Black & Asian tourists are genetically more humble than whites? Seriously?

Are we really to believe that blacks and Asians are genetically more humble than whites?

It’s an idiotic, and racist, assumption, but you might just think it’s true if you read a recent story on Al Jazeera America by an Amnesty International board member, Rafia Zakaria, who apparently believes that “white” westerners, but not Americans and Europeans of Asian or African or Latino descent, have a thing for visiting developing countries and then regaling their friends with stories of their do-good escapades.

At first I thought the problem with the piece was simply Al Jazeera playing fast and loose with the title of the story.  Editors do that, and many people don’t realize that the writer often doesn’t choose the title.  But in this case, the author also used the term “white” in her story, so she clearly thinks the “problem” is “white” people.  And it’s really not.

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The specific problem the author writes about is what she calls “volontourism,” which is basically people planning vacations during which, rather than going to the beach, they do good deeds, such as building homes in poor countries.  Apparently, this is a bad thing that not only is counterproductive, but also shows how ill-willed “white people” truly are.

I’d written before about the growing penchant of some on the left to demonize “all white people.”  It’s a hateful and bigoted mentality, to demonize “the other,” that I’ve run across in the gay community as well.  Some gays like to call straight people “breeders,” because heterosexuals “breed and make babies,” whereas gay people don’t.  It’s a mean-spirited term that is rarely used without bile.  And I call (the rare) gay person out on it when they use it.  Yes, you could argue, “breeders” don’t need my help vis-a-vis gay people, since “breeders” have it all and we don’t, but being a civil and human rights advocate means I don’t get to pick and choose when it’s “okay” to be a bigot.  And it doesn’t make me any less of a bigot if I happen to be gay while hating straights.

But putting that issue aside for a moment, is it true that white people have a “white savior complex” that compels them to go to foreign lands and do “good deeds” that end up harming the locals?

A few issues.  First of all, generally speaking, I find it hard to criticize someone for choosing to spend their vacation building homes for the homeless in Africa, or Asia, rather than getting drunk and flashing their genitals on Bourbon Street.

I think the assumption in the article that everyone who does a trip like this is some kind of up-to-no-good braggart is a tad harsh.  We should welcome the fact that people want to do-good — especially people with some disposable income — and if the kind of good they’re doing isn’t working, then help them fix that.  It would go a lot further towards helping the needy than simply casting racist aspersions against the donors, which is more likely to get them to book their next trip to Cancun, and forget about helping altogether.

As for the “crimes” of the white tourist in detail, the article talks about one program in which, as I just mentioned, people go abroad and help build homes for the needy:

The pitfalls of the voluntourism industry go beyond orphanages. For example, Dorinda Elliot, a contributing editor at the Condé Nast Traveler website, writes about a “failed voluntourism project” in Haiti — a set of houses built by an American church. Buoyed by the imagined nobility of their endeavor, the builders failed to consider the needs of the would-be inhabitants. The uneducated families that moved into the houses lacked professional skills and employment to improve their conditions and continued to beg for food long after the tourists left.

The article linked to goes more in-depth.  Among the concerns: Wouldn’t it get your more bang for the buck if the “white” people (because African-Americans and Asian-Americans (and Latinos) apparently never volunteer to go abroad and build homes for the poor), had just given their money to the Haitians to hire an all-Haitian crew, rather than having the American volunteers fly in to help?

Sure, maybe.

But that assumes the volunteers would have donated the money otherwise.  As fundraising experts know, sometimes you have to give to get.  It’s why big non-profits (NGOs) hold big fundraising dinners, because some people would rather get something in exchange for a big donation, rather than just giving the donation and walking away.  Does that make the donor selfish?  I don’t know.  It is their money after all, and they have no obligation to hand it over to you, regardless of your good-intent or condescending attitude.  And in this case, it’s not like the donors demanded a champagne dinner in exchange for their generosity — they simply wanted to help other people, using their own hands.  I’m not convinced that’s the worst motivation in the world.

