It’s far from a rare sight on my Facebook feed, and I doubt I’m the only one. A far-flung friend-of-a-friend has been off gallivanting around the world, taking selfies with tigers in Thailand, surfing on Bondi, and then, as sort of a salve to their conscience after 6 months of fun, doing a stint of volunteering in a developing country. They take part in running a sports camp, or building some toilets at a local school and at the end of it, they upload a new profile picture with a photo of them and a local black child.
I’ve always struggled with these sorts of pictures, but until now have never been able to quite place my finger on why. While I have no doubt that the young people going out to volunteer in impoverished communities have nothing but good and honourable intentions, there is something not quite right about the trope of the ‘black child and white volunteer’ profile picture. I’m by no means the first to voice my discomfort on this topic, as an Onion article entitled ‘6 Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Profile Picture’ entertainingly considers.
So what is it that makes these photos a cause of such unease? Is it because you wouldn’t pick up a random white kid in another country for the same ‘photo opportunity’? That, most probably, you’re sharing a photograph of a minor without their consent? Or is it because you’re broadcasting your volunteering benevolence and global citizen-status on social media by, essentially, using a child whom you will most likely never see again?
that people, and especially children, are seen as a now-almost clichéd photo opportunity, primarily due to their skin colour is more than a little unsettling
Possibly it’s all of these, but I’d consider the issue to go further than that. The simple fact that people, and especially children, are seen as a now-almost clichéd photo opportunity primarily due to their skin colour is more than a little unsettling. The sentiment may have changed, but in some ways it’s no better than the exhibition of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman in the colonial ‘Human Zoos’ of the 1850s or American tourists to South Africa photographing ‘natives’ in the 70s. Sharing such photographs as a demonstration of your kindly-volunteering ways harks of the ‘civilized white savior complex’ and paternalistic colonial attitudes that tainted the KONY campaign of 2012 and still causes division amongst liberal thinkers today. Though we might like to think of world without borders, of humanity without divisions of race, to deny the deep, horrific history of the colonial era, and the obvious implications it still carries into the modern day, is to be woefully naïve.
The trend for these profile pictures is also objectifying and degrading to the people and culture of the country to be viewed as little more than a tourist attraction worthy of social media sharing. Years of Comic Relief appeals have led us to associate the image of the ‘The African Child’ with malnourishment and malaria in need of first world wisdom and charity, but this does not mean they are nothing more than symbols of an advertising campaign for the ‘developing world’. Obviously there’s no question that some of the 54 countries that make up the second largest continent in the world do benefit from western charity, but that doesn’t mean you should use a child as a means by which to publicly demonstrate your own munificent compassion.
To go back to our stereotyped ‘Gap Yah’ volunteer posting a photo with a kid from an orphanage day-care however, perhaps it could be excused if valuable work was taking place. Alright, it might be a little tactless, a little narcissistic, but it’s volunteering, right? Surely that’s always a good thing?
Except, increasingly that’s not always the case. Particularly for students and school-leavers seeking a gap year to remember, the new global, multi-million business of ‘voluntourism’ looms; a dark, corrupt and corporate shadow over young people’s good intentions. Voluntourism is almost always directed at idealistic and privileged young travellers, and aims to ‘sell’ (for usually staggering large amounts of money) the chance to volunteer within a poverty-stricken community. More and more however, it is coming to light that these opportunities are usually more for the moral fulfillment of the volunteer (and the improvement of their CV) than the benefit of the community. Backlash campaigns to this, such as the now iconic impersonation of an upper class ‘Gap Yah’ student and viral videos produced by SAIH Norway in their painfully satirical ‘Who Wants to be a Volunteer?’ may seem ridiculous, but they’re an important step in eroding false conceptions that a few unskilled, white teenagers are going to be able to make a real difference in just a few weeks.
As Pippa Biddle in her article for the Huffington Post considered, $3000 bought her high school trip a week volunteering building a library and a week on safari. Except that, as it later transpired, the untrained group of students were so bad at construction that every night local men had to take apart the work they had done and rebuild it. It seems almost laughable, but as the gap year and voluntourism industry has grown, these sorts of incidences have only gotten more common. Exploitation of poor communities and manipulation of the wealthy do-gooders has led to appalling tales of corruption, the ‘false orphanages’ in Nepal being a particularly damaging example.
The entire concept of sharing your volunteering exploits on social media is fuelling a growing industry that in some cases is damaging the very communities you’re supposed to be helping
It’s clear therefore that the ‘white volunteer, black kid’ profile picture goes far beyond being poor taste. Alongside the lingering remnants of colonial history that we cannot ignore, the entire concept of sharing your volunteering exploits on social media is fuelling a growing industry that in some cases is damaging the very communities you’re supposed to be helping. While this might all sound a bit doom and gloom, this is not to say that there are no genuine volunteering projects out there. Sites such as ‘Responsible Travel’ advocate ethical and worthwhile programmes, and certainly, if you do your research and ask the right questions, I don’t doubt it is possible to make a meaningful contribution.
On the other hand perhaps, as Pippa considers, it is time that we move onto a new era when it comes to considering gap-year volunteering. It might be an incredible experience and bulk out the old CV, but as outsiders, and especially white outsiders, we aren’t always doing the right thing by having a stab at building a water well with no engineering experience. At the end of the day, money spent on an all-inclusive tour company that tacks on the volunteering for a week or two would be better given directly to a charity.
It’s a controversial issue, hence its appearance in this column, but if you take anything from this, please think twice about changing your profile picture to that photo of you and a nameless local black child when you come back into a wifi zone after your volunteering stint. It’s just not worth the likes.