September 20, 2013


There have been some posts on the web recently about (for lack of a better term) cultural commodification and white privilege. I would like to address some of these.

First, there is apparently a now-MBA student at UofC who went to Kenya for aid work and “became the first female Masai warrior“. She then published a book about her experience. I can’t comment on the content – and whether it was written in humor – but the concept is a little off-putting. As the Guardian article mentions, Kenyan commenters were not impressed. Becoming a Masai warrior takes years, and then you have to dedicate your life to it; you can’t just up and leave. While you’ll often hear me cite Mark Twain’s quote about travel being the best cure for prejudice, and participating as an observer/anthropologist in cultural ceremonies can do you no intellectual harm, I think trying to inculcate yourself into a culture as serious as this is disingenuous. She has no intention of staying on in Kenya and cultivating the tradition of warriorship. If you’re proposed to – as we were many times in Sudan, usually in jest but sometimes leading to uncomfortable harrassy/leery situations – the best response is something like, “I am here to work, but my home is in England/America/etc. I’m not staying here forever.” The treatment we received as white women – being able to work alongside the men and dancing at their hafla, for instance – marks us as different, as not totally part of their culture. That is not our intent. It would be disrespectful to lay out prayer mats and go lalala, look we’re making just like you! (Although our yoga mats did present a difficult concept to explain, especially after a subtitled Dr Oz-type show featured a segment on “toilet yoga”.) I still think about Mazin and Nahet and we wanted to send them gifts last year to let them know we still think of them (travel circumstances prevented this), but I obviously can’t consider myself a Sudanese villager: I was a foreign worker they graciously fed and interacted with. I also think the issue of trying too hard to belong might be more prevalent in Africa because of racism/colonial legacy/feeling out of place, but I think there’s a right and a wrong way to behave when traveling or working in a foreign place. Recognize that you are different. Recognize that you can not understand every facet of the culture. Recognize that you have the opportunity to up and leave and go back to your comfortable life. Don’t try to be something you’re not, especially if that something is a very important (and ancient) part of a culture that has a history before you and future without you.

UPDATE: Here’s how a Masai woman responded.

Second, white privilege! This student wrote about being white in Uganda. One commenter mentioned that being stared at for a few months is nothing compared to being stared at for your entire childhood (he says he is Asian and grew up in the South). Yes! I agree! But you can’t learn what it’s like for people to look at you and yell “Hawaja, hawaja!” and run after you and you get really frustrated and want to say, “I’m a real person with feelings, not just a white face!” and then realize – wait, this must be what it’s like to be a minority in any majority-white country! until it’s happened to you. It’s hard to sympathize with a minority experience until you’ve experienced it. There’re also so many different kinds of staring! The staring in Sudan was totally different from the staring in Egypt and the staring in Peru. (It was actually quite friendly, as staring goes.) So maybe she’s a little naive. Hopefully she’ll learn. She does acknowledge that bloggers get shot down for both over- and under-acknowledging race. I am totally aware of cultural imperialism and racism, and I hope my readers would call me out if I ever said anything outrageous. I have to explain biological vs social concepts of race and ethnicity and sex and gender with regard to the skeleton at least once a week, so it’s not like I live in la-la land. Blogs are around to be diaries that people comment on, and a lot of people are getting attacked for writing their experiences when said experiences don’t match up with any number of political, cultural, or intellectual expectations.

Have I made a point? I don’t even know. I guess, dudes, be sensitive to people’s feelings, whether those are the feelings of the Masai or of some student dealing with being Othered for the first time. Right?

UPDATE: I also came across this tumblr, featuring photos of young white women and African children. It’s super critical and feels really insulting, actually. I do have a lot of photos with the kids from Kasura, and you know what? They wanted to be photographed. “Africans” (cf Africa is a Country) have agency, you know, because they (surprise!) are also people.  I take pictures of white babies too. I take pictures of all babies. We take pictures to remember experiences. Those pictures of us in tobes? The women in our village dressed us up because they thought it was really funny. They painted on ridonkulous makeup a la Egyptian soap operas and laughed at us, and we laughed at ourselves, because that is how you make friends when you aren’t fluent in each other’s languages. One guy we hardly knew came around the field house one day and took photos of all of us together with him, and then (really kindly, at great personal expense) had them printed so we could take home photos and remember him. I think it’s incredibly unfair to mock people who are actually trying to do something useful with their lives (if that’s what they were doing; I assume most people are on some aid project or other). Taking a photo with a kid is not saying anything overtly negative. Now that I’m angry, let’s all go watch the Radi-Aid video and feel ok.


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