As for the specific home-building brigade in Haiti, the notion that this home-building project “failed,” because the poor Haitian families moving into the homes still lacked the skills to get a good job, strikes me as somewhat of a non sequitur.  Poor families shouldn’t get to live in decent homes until they learn the skills necessary to get a better job?  Really? There’s no benefit to a poor family finally getting a decent home, even if they’re still poor after getting the home?  If that’s the case, then homeless shelters are surely evil as well. After all, “all” such shelters do is put a roof over your head — it’s not like they actually get you a job or train you in a skill.  (And I suppose the same goes for giving money to a homeless man on the street. You should have taught him XML instead.)

Now, are there other needs those poor families have that aren’t being addressed by this particular project? Sure. Does that mean providing them a home over their heads is somehow a failure? I don’t think so.

Another part of the article complains about the fact that poor families in Bali, Indonesia are sending their kids to orphanages in order to trick tourists into thinking the kids are parentless.  Why?  Because the tourists then help the “orphans” by paying for their education.  And this is somehow “proof” of how “bad” the (white, of course) tourists are.

Mind you, the fraud being perpetrated by the Indonesian parents is overlooked because, apparently, it’s okay to act unethically, and immorally, if money is involved, and your skin color is other-than-white, and/or your nationality is other than “western.”

Rather than this hoax being proof that these tourists genuinely want to help — and perhaps therefore non-profits, and other aid groups, should strive to find better ways for people with some extra cash and time on their hands, who genuinely want to help others in need, to actually help — the “lesson” we’re supposed to take away from this is that white people suck.

I’m loathe to bring it up, lest I be accused of being a “white man bragging” about a trip to a developing region, but I went to the Amazon a few years ago.  And I already knew from graduate studies in foreign affairs that sometimes local economies get skewed in bad ways from a sudden large influx of foreign money.  In this case, people in our tour group wanted to give our guide a huge tip at the end of the week – on the order of each tourist giving one guide $150.  What they failed to understand was that, while receiving over $1,000 in tips alone would be a huge deal to a guy living in the Amazon jungle, the exorbitant salary also risked skewed the local economy, and economic incentives, in a similar manner to the way that the Indonesians in Bali felt the need to pretend their kids were orphans in order to get money for school.

So, yes, sometimes bad things happen when you mess with economic incentives, even with the best of intentions.  But that doesn’t mean that the folks on my tour group, who genuinely liked our guide, saw that he clearly wasn’t a person of means, and wanted to help him out with a heck of a tip, were somehow bad “white” people who need to be (racially) condemned.  Not to mention, I have a funny feeling that African-Americans and Asian-Americans would have been just as generous to someone in need.

I’m writing about this because there’s a larger problem underlying this story, and it’s undercutting progress on civil and human rights across the spectrum.  The problem is a rising level of acceptable-bigotry from the fringes of the left — bigotry empowered by the Internet, and the Net’s ability to connect like-minded crazies who misinterpret strength-in-numbers with righteousness.  The cumbaya commonality inspires people to think that they are never part of the problem, and that it’s always the other guy.  The white guy.  The straight guy.  The man, instead of the woman.  The person who isn’t transgender or bisexual. It absolves the non-“white, male, ‘cisgender'” liberal of any and all responsibility, so that it’s no longer in part their job to help “fix” their own problems, to help educate people about what those people are doing wrong and how in the future they could do it right.

Their message is clear: If you’re doing it wrong, then you’re obviously a bad (white) man, and the very notion of it being a civil or human rights advocate’s job to help you learn how to do things better, how to channel your desire to help into something truly (or at least “more”) productive, is only further evidence of your “privilege,” or whatever trendy word of the day the kids are using in lieu of an actual argument.

After all, if you were truly a good person, you’d have gotten it right from the git-go.  If you were truly worthy of our respect, you’d have been born a different color, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.


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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Josh Morland

    The only thing I inferred from the author of this article is don’t “demonize “all white people.” Thing is, compared to the minority of non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Neanderthal based, non-caucasoid gene pool comprised people. Whites are OFTEN times exempt from being demonized by predominantly white controlled media on the basis of socio-economic status or ethnic (white) privilege.

    For example, since being in South East Asia, many whites here walk with their noses up high and chests protruded out in such a way that screams “the world is in the palm of my hand and I can spin it on my finger tips at will, that is the essence of white privilege”.

    This demeanor and attitude has gotten a few white “volontourists” killed for their self-indulgent and often times condescending attitude toward the country in which they are considered GUEST and not celestial beings who should have red carpets rolled for, or roses thrown at their feet.

    One thing you, the author should do is take a look at your people (i.e. whites) and ask what is the worse you as a white person have to go through? Based on how you or other whites are received and perceived, how hard is it about being white anywhere in the world?

    I think white comedian Louis C.K said it best, “I enjoy being white”.

  • TracyMN

    My GOD, you are brave. Dan Savage touched on this topic a few years ago and got skinned alive so badly, I doubt he’ll ever speak about it again.

    This problem (I call it a religion) in the leftist community is what made me–a liberal, white, bisexual woman involved in progressive activism for over two decades–so cynical and defeated that I simply stepped away and stopped helping. Now I just vote and write checks.

  • Silver_Witch

    I think every one agrees that the point is to do good and be helpful. I don’t get why you feel there can’t be photographs of the work done and a feeling of goodwill. Would you rather that they act sad and worn with no photos? I am sorry I just don’t get your point – although I am trying.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    It’s not a “growing tendency” to demonize white people. It’s been a staple of the far left for decades. White people are bad, therefore if they do something to help others, that’s bad. It’s exactly the same kind of logic found on the far right.

    I’ve actually visited sites on which, if you are a white, middle-aged, cis-gendered male, you are fair game for whatever s**t the regulars want to throw at you. I really don’t have time for that kind of intellectual and moral laziness.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    And a contrarian to boot! ;-)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    I don’t think so. I get the gut schadenfreude some might have, but on gay rights I try to be “right” and “just” when I go after people, not simply do it for the schadenfreude.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Right, it’s going to affect you negatively.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    As a wordsmith who speaks 5 languages, 4 fluently, I’m having to defend the integrity of learning to speak a language properly, correctly and accurately. :) You’re not going to get me apologizing for that one, ever. And practically speaking, good luck getting a good job if you don’t speak proper English. On simply a practical level, i think you’re condemning kids to a permanent underclass by defending their right to not know how to speak the language correctly, high english, or whatever one wants to call it. My nephew talked like a street thug and I lectured him more than a few times about learning to speak correctly if he ever wanted a job in an office.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Bisexual devil ;-)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    Yeah I thought that lead was especially rude. What did the guy do wrong exactly? Lots of people tell funny, or fun, stories about their vacations. The rare person is arrogant about it. But she didn’t really prove that he was arrogant, just that he was sharing his vacation details, that it sounded kind of cool, and that he was white.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    No, I read the entire piece several times, and she used the word “white” herself. As for the rest of the article, as noted, I also disagree with her disparaging and I’d consider it condescending attitude towards people who were clearly trying to help.

  • Sean

    Well of course any help given should be effective. But why is it wrong to feel good when you believe you’ve worked some good?

  • David V. Johnson

    No, the point is that there must be more to it than that (highs and photo ops): The point is to help those in need.

  • Silver_Witch

    It might be poop-psychology (ooops typo). I think the intent was clear – however, I am always willing to view it from a different perspective.

  • Silver_Witch

    Exactly.

  • Sean

    I disagree. I think reverse racism needs to be addressed. Criticizing people on their backgrounds and identities, rather than the quality of their ideas and actions, opens the door for witch hunts. I also support standard English. We’re seeking to create a society that incorporates a great deal of diversity in culture, religion, and sexuality. Having a standard medium of communication is vital in holding us together.

  • Sean

    Yeah, that whole “emotional high” criticism is off. I remember when it came from the Right. Altruism is “phony” and “selfish” if it makes you feel good…Therefore, it is no better than making lots and lots of money. What a bunch of seductive nonsense.

