second child would be a boy, according to recent studies of census data. If the first two children were girls, it was even more likely that a third child would be male.

Demographers say the statistical deviation among Asian-American families is significant, and they believe it reflects not only a preference for male children, but a growing tendency for these families to embrace sex-selection techniques, like in vitro fertilization and sperm sorting, or abortion.

The article explains the preference for boy children as cultural, as if Chinese, Indian, and Korean cultures, alone, expressed a desire to have at least one boy child.  Since white and black American births do not show an unlikely disproportion of boy children, the implication is that a preference for boys is not a cultural trait of the U.S.

Actually, it is.

In 1997 a Gallup poll found that 35% of people preferred a boy and 23% preferred a girl (the remainder had no preference). In 2007 another Gallup poll found that 37% of people preferred a boy, while 28% preferred a girl.

I bring up this data not to trivialize the preference for boys that we see in the U.S. and around the world, but to call into question the easy assumption that the data presented by the New York Times represents something uniquely “Asian.”

Instead of emphasizing the difference between “them” and “us,” it might be interesting to try to think why, given our similarities, we only see such a striking disproportionality in some groups.

Some of the explanation for this might be cultural (e.g., it might be more socially acceptable to take measures to ensure a boy-child among some groups), but some might also be institutional. Only economically privileged groups have the money to take advantage of sex selection technology (or even abortion, as that can be costly, too). Sex selection, the article explains, costs upwards of $15,000 or more. Perhaps not coincidentally, Chinese, Korean, and Indian Asians are among the more economically privileged minority groups in the U.S.

Instead of demonizing Asian people, and without suggesting that all groups have the same level of preference for boys, I propose a more interesting conversation: What enables some groups to act on a preference for boys, and not others?

Originally posted in 2009.

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.

James Baldwin: “I Can’t Afford Despair”

The interviewer asks: “Are you still in despair about the world?” James Baldwin replies:

I never have been in despair about the world. I’ve been enraged by it. I don’t think I’m in despair. I can’t afford despair. I can’t tell my nephew, my niece. You can’t tell the children there’s no hope.

Stokely Carmichael: “The U.S. Taught Us Very Well How to Be Violent”

Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture, was an activist and Civil Rights leader, rising to prominence in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

He popularized the phrase “black power,” which he defined simply as “black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs.” 

Ture believed in the value of nonviolence as a tactic, but did not identify as a pacifist. Violence was a tactic he believed in, too, when it was necessary. And it has, in fact, been a successful tool in the activist toolkit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at The Atlantic:

“Property damage and looting” — perhaps more than nonviolence — has also been a significant tool in black “social progress.” … [It’s] a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968 — the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books — is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement.

What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence… so much as it believes in order.

Black people may have to disrupt that order and return violence with violence, yet again. As Stokely Carmichael explains in the video below:

Existentialist philosophers talk about the executioner-victim relationship… The victims begin to fight and agitate for their liberation. They use all types of means to get their liberation… fighting for a position of equality.

After [the victim] tries a number of means and they do not work, he then begins to imitate the means by which his executioner has kept him down. That is usually through force and violence… breaking the one taboo that they’ve never been able to break: hitting back against the executioners.

So that you ought not to be upset if we are violent. The Unites States taught us very well how to be violent.

Watch him here:

Malcolm X: “We’re Nonviolent With People Who Are Nonviolent With Us”

In the 5min speech below, Malcolm X makes an argument in favor of violence when violence is called for.

Excerpts:

We are peaceful people, we are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.

Whatever kind of action program can be devised to get us the thing that are ours by right, then I’m for that action no matter what the action is.

I don’t think when a man is being criminally treated, that some criminal has the right to tell that man what tactics to use to get the criminal off his back. When a criminal starts misusing me, I’m going to use whatever necessary to get that criminal off my back.

And the injustice that has been inflicted on Negros in this country by Uncle Sam is criminal…

Watch:

Angela Davis: “No Idea What Black People Have Gone Through”

From the great documentary, Black Power Mix Tape, Angela Davis puts violence in perspective. She’s being interviewed about the tactics of the Black Panthers. The interviewer asks: “How do you get there? Do you get there by confrontation, violence?” She responds:

Oh, is that the question you were asking?

She smiles to herself.

Because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere. You have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions. If you… if a black person lives in the black community all your life and walks out on the street everyday seeing white policemen surrounding you…

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very good friends of mine were killed by bombs, bombs that were planted by racists. I remember from the time I was very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment someone… we might expect to be attacked.

The… man who was at that time in complete control of the city government… would often get on the radio and make statements like: “Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood. We better expect some bloodshed tonight.” And, sure enough, there would be bloodshed.

In fact, when the bombing occurred one of the mothers of one of the young girls called my mother and said, “Can you take me down to the church to pick up Carol. We heard about the bombing and I don’t have my car.” And they went down and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place.

And then after that, in my neighborhood all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.

I mean, that’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just…. I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person asking that question has no idea what black people have gone through… what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

She’s no longer smiling.

The interchange begins at 1min 40sec: