Nov 11, 2012

half the sky? more on the ways white saviourism screws us all up

The above is a trailer for Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.   This is the official site for it.  It's a four-hour pbs special that aired in the US in early October and was shot in 10 countries: Cambodia, Kenya, India, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia and the U.S.

Sayantani DasGupta has a great post over on Racalicious titled:

“Your Women Are Oppressed, But Ours Are Awesome”: How Nicholas Kristof And Half The Sky Use Women Against Each Other" 

Apparently Kristof says at one point in the documentary, “When you have won the lottery of life there is some obligation some responsibility we have to discharge.” Obligation?! Discharge?! Wow,  I hope that my calling to use my various privileges to work in solidarity across the Americas and build the power of our movements to build a better world never comes across as anything like that! (though note that I have often heard international solidarity activists say things along this line in much nicer sounding ways, like 'to whom much is given, much is expected')

It's worth reading the whole post on Racialicious, but here are some highlights:

"Perhaps reflecting this sense of noblesse oblige, the film is based on an amazingly problematic premise: the camera crew follows Kristof as he travels to various countries in the Global South to examine issues of violence against women–from rape in Sierra Leone, to sex trafficking in Cambodia, from maternal mortality and female genital cutting in Somaliland, to intergenerational prostitution in India. Because, hey, all the histories and cultures and situations of these countries are alike, right? (Um, no.) Oh, and he doesn’t go alone! Kristof travels with famous American actresses like Eva Mendez, Meg Ryan, Diane Lane, Gabrielle Union, and America Ferrera on this bizarre whirlwind global tour of gender violence.

There are plenty of critiques I could make of Kristof’s reporting (in this film and beyond, see this great round-up of critiques for more). Critiques about voyeurism and exotification: the way that global gender violence gets made pornographic, akin to what has been in other contexts called “poverty porn.”

For example, would Kristof, a middle-aged male reporter, so blithely ask a 14-year-old U.S. rape survivor to describe her experiences in front of cameras, her family, and other onlookers? Would he sit smilingly in a European woman’s house asking her to describe the state of her genitals to him? Yet, somehow, the fact that the rape survivor is from Sierra Leone and that the woman being asked about her genital cutting is from Somaliland, seems to make this behavior acceptable in Kristof’s book. And more importantly, the goal of such exhibition is unclear. What is the viewer supposed to receive–other than titillation and a sense of “oh, we’re so lucky, those women’s lives are so bad”?

In her book Regarding the Pain of OthersSusan Sontag suggested that images of distant, suffering bodies in fact inure the watcher, limiting as opposed to inspiring action:
Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic."
That was my bolding - this is is so essential! So many organizations share intense stories without clear action steps the readers can then take.  This is one of the things I am going to be tracking in my postdoc, which focuses specifically on the stories that accompaniers share and what works well for building solidarity.  How can accompaniers, and others doing human rights and humanitarian work in conflict zones, avoid falling in to traps like these?

The article goes on to raise another issue I'll be looking at in my postdoc:

"The issue of agency is also paramount. In the graduate seminar I teach on Narrative, Health, and Social Justice in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, I often ask my students to evaluate a text’s ethical stance by asking themselves–“whose story is it?” For example, are people of color acting or being acted upon? Although the film does highlight fantastic on-the-ground activists such as maternal-health activist Edna Adan of Somaliland, the point of entry–the people with whom we, the (presumably) Western watchers, are supposed to identify–are Kristof and his actress sidekick-du-jour.

In fact, many have critiqued Kristof for his repeated focus on himself as “liberator” of oppressed women. As Laura Augustín points out in her essay “The Soft Side of Imperialism”:
Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.
Beyond his self-promotion, there remains the issue of whose story Kristof is telling. He has, in fact, answered critiques of his reporting style–which often focuses on white outsiders going to Asian or African countries–by saying that this choice is purposeful. When asked why he often portrays “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” he has answered, “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.” A presumption which assumes that all New York Times readers are white, of course, but I won’t get into that now."

One of the things I am curious to look at in the stories told by accompaniers is how accompaniers can function as an 'in', or as she puts it here a 'bridge' for the reader, in ways that are less oppressive and build respectful solidarity. 

DasGupta goes on to make other important points, and ends by citing one of my favorite articles:

As feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff argues in her essay “The Problem Of Speaking For Others,” that part of the problem of speaking for others is that none of us can transcend our social and cultural location: “The practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for." 

I think there are actually careful ways of speaking with that can make our voices louder, but more on that later. 


Anonymous said...

I agree with the critique of white saviourism, but some of what you're saying borders on this cultural relativist dogma which contends that abuse of women is only wrong if it's "our culture" doing it, and that other cultures should be given a free pass.

sta said...

i love this article. you really captured all my thoughts on white saviors and how western "concern" for human rights abuses abroad is so often just an arm of imperialism. thank you for writing it!

i found your blog while trying to do a google search on "decolonizing tourism". i am currently in jeju, visiting activists who are protesting the construction of a naval base, and i actually met some people from "frontiers," which i saw listed on your blog's sidebar. i'm going to be traveling in southeast asia during the next 2 months, and hope to connect w/ activist communities to learn more about work being done to bring light to how the tourist industry exploits their existence while continuing to disseminate really problematic, exoticized ideas about the countries and cultures in southeast asia. if you have any info on activists or orgs doing this work, please pass it on! thanks!

Sara Koopman said...

Thank you Sta! I don't have connections in that part of the world, but when you get home, I recommend the work of Gada Mahrouse. If you don't have academic access and can't get her articles that come up in google scholar just let me know and I can forward them. And I would love to hear back from you about how it goes! my email is just my name at gmail.