  • Indigo

    Well . . . I see the inference but that’s not genetics. It’s pop-psychology at best. And as far as pop-psychology is concerned, it too often plays out that anybody can make up anything so in that sense, genetics as pseudo-genetics or, as we used to say about the gay lifestyle, it’s in the [ahem] jeans. :-)

  • Silver_Witch

    Perhaps in the subtitle? “Growing Western demand for altruistic vacations is feeding the white-savior industrial complex

  • Silver_Witch

    With that I have 100% agreement. I cringe at the ads on TV where children are starving and they plead for our money – yet much goes to converting those they are allegedly helping.

  • Silver_Witch

    I think it is you that did not read the article. Rafia Zakaria’s opening paragraph sets the tone of the article quite clearly – rather than seeing Jack as someone who is sharing how much he enjoyed feeling needed during his vacation, rather than his normal excess in life, she choose to portray him as a person who was only waving about his humanity as some sort of badge of honor and elitism.

    And her cure as you stated is “this would create less-domineering, nonjudgmental volunteers who are not obsessed with the pursuit of the emotional highs (and photo ops) of the altruism they paid for.”

    Most people, in reality act altruistically because it makes them feel good, it gives them joy and pity she resents the “emotional highs” one receives from doing good work. I work every day and I get great joy from doing my job well…so is that too arrogant for the world…only if I suffer than can I help.

  • Silver_Witch

    It could also be that if people are helped they will not have poor, uneducated people to which to spew their hatred (i.e., the Carolina candidate that recommends people stop sending their children to “Pharoahs school” because they are not learning the Bible BS and are walking away from the religion of well Him).

    When I did not have enough food to feed my son, I was greatly relieved that at least we had a warm place to stay and a soft pillow for our heads…we found food in a myriad of creative ways – housing was the hardest and most expensive so it was nice really nice. I imagine and I hope that those for whom the houses were built do not feel as if they don’t deserve it simply because they can’t afford food either.

    Asshats – is what people who write such hurtful stories are.

  • Indigo

    It certainly seems so but I’m unclear about the relationship between the Trustifarain Fashionista Pose and the Left.

  • Indigo

    I did not find that assertion in the article. Puzzling. Is our Head Moderator conjuring headlines out of private fantasy? Surely not! That would set AmBlog at the level of the Chicago Tribune. ¡Ay, dios!

  • The_Fixer

    I think that the ones you think should experience racism so that racism is eradicated are not the target audience. If I read your comment correctly, you seem to think that white people with disposable income, and who donate or work to improve the lives of the impoverished are racists. I don’t think that’s correct, especially in the case of the people who actually donate their labors. It’s easy to write a check if you have lots of money. Helping to build homes for the homeless in foreign countries takes a whole lot more effort.

    It also makes an assumption about one’s motivation, and makes an assumption that all white people are racist and one monolithic group. That’s just as incorrect as white people assuming that [insert a minority group here] is/are a monolithic group with all of the same traits and opinions.

    In short, the lesson you think should be taught is not often needed by the people you seem to think need it. Some yes, but the generalization is faulty, IMHO.

  • Indigo

    Speaking of speaking standard English, a similar issues arises at times in south Florida where Spanish is the dominant language but not all born-in-the-USA Spanish speakers speak standard Spanish. Awkward . . .

  • Indigo

    I use the term too but less responsibly, just to express my occasional annoyance with those who play on that other team.

  • Indigo

    What an interesting use of the “genetically.” The heck with bio-medical science, she’s got a rhetorical point to make and the word “genetically” fits her prejudices. Okay . . . associated with Amnesty International, huh? Too bad but Amnesty International will promptly disavow such folderol and twiddle-dee-dee, right?

  • David V. Johnson

    Spot on.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    There was a piece, I forget if it was on NPR or a podcast, but it talked about all the damage white people did when volunteering over seas. Basically, the brown people had to come in an fix all the shitty work the white teens did because it made them feel special to help even though they weren’t helping at all. There may be some of this going on of course, I’ve never heard of it outside that article. Regardless, it’s easy to hate on white people now because of their history, but there’s one thing about all of history that this argument is ignoring and that is history repeating itself. Do we really want to create another group of disenfranchised people who will resent following generations and cause trouble for them down the road or do we want to try and move forward as a more enlightened people? I vote for the latter as that seems to be the best option for everyone involved.

