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.
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?
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.