When a white girl goes to Africa, she inevitably comes back with a sunburn, colorful fabric, and loads of souvenirs representing her time on the continent. But the most novel symbol of her trip is the new Facebook profile picture: said white girl surrounded by nameless African children.
It doesn’t even have to be in Africa. Wherever the white girl goes, from Argentina to India, the profile picture invariably changes.
What better way to represent a vacation, mission trip, or travel destination than to pose with a bunch of local children, flash a quick smile, and upload it to social media? This is the pinnacle of the white girl’s trip: she can return home knowing that all her friends have realized the significance of her cultural excursion.
A few months ago, I worked with a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to hold a soap making training for a women’s group in a small village. It’s a pretty simple training, only lasting a couple hours. During the training, the other PCV took a photo of me leading the training.
In the photo, I’m wearing a dress made of local fabric and holding a visual aid as I explain the process to make soap. There’s a hut in the background, a mango tree in the foreground, and the women appear to be listening attentively.
It’s a great picture.
After the training, when my friend showed me the photo, I laughed out loud. The picture is such an absurd representation of my service in Senegal. It belongs on a Peace Corps propaganda poster at a university campus in the United States.
But, to many of my friends and family back home, that photo is a prefect depiction of my life in Africa.
For many Americans, there is some sort of exotic pull towards Africa and other developing parts of the world. Helping others supposedly less fortunate than yourself is upheld as such a noble cause. After all, these people aren’t white so they must need our assistance.
Although this blog post isn’t about racism per say, I can’t write this without touching on the subject. Racism has permeated our culture so much that many people don’t even recognize it anymore.
And many people use this racism to their benefit.
Compassion International, a nonprofit company, connects children from developing countries with sponsors in the United States. Their website is filled with photos a cute, black children waiting for a loving donor. You can even peruse through the pictures looking for the perfect kid, heaven forbid you adopt an ugly baby.
National Geographic, while running a story on Ebola in West Africa, showed a photo depicting a supposedly poor village in Guinea. Besides the tall palm trees in the background, I could have easily mistaken the compounds in the village with my own family compound in Senegal. The men, women, and children in the picture could have been my grandma, brother, mother, or nephew.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but can it also tell a thousand lies?
Although I can’t say I know the people shown in these photos, I do know their lives aren’t as terrible as we’d like to think they are. We, white America, feel the need to fulfill our supremacy by reminding ourselves that Africans are inferior to us because they are poor. They need us, we certainly don’t need them.
Economically, many people on the continent of Africa are poor. But a lot of Americans are also living below the poverty line. Western governments love to brag about the amount of aid sent to Africa, but more money is sent to the continent through remittances of relatives living abroad than through development assistance (1).
It appears as if Africans are better at helping themselves than we are.
The men and women in my community who are my friends and family are just that, friends and family. I’m not better than anyone in America because I happen to spend time with a lot of Senegalese people. My family is one of my biggest sources of happiness, not because I’m helping them but because they’re my family. Hanging out with my Senegalese friends is no different than chilling with my American friends, it doesn’t matter that one group may be economically wealthier off than the other.
Please don’t let these words stop you from travelling, especially to developing countries. White people do need to see, taste, touch, smell, and hear Africa. But Africa doesn’t need us, they were doing just fine before the white girl showed up. As you visit these places, remember that you are being welcomed into another culture. You are there to observe and maybe participate, but it’s not about you.
For once, let’s allow the world revolve around someone else.