Musings · Travel

I’m Not Here to Assuage Your White Guilt

It’s always a joy to receive notifications on old entries, because it usually means someone has found your blog and really connected, and gone back through old posts to read more of what you have to say. What can I say? Deep down, I’m just a simple narcissist, waiting for legions of adoring fans to buy me books off my Amazon wishlist.

So behold my joy when I get a comment an old entry I wrote about why voluntourism is (usually) bad, and how you shouldn’t “volunteer” just to feel good about yourself when you don’t actually have the skills to help people. Even though this was published in December, this comment was left yesterday, and it annoyed me so much that I feel like I owe it an explanation, but without personally calling out the person who left it, which seems unnecessary. So while I’m not trying to put this person on the spot, I want to explain something I feel is important. Sorry, random commenter, but you have become an unwilling scapegoat.

Dear White People: stop trying to defend and rationalize our white guilt.

The comment in question, which feels like an essay unto itself:

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First of all, this long-ass description sounds like you want me to forgive you and hand you a cookie, assuring that you did no wrong. But the thing is, I’m not your priest, the purpose of my post was not to open a confessional, and it’s not my job to absolve you of your perceived sins.  If you feel unsure about whether or not your time spent volunteering with brown people was useful and justified, that might be your conscious trying to tell you something. You have to work through those issues on your own. You don’t need to try and justify them to me, a fellow white person, because I am not the judge, jury, and executioner. If you have some critical thinking skills, you can figure it out for yourself, which I’m guessing you started to do because you felt the need to explain yourself to someone who did not ask you for an explanation.

Second of all, nowhere in my piece did I say all volunteering is bad. In fact, the whole point of the piece was that while many western volunteers are privileged people looking for a way to feel good about themselves, there are valid volunteer opportunities out there. But if you are writing me a mini-essay trying to justify the particular place you volunteered, well, let’s just say I used to be a much less woke white person, and I often tried to to do this when I became uncomfortable with something that called out my privilege and mistakes, even if it wasn’t directed at me. (Again, sorry to this person who I am now directly calling out, but that’s why I’m not publishing your comment.)

In the comment-novella, one of their volunteering examples is some sort of after-school type program for street kids, which is similar to the story I recounted about working in an orphanage, so I can see why this commenter got defensive. The other experience is about a fair trade business selling handicrafts, which is a whole different can of worms that was much more eloquently analyzed by one of my favorite travel writers, Bani Amor. The whole thing feels like self-justification, answering an accusation that was not personally leveled at them. (Although now it definitely is. Sorry, again.)

Because here’s the thing about white volunteerism: it’s still tourism, and it’s a form of white supremacy. Ultimately, going on a volunteering vacation is using other people’s poverty as a backdrop for your holiday. You’re using their poverty as a destination, which is de-humanizing to say the least. And most charities run these volunteer opportunities based on the notion that even an unskilled white person knows better than a poor brown person, and is therefore qualified to help said poor person, regardless of what that poor person actually wants or needs. It promotes racist stereotypes about people of color, poor people, and developing countries. It positions white people as those most qualified to save others from the problems white people helped create. And it does very little to actually solve the problems it purports to solve. Many people far more organized and articulate than me have talked about this before, and here are just a few examples I got from a quick Google search. This piece by Teju Cole, while almost 5 years old, is still effective in its look at the bigger picture of how white, Western countries have created problems they now want to superficially “solve” to in a morally self-aggrandizing fashion.

If you leave me a rambling message describing a rather unremarkable and unskilled volunteering position, I’m gonna assume you’re feeling guilty that your volunteer experience might be more selfish than helpful. Congratulations. You’re probably right. That’s something you have to acknowledge and deal with on your own. I have come to terms with the fact that I volunteered my time for a project that was unnecessary and reeked of white savior-ism. What I did was wrong, selfish, and ultimately useless. I did it because I had a vision of what I wanted my volunteering to look like, and I ignored what people actually wanted so I could get some cute pictures with kids. Instead of going on people’s blogs, telling them in detail why what I did was actually just fine, I called myself out and tried to use it as an example, so hopefully others won’t repeat my mistake.

I think it ultimately comes down to how to take responsibility for our shortcomings without feeling like a bad person. Volunteerism rests on the desire to be a good person, and if you’re told your attempt at selflessness was actually quite selfish, it’s hard to reconcile what you want to be with what you are. This is a problem that all woke white people have to deal with: confronting our privilege and the mistakes we made when we were less woke. You are allowed to make mistakes, but burying your head in the sand when confronted with them (even when no one confronts you directly) is not going to help. I know this because I have made many mistakes. I will probably continue to make mistakes. I used to get defensive and construct long-winded counter-arguments because if I could justify it to myself, then perhaps other people wouldn’t notice what I did wrong.

But the reality is that I’m really not that important. No one is watching me that closely. It is another side affect of white, relatively wealthy privilege to think I am the center of the universe, when no one actually cares. (In fact, I would argue it’s one of the main tenets of the White Savior Complex™.) I’m really only accountable to myself, so I need to buck the fuck up and deal with my embarrassment so that I can do better the next time.

If you are feeling uncomfortable after reading this post and you want to leave an angry comment, think about why you feel uncomfortable before you say anything. Did I touch a nerve because one of these situations applies to you? If so, why? Remember, you can always not say anything, rectify your mistakes, and we will be none the wiser.

And this should go without saying, but if you leave any White Guilt Justification™ comments, be prepared to get published and side eye-ed.

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8 thoughts on “I’m Not Here to Assuage Your White Guilt

    1. I think that’s a normal reaction, but it’s not productive. That kind of shame doesn’t really help anyone or change anything. I would focus my energy on what you can do to be better and help others!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t really associate with white guilt – actually, I feel we white people are often a bit bullied (?can’t think of a better word right now) and treated as outsiders when traveling to places where people generally have darker skin, like the Caribbean. And I also feel like I don’t have the right to say that out loud, for some reason.
    Interesting post and I like that you have a fresh approach and your own opinions! I’ve often felt the same when I read about native English speakers traveling somewhere exotic, Japan for instance, to teach English, without being actually qualified. Teachers actually study at university for years to get their degree!!! But these backpacker/pop-up teachers just show up somewhere and assume they are qualified in a priviledged, native English-speaker way.
    But… that’s okay, they mean no harm.
    I’ve never volunteered but if I did, it would be for the environment. Is that selfish? Well, in a way it is, because I’d also be going for the experiences and to learn a new language or culture. But I also signed up for volunteer work in my home country, waiting to be asked to help…
    Hope this comment wasn’t too much of a novella for you! I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

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    1. Bullied how? I mean, I understand being treated like an outsider especially when you are. Add to that the history of white European colonialism and I’m not surprised when people of color regard me suspiciously if I’m visiting their home!
      I think “good intentions” are not enough. You should be bringing some experience to the table. Some volunteering doesn’t require experience and they just need manpower, so that’s fine. Also it’s very different if you are volunteering in your own country, because being a resident gives you some experience with the issues at hand! But volunteerism is when people want to combine volunteering with tourism and good intentions aren’t enough, because you might actually be doing harm (i.e. playing with orphaned children for a week when what they really need is stable relationships).
      Thank you for your comment! I don’t actually mind long ones, I just gotta use some levity in an otherwise serious situation 😉

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  2. I’m glad you wrote this and I’m glad you think this way! well said. It took me a while to understand that volunteering abroad isn’t good (most the time) because I was surrounded my whole life by Christians who did this yearly and so much praise surrounded it. But when I started to think globally and have a better education in college, such as World History, World Lit, and Women’s Studies, I began to really understand colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! When you’ve never had to think about it, volunteering abroad seems like a great idea. Once you have more context though, you’re right, the inherent problems become waaaaay more obvious 😔

      Like

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