  • David V. Johnson

    I question whether you actually read the original article. The only leg you have to stand on is the headline, which, as you say, is chosen by the editor. Her focus is on “wealthy Westerners.” And if you read the piece, you see that she supports the program and calls for improvements to resolve the problems she identifies.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey

    So just perpetuate hatred and lies? Wow, as a white man I’m so glad someone is finally getting around to giving me a taste of THAT medicine. Because you know what? I’ve never experienced it as a gay man. Also, that mentality is such a bronze age “eye for an eye” mentality.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I do use the term ‘breeders’ — but only in the context where homophobic bigots have tried, as they have in recent years, to assert that the state’s interest in the civil institution of marriage is to limit it only to those who can procreate with each other in a heterosexual fashion. For example, “Their legal position is marriage should be restricted to heterosexual breeders.”

    The criticism taken to a blindingly obvious conclusion is if procreation is the state’s top interest, then it should ban marriages between the infertile and absolutely ban any marriage between two heterosexual partners where one is fertile and the other is not. And by extension, the state should also deny marriage to any heterosexual couple who will not vow to have children.

    I’m aware of the other pejorative context in which the word is used, but I think it bears mentioning there’s an entirely different spin on it for some of us.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Volunteerism in the guise of proselytism is the most insidious form of charity. Even worse than those who expect a fancy dinner, or heaps of praise for their “good works”. People who attempt to convert the desperate to their faith in exchange for help is almost predatory. It has very much been a racial thing throughout history. Privileged white folk seeing brown people who don’t live the way they do, and automatically assuming they are savages in need of salvation; now only if they accepted Jesus as their lord and savior, they wouldn’t have to be so filthy and different.

    Of course, nobody in France needed nor wanted Mitt Romney’s help with anything. His missionary “service” was basically a spring break vacation.

  • emjayay

    Maybe, but in many cases you do understandably have to speak some semblance of standard English to get a job. Particularly because it’s hard to write in some semblance of standard English if you don’t speak it and writing is often a part of a job even if public speaking isn’t.

  • mirror

    Your reverse racism meme is getting more regular and tiring than your “why can’t they speak standard English if they want to be employed” meme. But I enjoyed the Easter bunny video.

  • emjayay

    Mitt Romney (and Mormons in general) represent another kind of voluntourism. Long term, but with often not much point and in an American bubble. Particularly in Mitt’s rather amazing case, where he lived half the period in a Mormon mansion in Paris, and then was driving a French luxury car carrying high Mormon muckymucks, caused an accident that killed one of them, and had the Mormon church behind him covering up his guilt to protect not only the Mormon son of privilege but the Mormon church in a foreign country as well.

    I know Mitt is ancient history but he’s bringing himself back into the picture after an appropriate period of exile, so I feel justified.

  • Elijah Shalis

    Are you suggesting it is racist for whites to go to other countries and volunteer? lol wacky

  • Elijah Shalis

    doesn’t work that way. the racist whites will still be racist and maybe even more hateful.

  • Elijah Shalis

    Wow Just wow. First of all on what basis does Al Jazeera have to talk about anything? Let me know when they have gotten women and gays civil rights in the Middle East.

  • https://twitter.com/MetroIssues Metro Issues

    If we look at this phenomenon through a different prism, perhaps white people are getting some taste of their own medicine. This may especially resonate when white people consider they are becoming a minority in the U.S.

    I agree, though, racism in any form isn’t right and it isn’t just. But if white people can be on the receiving end of it sometimes, maybe it will make them think of how it affects everyone else.

  • emjayay

    While your points are well taken, particularly the possible tarring of any concern for problems elsewhere, the article does have some points. Read the comments – some in agreement explain more.
    Peace Corps type volunteerism may come from more or less the same place, but a long commitment gives time for the volunteer to understand the complexity of what is going on and make a more than fly-by contribution.

  • emjayay

    Speaking of headlines unconnected to the article…

    “Blacks and Asians are genetically more humble than whites? Seriously?”

    Seriously?

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    They have :)

  • Polterguest

    Racist left?! That’s unpossible!
    (I thought the far-left had successfully redefined racism to exclude themselves no matter what.)

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