Before You Get All Gleeful About the White Savior Barbie Instagram, Ask Yourself the Following Questions:
The plaster saints of the internet, whose shit certainly does not stink, are aflutter today. The reason? The White Savior Barbie instagram account.
I'm the first to admit that this account is, in fact, hilarious. I love a good parody, and humor can be the best way ever to make a point.
However, I've got to disagree with the premise of the account. Voluntourism is (usually) awesome, and I am all for volunteer travel. I mean, I wouldn't do it myself -- I would rather spend my $4-10k on myself. Maybe someday I'll be selfless and charitable. But right now, all I really want to do when I travel is camp and surf and dive and have fun. Maybe even eat some delicious food.
Right now, I would ALWAYS prefer to watch the sunset from my surfboard... than read a book to some kid or carry water to some school.
Which is why I know for a fact that I am in no position to judge anyone who decides to spend thousands of dollars and weeks of their time helping out -- either at home, or abroad.
Chances are, you are not, either. Before you make some smug Facebook post about how right-on the White Savior Barbie instagram account is, ask yourself the following questions:
1. How much money have you donated to charity this year?
Voluntourism usually comes with a pretty hefty price tag -- and some portion of this money goes directly to charities, schools and organizations in developing countries.
Obviously, there is some amount waste -- there are overhead costs, program costs and, sometimes, corruption. The same could be said of the Clinton Foundation and the Red Cross.
Not to mention the fact that, while volunteers are living abroad, they put a lot of money into the local economy. (Even though all those headscarves and necklaces are going to draw the ire of social justice warriors who consider possession of these items to be "cultural appropriation." Tell that to the poor, single mother who sold these items to the voluntourist in the first place -- see if she agrees with you.)
2. How many hours have you spent volunteering this year?
Do you actually volunteer anywhere? If not, please shut up about voluntourism.
3. Have you ever actually done volunteer travel?
If you've never done it, you have no idea what it is like. You have no idea about the connections you form and the way the experience shapes your world view. You have no idea what kind of ripple effect this trip could have on your entire life -- including future travel decisions, future charitable donations, future volunteer work, and future advocacy and fundraising efforts.
If you've never had an adorable little orphan run up to you and give you a big hug, you have no idea what kind of warmth, excitement and empathy this could generate. You have no idea what it feels like to share this moment with your friends and family on Instagram.
4. Are you a mindreader? If not, how can you possibly know the voluntourists' inner feelings?
Mashable stupidly credited the White Savior instagram account with "brilliantly mocking the insincere volunteer selfies in Africa."
I'm sorry -- I didn't realize Mashable had mindreaders on their staff. But they must, right? How else do they know whether a volunteer is being "insincere"? Maybe some of them are. But if you truly believe that every single tourist is guilty of being insincere, and every single connection they claim to forge is fake... I feel sorry for you, man.
I feel sorry for you that you've never had a moment or a temporary friendship or a fast connection with someone that changed your life. But I think that says more about you than it does about kind-hearted people who use their limited vacation days and savings to help others.
I've never volunteer traveled -- but I know the kind of magic that can exist between people. I know what it is like to spend one, or two, of three weeks with someone -- and then spend the rest of your life loving them. Even if you don't see them again.
5. Have you ever posted a picture of yourself on social media?
If so, how exactly are you better than White Savior Barbie? You think it's any less self-indulgent of you to post your fancy dinner, your latte art, or your gym selfie... than it is to share life-changing travel moments with your friends and family online?
6. Do you realize that people post photos online for reasons other than being self-indulgent?
I love posting photos online. And, sure, sometimes I'm bragging a little. But mostly, I post online to either share my ideas or to give my friends and family members, many of whom I rarely see, a glimpse into my life. I've loved posting photos of monkeys, sunsets and underwater landscapes from my recent Costa Rica/Panama trip, because I want my family to share the experience with me in some small way.
I want the people who care about me to know I am happy.
So is it really so unimaginable that a white girl volunteering in Africa is any different?
I mean -- her parents are probably very worried. Parents worry even when you're not in a part of the world that suffers from poverty, political instability, and diseases like malaria and ebola. (I never said their fears were rational -- just that they exist.)
Her friends and family may be curious about what she's up to. Is it really so horrible that she shares her favorite moments with them?
When you travel, do you go radio silent? Do you not post photos because doing so is self-indulgent and insincere? Or are you sincerely excited to share your experience with your network?
Here's a photo I shared recently of me taking a break from SUPing in Panama. Do I look cute in it? Totally! But that's not why I shared it. I shared it to share a moment. You have a problem with that? Then you're probably not who I posted this photo for.
7. Do you have a legitimate reason to be upset about voluntourism, or are you just jealous, resentful or hopping on board with a social cause you don't fully understand?
Take a moment to self-reflect. Be honest with yourself, and try to refrain from meaningless jargon. You could learn something about yourself.
8. Other than bickering about white people volunteering in Africa, have you actually done anything to change or improve voluntourism as we currently know it? Have you done anything to help Africa?
Look. Voluntourism isn't going anywhere. That's because people are altruistic. We love to take care of others -- it's part of our nature.
And people also love to travel. It is well-documented that money can buy happiness -- if you spend it on travel and other experiences, rather than things. And if you spend it on someone other than yourself.
Voluntourism is a beautiful combination of two things people love, and that make us happy. If you're one of those sillies who says, "Oh, voluntourists should just donate the money to charity, it would help more that way," then you have no understanding of basic behavioral economics.
People make economic decisions in isolation. It's not like people think in if-then statements. "IF I don't volunteer travel, THEN I will donate $4,000 to charity."
Moreover, people don't volunteer travel as their annual charitable donation. They volunteer travel as their annual vacation. Travel is important to people. That will never change.
With that in mind... you love gleefully sitting behind your computer and criticizing people with big hearts. But have you done anything to address the problems you have with volunteer travel?
Because there are some very real issues with voluntourism. For example, some orphanages have been found to make conditions artificially bad for their orphans, in order to elicit more donations from volunteers.
HOW IS THIS THE FAULT OF THE VOLUNTEERS? Are they supposed to magically know that?
If you want to actually make a difference, start a blog! Write an op-ed! Call out the organizations that have been known to cause more harm than good. Highlight and celebrate the organizations that are actually having a positive impact on the community.
Are there organizations that have done an exceptional job of making a long-term plan to help the community? Who? Where? What? When? Help spread the word! Help voluntourists help organizations and people who need help the most!
Or... I guess you can sanctimoniously write comments on Facebook and do nothing to help anyone. Whatever floats your boat.
But, yeah. I'm sure we can all agree that this is hilarious.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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