“Isn’t race only an issue for those who make it one?” a British woman at Tourism Concern’s International Volunteering Conference asked. “Americans are, after all, obsessed with race,” she added. This wasn’t said as a compliment; it was posed with a hint of derision, as if our attempts at open dialogues on race are only one of a slew of problematic traits that she could point out. Now, I can’t say that we have the whole “talking about race” thing down in any way. Most of the time we suck at it, but while the questioner was wrong her query brought up a good point.
Race dynamics are an important factor in voluntourism, but they aren’t everything.
When it comes to the power dynamics of voluntourism, it is all about privilege. Privilege comes in a multitude of forms and is sometimes hard to identify. There is racial privilege, then there is economic privilege, educational privilege, geographic privilege, gender privilege, religious privilege, privilege that comes with adhering to heteronormative standards, skinny privilege, and a million more that have yet to be recognized or that I just do not know.
Privilege is, at its core, easy to identify but difficult to own up to. Those who experience it, myself included, struggle to openly recognize its existence as we hope beyond hope that our kind intentions and good will are enough to overcome it. But they aren’t. Intentions are not enough. The specter of privilege is unshakable and those who wish to deny it, those who say that race and other forms of privilege only matter when we bring them up, are naïve.
This is not to say that those who are privileged cannot do good work. Rather, their privilege, especially educational privilege, can be an asset in volunteering. Having a particular skill to offer can be priceless. Engineers can create solutions for regional water issues, doctors can train local physicians in new techniques, and educators can teach their local peers new styles resulting in better-educated students. Having specialized skills is awesome and often very helpful.
But privilege isn’t always an asset and often times in order to do aid right, volunteering shouldn’t even be a part of the equation.
This is specifically true for young would-be volunteers. Developing countries are, by and large, resource poor. One resource that they have more than enough of is unskilled labor. So why are we exporting unskilled labor to them by the millions?
To think that the only way to provide aid is to volunteer is to ignore the opportunities that exist for people to actively stimulate economies through ethical tourism. With voluntourism, those looking to volunteer carry their donations and privilege thousands of miles and an unbalanced give-and-take relationship is almost always inevitable. Accepting ones role as a tourist by supporting locally owned businesses is a form of stimulus sure to last much longer than a wall you spent three days painting in Honduras.
So this isn’t really about little white girls. It’s about everyone.
It’s about unrecognized privilege and it’s about an unequal exchange where volunteers benefit greatly and those who are meant to benefit rarely do so in a sustainable and long-term manner. More than anything, it’s about learning to help without having to hold the title of volunteer.
Travel as much as you possibly can. Experience cultures and get involved with communities, but do so in a way that economically invests in the places you care about and want to see made even better. Do this by staying in locally owned hotels, eating at locally owned restaurants, and frequenting locally owned businesses. Sometimes that means doing the hard work yourself, but there are some great companies and non-profits that are can do the work for you. Tourism Concern offers a number of options and Onwards will start leading its first trips this spring.
Recognize privilege, open a dialogue, and accept that what you can offer comes with limitations.
Most importantly, don’t just volunteer in communities; invest in communities.
Quotes are paraphrased