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4 Ways to Check Your Privilege at the Gate When You Travel

In December I went on a long trip to Tanzania and Rwanda and had some amazing experiences but from the first day I had this nagging feeling that I couldn’t drop and it continues to bother me, so I’ve chosen to write about it.

I first wrote about this a few years ago in relationship to taking photographs or not in Marrakech. Most people here don’t like their picture taken. I very quickly learned why and yet I still see SO many visitors who get down right angry when they are asked not to take pictures.

Having had the experiences I’ve had in Morocco I am always extremely cautious when I take pictures, I always ask permission sometimes multiple times before I take any pictures, and after I take a photo if I feel bad in anyway I delete it and do not share.

I am fully aware that I am a white woman and the privilege that just that grants me in how I live in the world. The day I first wore a hijab in public was the day that privilege became exceedingly clear. I am also the mother of three children, two of which I know will not have that privilege based on their skin color and it has made me even more aware.

This post isn’t aimed at one person, one event, one interaction or one country but is a culmination of my experiences and hopefully helps you to think a bit differently when you travel.

Nothing Designed for Tourists is “Authentic”

Authenticity is a buzz word in travel and so many people seek to have a “real” experience or one that’s not created for tourists however nearly all experiences you’ll have no matter where you go are just that – created for you, even if they are a part of local culture and heritage.

Does this mean they’re bad or fake? Absolutely not. In some cases this is done in a way that truly is an open ended cultural exchange where both sides are engaged and sharing. Remember you’re not owed anything by the place you are visiting; most people are going about their lives and by allowing you to enter their lives it’s a privilege not a right.

But done en masse? Usually not.

Consider how your interactions with local people affects them.

One of the greatest joys of travel for me is having the chance to engage and interact with people who are truly interested in having you be a part of their lives. Working in tourism and living in a place that gets millions of tourists a year I am very aware of the attractiveness of money for locals to create situations where tourists can “interact”.

People often want to help when they visit a country that faces economic hardship. But, ask yourself, why is this just the case in places like Africa?

Why don’t people who visit places in more economically stable countries feel compelled to help?

There are plenty of economically disadvantaged communities who the government has forgotten in my own country and could use a leg up. But often those of us who can help travel abroad to give. And, in return for financial or material assistance local populations are asked to give up things such as their privacy to appease our need to validate our donations.

Is wanting to help really hurting?

Has our wanting to “help” really just created a system of poverty tourism where foreign visitors tour schools or orphanages and are plied with requests to help because the governments and social systems meant to be supporting these things has failed to do their job? 

Has our voyeurism and need to see, photograph, or pity “the other” before we deem them worthy of our financial gifts over ridden a sense of goodwill?

And in that process have we managed to separate ourselves from “them.”

Would you behave the same way if you were visiting a school or orphanage in Los Angeles or Berlin?

Would you visit a school in your neighborhood at home and want to see the children sing for you in exchange for your donations?

Would you be bothered if a group of tourists from abroad showed up at your child’s school and took pictures with – or of – them to fund books for the classroom?

When visiting a country and wanting to “give back” question why and how. Do you have a special skill that can help fill a need the community has? Or is it simply a way to feel good on your vacation?

Visiting an orphanage is one of these “wanting to help, but harming” cases. You showing up to play with kids for a few hours with gifts may make you feel good but what about the kids when you leave? Now imagine that same experience happening over and over again. What message are they given about people?

At the end of the day ask yourself how can those of us who have the ability to give donations to those in need, do so ethically and responsibly while not exploiting the people we claim to want to help? 

Give help in the way it’s requested

Too often help is done in a transactional way; we help you only if you subscribe to our way of thinking or of using the assistance we give in the ways we want. 

Helping financially is only considered if it’s done in a way that WE feel best helps and not always the ways that would best help the community, based on their stated needs.

This is a long entrenched practice from colonial days where those with the means (usually by force) told the colonized what they needed. They removed the ways of life that people had used for centuries and replaced it with what they saw best. This pattern repeats today.

If people say they need xy or z then that’s what they need; who are we to claim we know their needs better?

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Most people perpetuating the white savior complex are incredibly well intentioned. We understand this. We also know that using intentions as a justification to avoid accountability stifles progress. We can acknowledge that people want to do good while also holding a higher standard & demanding better. . Two of the most recent posts that stood out were from @victoriabeckham and @natalieportman — two white women — celebrities with money, status and influence. We commonly see NGOs use celebrities as ambassadors for their cause. . One thing we need to make clear is that it is not a bad thing to care about issues like access to water or education, human trafficking, malnutrition, child protection, maternal health, poverty, HIV/AIDS — It’s certainly not wrong to see needs that exist within our own communities OR internationally & to want to do something to address these needs. The problem arises when you need to be centered as the one solving these problems and when the recipients of your aid / charity are always Black & Brown people. The problem arises when you need to be photographed for every charitable act & when you receive praise for simply being pictured in close proximity to Black bodies. . So how could these two women do better? How can others take notes & be advocates without perpetuating the white savior complex? We have some advice but we’d also like to hear from you in the comments on what you think this should look like… . 1) Pass the mic – We’ve talked about how much we hate the concept of any community being “voiceless”. Celebrities have an incredible opportunity to give space & a platform to the voices of folks working in their communities to meet the critical needs that they are passionate about bringing awareness to. . 2) Images are powerful – We understand photos can be necessary for PR / fundraising purposes. What we’d propose is rather than images with the beneficiaries of aid / charity, share photos w/ the leaders running the organizations you are visiting. Talk about the work they are doing for their community. The truth is you really just took a tour and had a photo op, you didn’t actually DO anything. . #nowhitesaviors

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I encourage you to rethink the activities you engage in when traveling at home or abroad. Consider if an opportunity is one that provides value to both parties and is done so in a way that is truly a cultural exchange.

As more and more people travel it’s imperative that we keep a grasp of having the same value and behavior systems no matter where we go.

If you’d like some further thoughts and resources I recommend reading No White Saviors website or excellent Instagram feed (you can see one post above). I’d also recommend reading Teju Coles’ writing on the White Savior Industrial Complex.

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