July 23, 2018

Race and Studying Abroad

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Have you been traveling this summer? If you have, I’m sure that you packed your sociological imagination with you. Last month I participated in a Study Abroad trip with a group of first year students who were all either first-to-college or global majority students. We traveled to the Dominican Republic so the students could do an intensive cultural exchange and service learning course.

These students are part of a program to improve racial and ethnic diversity in our Honors College here at UMass Amherst, and I taught Intro to Sociology with them last fall. Similar to honors programs (as well as high school college prep courses) study abroad programs are, generally, a primarily white experience. Only about 5% of students who study abroad are black. Our International Programs Office recognizes this disparity, and assists and supports the program my students participated in because of this inequity.

The racial and ethnic makeup of the group was less important than the fact that many were first generation Americans. They were, assuredly, relatively privileged in the sense that we were all from the U.S. and not as economically challenged as the communities that we were working with. Their sense of traveling abroad was very different from what white students would experience. The Dominican Republic, in particular, has a very complicated history of race and the students experienced racism in a way that they were unaccustomed to. (If you want to read an amazing historical fiction book on this topic, check out The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat.)

Part of the trip was to participate in a service learning project, and we worked with an organization called Acción Callejera that 

A man in shadow takes a picture on his phone of a stone castle
Photo courtesy of the author

helps homeless children, some Dominican but mostly Haitian. We toured their facilities and received lectures on service learning, and the work of the community organization.

Barbara Jacoby wrote in 1996 that service learning is, “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development.” Our on-site instructor explained to us that international service learning requires heightened experiences, partnerships, reflection, complex logistical preparation, and sustainability.

One phrase we kept on hearing about was “Nothing about us, without us,” which is to say that any service learning program should not be about just hyper-privileged students determining what is best for another more disadvantaged community. Another thing that the students responded to was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous TED talk: The Danger of a Single Story. We felt ready.

And for two days, we were in a rural community, helping to refresh and rehabilitate a small school. The days were hot and hard, the students were doing some heavy labor and painting at times, interspersed with quick games of baseball on the school’s narrow road. As the only white person for miles around, I received my fair share of attention, but the kids were far more thrilled to interact and engage with the students. The students all took a lot of pictures with the kids.

When returning home, I thought again about something I see everywhere in our culture: The white savior trope. The white savior trope is a narrative wherein a white person forfeits some personal discomfort or economic hardship in order to save some poorer and usually non-white folks. (Here’s a great video on “How to not be a white savior,” which would have been required reading for this trip if not for the racial and ethnic composition of my students.) You might think the white savior trope is a thing of the past, but it’s really everywhere.

Even knowing that it’s everywhere, I was still surprised to see one of the most racist white savior tropes in cinematic history return to theaters in 2016. Someone decided to bring Tarzan, Lord of the Apes back as summer blockbuster movie. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original tale, Tarzan is an orphaned English boy, raised by an ape mother named Kala. He learns the ways of the jungle, but also teaches himself English and French. In so doing, he becomes a master of both the natural world of the Congo, but also of the Congolese people.

A man with a ladder walks past a wall mural. The mural depicts a young boy with a colorful and ornate mask with horns completely covering his face and a monkey on his shoulder. In the left part of the picture there is some cut off text
Photo courtesy of the author

Burroughs’ tale underscores the nobility and importance of Western Civilization. Avatar? Same thing: A white man occupies the body of a person of color (called “Na’vi”) and magically becomes better than everyone else! A new version of The Jungle Book—with source material that has a strong white colonialist narrative—supposedly attempted to “subvert the gross colonialism of Rudyard Kipling.” And this summer’s Mowgli is being pitched as doing this as well. (There’s a whole Wikipedia page of examples.)

It’s a story that plays out in sociology as well. Ethnographers, unlike quantitative scholars who might study the same issues via a different method, are often critiqued, since they are primarily wealthier white academics extracting stories from often poorer people of color, for their own professional gain.

How do these white ethnographers not just represent and research communities of color, but also seek to “save” them through their scholarly activities? What are the challenges and complications? What kinds of violence do we do while attempting to process the perspectives of “others?” This is a particular concern in anthropology, but our discipline as well. White urban ethnographers are often criticized for venturing into the city and African American communities. (See the critique of Wacquant’s book, “The Black Frenchman.”) Sociologist and author of Punished, Victor Rios calls this the “Jungle Book Trope” and levies this critique on Alice Goffman’s new book, On The Run.

Let’s bring this back around to service learning and study abroad.

It is something of a trope to have white college students travel to so-called developing countries and participate in humanitarian community development programs. (Search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” and “Barbie Savior” online to recognize the meme.) To be somewhat kind or reflexive, I have my own pictures of me with these students—I’m white, they are not—somewhere on my computer. I sheepishly had them in mind as we posed for pictures with the economically disadvantaged Dominican and Haitian school kids we were working with.

I’m not, however, using them as a way to “virtue signal” (i.e., “hey look, I’m cool with people who aren’t like me!”) on a dating site. I won’t post them here either. It’s not for a lack of pictures. We took a lot of pictures with these kids. But I do wonder what the students who were doing this work did with their pictures. Did they post them on social media? Did they show their friends? How was their relative privilege hidden or displayed?


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