Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Glimpse of Hope

Today's post is once again based around a Tumblr post I came across the other day. It wasn't what I was planning on talking about this evening, but, as per usual, this became my focus as it continued to bother me.

You can see the original post here where I reblogged it. It centers around the pictured comic which I have also reblogged and seen before. In the comic, an older man who expresses racist tendencies travels the world and changes his opinion on those who are different than him. The post linked here, however, critiques this comic and states that traveling does not cure racism but can actual further certain kinds of racism and cultural misunderstanding, such as the white savior complex (which I believe I've mentioned before, likely in one of the several posts on charity groups).

This post raises several good points, which is why I reblogged it, even though it caused me a sort of dissonant sadness to so (if you're familiar with that sad realization of noticing something you really like isn't perfect in its representation of something, you'll know what I mean. Basically, this is most everything in my life now, but that's a blog post for another time (no, really, it is). As my roommate Sarah said, "I can't be a functioning member of society now!" in regards to critique of things. This is essentially how I feel looking at this post). Yes, the white savior complex is an issue, especially in regards to humanitarian efforts, traveling, and understanding cultures in` general, especially in an academic setting. Yes, traveling cannot magically cure racism - there are certainly people who travel and return to their homes only to more firmly believe that they are the epitome of civilization and that people elsewhere are less so or "others" or "exotic" or what have you. And yes, a simple little cartoon cannot capture the complexity of traveling and race relations and privilege in the world. But despite all of the errors this post does illuminate from the comic, I still like the point the comic is trying to make and I like this comic no matter what. Because it give me hope.
I understand that we don't live in a perfect world - usually I'm the one pointing this out and critiquing things, so perhaps I'm not one to talk. But the critique on this comic really bothers me. If we can continue to say that traveling - certainly an open-minded sort of traveling, one that accepts that many who travel are privileged and that we are going to places with a certain kind of background and a certain kind of view on the world, but even just a curious traveler who wants to get out and explore - makes no difference to the world, then what are we to say about getting rid of racist thought and making change at all? While the argument still stands that racism will likely never be gone while certain hegemonic structures stay in place, I still believe that there are ways to rid the world of racism in small ways. Look, I'm a huge fan of this Margaret Mead quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." I believe it and I've seen it to be true. I believe that as long as people are committed, we can work to combat racism - if we don't and we simply wait for certain structures to be overthrown, what's the point? While this article doesn't necessarily make that point, it does in a way argue against the idea that simple things can't combat racism, which I deeply disagree with.

This response to the comic makes several assumptions which I find counterproductive. They assume that people who travel are not educated - no, not even educated, that assumes that someone needs schooling to act this way. I'd say aware - enough to think of people from other areas of the world outside of the realm of exotic or othered. I understand that I have had the privilege to be exposed to a way of thinking that allows me to work against othering people and that we are very much part of cultures that continue to do this. But I find it kind of distancing to assume that this is how a white traveler thinks. Perhaps this is how media and hegemonic influence would like us to think, but I somehow don't feel that we all thinking this way. Maybe I really am farther from the norm than I think. But I'd like to believe that if you took a random group of white Americans to another country that it wouldn't continue the "ugly American" perception. Perhaps I'm terribly wrong. But I'd rather be optimistic and be wrong than be a pessimist on this issue.
Of course, the comic also makes a likewise assumption that people who do travel will have some sort of enlightening experience and feel driven to help and make a change, which is also likely not the case. Many people travel for pleasure and, while this is not overtly wrong, it can be harmful in some ways. I think of the kiosks set up around the pyramids outside Mexico City that my father talked about when he traveled there years ago, of low-income residents trying to profit from the tourist traffic there and make a living off of people visiting the area. Of course, the problem is that they become reliant on tourists, who spend their money without thinking about the state of affairs around them, and when tourist traffic slows, the kiosk owners are affected. There is an uncomfortable relationship between tourists and the residents - read anything written by someone from Venice or a port where cruise ships stop and you'll get a very clear idea about this. Tourism is flawed because it is centered around capitalism, which is also flawed. But this again goes back to the idea of traveling and why one travels - it's not always about spending the money and buying the souvenirs and having the photos to brag about later. Some people travel because they really enjoy seeing the world and meeting different people and widening and changing their perceptions of things. And I believe that this is what the comic is getting at - not that traveling cures racism or that people should help people less fortunate than themselves so that they can go home and feel good about it. I believe it's trying to say that we should travel the world and widen our minds and if we end up helping people along the way, brilliant. However, it stands that this comic did not do the best at expressing this.
I don't want to weaken the argument made in the response to the Tumblr post or say that it's incorrect - I think it's very correct, but it makes a lot of assumptions about the audience of the cartoon. It assumes that people are not aware of these issues already - and maybe they're not - or that all humanitarian actions of this nature are made from a state of white savior intent, which I find too cynical to support. Of course these are issues, but I think the are more present elsewhere than in this comic. I don't know who originally wrote the comic or what their intention of it was, so I can't say whether they would be aware of flaws in the reading of it. I also don't want to sound like I'm coming off saying that "not all white people are this way, this is unfair" because I understand that it weakens the ability for these sort of arguments to be made and makes some people feel as if they cannot make criticisms. Like this post on Tumblr about feminism and why women shouldn't have to specify that they aren't complaining about all men, I can see why my own response to these criticism can be harmful. Reading Susan Bordo's book Twilight Zones, in particular her essay entitled "P.C., O.J., and Truth," I can see how the idea of "world traveling," especially in regards to academic material can be dangerous. As Bordo states, "Simply introducing students to different voices is not enough, if only because Western culture has not been a celebration of diversity, and treating it as such cannot explain the actual inequalities of the world we live in" (Bordo 82). But I also find it harmful to be cynical about these sorts of things and think that such a cartoon only makes things worse rather than posing a positive influence. Yes, the comic is flawed, but it gives hope that people can change and that racism can be eradicated, one person at a time. I believe that people can change through thought and action and I will continue to believe this even though I know it has flaws and shortcomings. I need these little hopes in life - that people will become more open-minded by seeing the world, that differences can be made in the smallest of ways, that there is a lot of good and a lot of hope to be gained. I need this perspective, because if I don't keep it in mind and focus only on the critique and the criticism and see how everything is flawed, I will never get out of bed in the morning and be a very, very miserable person. It's not perfect. But some days, it's all I've got.
So I will leave you all with two quotes that give me a glimpse of hope, because the world is rather bleak right now and perhaps you need this as much as I do. The first is from Susan Bordo, in the same text mentioned above: "[I]t is not necessary to win the big race in order to transform 'they way things are.' All of us in myriad, small ways, have the capacity to do this, because nothing that we do is ever a self-contained, disconnected, isolated event" (64). And finally, one of my new favorite quotes from Indiana author Kurt Vonnegut: “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place."

Works Cited:

Bordo, Susan. Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato To O.J. University of California Press, 1997.

1 comment:

  1. Edit: It's come to my attention that the Kurt Vonnegut quote was not actually said by Vonnegut - which makes sense, it's not really his style. Once again Tumblr has lied to me :P According to another site, it's from Iain S. Thomas. And if you're interested in reading more about the confusion over this quote, check out this post: