October 9, 2013

GUEST ROOM: White Boy Goes to Africa

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During one impressively unproductive procrastination session in Olin, I stumbled across the tumblr, “Gurl Goes to Africa,” with the witticism “I went to Africa and all I got were these pictures” as its tagline. The website defines its purpose as “for all you fabulous biddies who decided that Africa was the right place for you. There’s nothing like good ’ole exotification to fill up your time while basking in the hot Saharan sun, wearing your “traditional” African clothes, eating ‘weird’ foods and taking as many photos of Black children as possible. You go gurl with lots of privilege! This is dedicated to you.”

Upon reading this description and seeing that the website delivered on its promise of posting White girls and boys posing with little African children, I panicked.  Here I am, a (self -proclaimed) fabulous “biddie,” who has traveled to and “worked/volunteered/learned” in Ghana and Tanzania, and who has taken as many classes as possible in African studies. Before realizing that the website hasn’t been too active in the past year, I feverishly scanned every page of the website to make sure that my pale face did not grace this corner of the interweb.  I luckily failed to find my own pearly whites smiling in one of these photographs, but I was still troubled by my discovery of this website.

A quick look through my Facebook page and you can find that I am as guilty as it comes of  this “Gurl Goes to Africa” phenomenon. In my default photos, you will see pictures of me rocking kitenge patterned pants, making funny faces with my Tanzanian homestay brothers and posing with dear friends in “exotic” locales. Is this racist? Am I inherently and unknowingly evoking a privileged idea that exacerbates decades, if not centuries, of harmful power dynamics? Is my interest in Africa paternalistic and a modern day form of exoticism?

I was worried about this quarter-life existential crisis and so I asked around. The professors affiliated with my travels to Africa told me that my worry alone invalidated my fears. My more “radical” friends (read: those educated on race theory and diversity issues and who appropriately advocate for more discourse on these matters) told me: “Not necessarily,” and to go read Teju Cole’s writings on the White Savior Industrial Complex.  My African friends challenged me with a question of their own — asking about their own roles in my perceived panic and how those who experience more opportunity should feel in similar situations. So who’s right? The blog? My peers? Both.

I think it’s best to break the argument down further. Let’s start with the argument proposed by the website: That I, a westerner with lots of photos with smiling African children, am using my privilege to take advantage of others. The famous speech, “To Hell with Good Intentions,” by Ivan Illich eloquently explains this argument of the paternalistic pitfalls of “American do-gooders … pretentiously imposing” themselves on the people they are trying to help in the developing world. In Illich’s argument, those who go to the developing world do more harm than good because they are woefully unaware of their own impacts in the community. He advises those who wish to help others to at the very least, work with people who can tell them “to go to hell.”

Illich wrote this piece 40 years ago during a very different time, but his arguments still hold true today. Now, more than ever, there are programs offering high school and college students the “experience of a lifetime” for the small price of a few thousand dollars. These volun-tourism programs are becoming increasingly popular — especially as colleges become more and more selective. Students hope that this will give them the edge in admissions and open their eyes to another part of the world. But are they doing more harm than good? Illich would absolutely argue yes, and in some ways I would argue yes too. I do not wish to condemn all of these types of programs at once, but these programs need to make sure their students are self-aware. We can’t enter a country thinking we have all the answers or thinking that we’re going to solve their problems (I must take a brief moment here to say that the Cornell programs I have experienced excel in preparing students to take on these challenges and discourses in the field and are NOT a part of my consideration of these aforementioned volun-tourism projects.)

The other side of the argument puts a more positive spin on this congruence of cultures. Advocates for the service-learning experience in the developing world focus on the potential for intercultural collaboration to improve the lives of all parties involved. This idealistic mantra has found its patron in Nicholas Kristof, who in many of his pieces for the New York Times and in his book, Half the Sky, encourages the next generation to learn about themselves and the world by exploring. He advocates for social entrepreneurial endeavors and the “Do It Yourself” foreign aid approach to help foster change in the world. His stance firmly contrasts that of Illich, as Kristof believes that “do-gooders” can and will make a difference in the world — even if the issues they face invoke ethical dilemmas and their solutions sometimes fail.

Through my experiences abroad and through my studies, I have seen the results of failed good intentions and they’re awful. I have seen the ignorant Westerner make promises to a child that they could never keep, the traveler blatantly disrespect his or her own hosts and the project of an NGO fall apart after the aid workers left. With these examples in mind, I am a bit skeptical of Kristof’s faith in our generation. We do not all engage in the dialogues and reflection that this field needs.

But there is a lot of power to be found in these cross-cultural interactions and I do not wish to understate them. When people from two societies come together and speak, they both have much to learn. When I traveled to Ghana with a group of Cornell students, we were inspired and humbled by the dialogues that we engaged in with many of the local women. As for our Ghanaian counterparts, I received feedback that they enjoyed the conversation, as it allowed them to share ideas with us, organize their thoughts and speak openly about issues they faced in their community. My favorite piece of feedback from that trip was that many women found it refreshing to engage in a constructive conversation with Obroni or Twi for “White folk.” For me, the keyword here was “conversation” because it signaled a dialogue with even contribution from both sides.  After our conversations, we almost always took a picture together and to me, my love for these pictures was not rooted in my deep affection for exoticism, but in my deep affection for powerful discourse.

I believe that our generation can and will make a difference, but we must be smart. As it becomes easier to travel and to explore the hidden corners of the earth, we must be present and self-aware during our attempts to “help.” We must challenge ourselves to think critically about our actions and our impact in the communities that we work. My ability to travel with relative ease to Africa may be a result of a harrowing history between two parts of the world, but my presence on the continent is not inherently racist. As a Westerner from an elite institution, I am aware of the ethical dilemmas involved in my work and it is my responsibility to be aware of the historical, social and cultural contexts that produce these situations. I must not shy away from these conversations presented by “Gurl Goes to Africa” and I must not be afraid to question my intentions and myself. I have been, and will be again, one of many White boys in Africa and it is up to me to make sure that my time on the continent is not another failed good intention.