Race Relations: What's So Wrong About A Rich White Woman Interested In "Africa"?

A few weeks ago, Latoya Peterson, editor of the blog Racialicious, emailed me to proffer compliments over the success of the site and talk about Jezebel's coverage of racial issues, which, she explained, she wasn't particularly thrilled with. After a few email exchanges, I called her, and we talked for what seemed like hours. We did the same the following day. And, (if I remember correctly) a few days later. Although I didn't always agree with her assessment of our content and the intentions behind it, I found her and her commentary to be intelligent, charming, sensitive and, of course enlightening... so much so that I decided to recreate part of our conversation over email so that commenters could weigh in. After the jump, Latoya and I discuss reader complaints, accusations of colonialism, coverage of Third World countries, and how to deal with issues of "the patriarchy" abroad without being patronizing.

ANNA: A few weeks ago a reader wrote in to me complaining about the items we've
done on women in, specifically, India, saying that she was sick of the fact that we link to the more horrific stories regarding women and girls on the Indian sub-Continent...rape, murder, abuse, etc. The blog post she was upset about regarded a piece in a British paper we linked to about pre-teens selling their virginity to adult men in India in order to financially help their families. The reader referred to our — and by "our" I mean the editors and the commenters — "smug First World selves" and railed against our collective "ignorance" and "condescension". I responded to her saying that I understood where she was coming from but that in terms of stories about women and India, we were strapped: 99% of the stories that concern women that we find coming out of that area of the world are negative and/or upsetting, and we don't even post 90% of THOSE. I added that we work with what we can find, which, in the English language media, is coming either from American news sources, British news sources, or news sources in India that are available in English. We want to acknowledge the problems and horrors faced by women in other countries, but we often get attacked for doing so. What are some tactics that we — and other American, Western media properties — can approach these with more sensitivity?

LATOYA: Ha. I completely understand where she is coming from. Often times, western media tends to promote the things that are sensationalist like teen girls selling their virginity to feed their families or what Ebony magazine termed "disaster pornography" - things like famine, starvation, and suffering that tend to get people to wince and then open their wallets. I can't specifically speak to India, but since I notice this a lot with stories about the African continent. For example, take the elections in Kenya that happened late last year. If you were paying attention, you would know that there was a lot of tension leading up to those elections - so an allegation came in that someone won unfairly and riots broke out. However, when this news was reported, the headline was "Tribal Warfare Breaks Out in Kenya!"

Sensationalist stories grab our attention a lot faster than regular, day in the life stories. It's like the piece with Malawi I posted on last year - the article about how badly the World Bank and donor nations (US) screwed Malawi over in terms of offering them aid money with conditions attached that would keep them dependent on foreign aid dollars. Since people in Malawi were starving, the government made an executive decision to risk losing the money - and we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars - and to instead try to save their people from starvation. And they did it! That article got no play, whatsoever. Buried in the world section of the NY Times.

Late last month I read that profile of Madonna in Vanity Fair and saw all of these assertions about Malawi - and by extension Africa - and they rang false to me because of articles and books I had read earlier. And the article Madonna/Vanity Fair had all kinds of biased reporting - saying Africa when it really meant one specific country, asserting that Africans practice witchcraft when most Africans are Christian or Muslim, saying AIDS is killing the continent but never discussing how things like cuts to international family planning funds, the global gag rule, and allowing faith based programs to use development dollars to take their "abstinence only" ideas overseas. But, as many of my readers pointed out, they would have never made the connections from one thing to the other; since we have all been fed the idea that Africa is poor just because, we never question things like asking WHY African nations are so indebted or WHY AIDS is still spreading at alarming rates. We would just rather fill in our assumptions and keep reading about Madge's new album.

So part of the battle is asking the question "Why?" You'd be surprised at where that will lead you.

It's important that we begin to familiarize ourselves with international policy and politics. Keep in mind, when we read newspapers and other forms of media, there are subconsciously things that we skip - things that don't really pertain to our lives and don't make sense to us. Keep in mind, I read most of the same news sources you do. But the things I read make more sense to me because I acquired some background knowledge on some of the more intimidating topics.

Finally, realize that things aren't always death, destruction and horror - those are just the discussions that jump out at us the most. Over the last month, I've read articles about the development going on in African nations that revolve around technology. The NYT Magazine did a great article on Jan Chipchase who studies human behavior for Nokia and goes into developing nations to figure out how to sell them cell phones. Fast Company just published a piece on how Google is moving to create an internet presence in Africa, even though only 5% of people have access to internet. They feel it will be a huge growth project. Another business magazine talked about how the internet played a huge role in the rise of India's development - by mastering English, the population has been able to take advantage of the lucrative outsourcing market. And they also discussed the rise of cities and changes in traditional culture, as well as how "call center culture" has launched chick-lit novels and movies and the new prototype of the young urban Indian professional. So there is tons of information out there in mainstream media sources - we just tend to overlook it.

ANNA: I hear you on this. I think what I keep coming back to is 1. Issues of
time (we don't have the luxury of time to educate ourselves as broadly and quickly as we'd
like - blogging is quick business!) and 2. Women-specific issues (most of the stories we find regarding women are negative in nature because women around the world are, for the most part, not treated very well.). But here are some other questions: Is it "disaster pornography" to pick up on the stories written by actual, mainstream media outlets about the plight(s) of women around the world? Do we have to ALWAYS ALWAYS question them, at least those that seem pretty clear-cut? Why can't 12-year-old girls selling their virginity in India just be what it is, which is — to many cultures — horrific? Why CAN'T people put value judgments on such things sometimes without being accused of being colonialist, paternalistic, patronizing...even racist? And lastly, what do you think the inherent problems are with Westerners reporting back from non-Western countries, particularly on women's issues? Can a white, European woman living and working the Mideast never tell the full "truth" of her adopted society because of her background? Can an Asian-American woman in, say, South Africa not do the same? And lastly, because so many areas of the world (particularly the female populations in those areas) are in need of support, both financially and politically, what is so wrong with getting people to wince and open their wallets, particularly in an era in which superficial shit like celebrity adulation is so rampant that we have pageant contestants calling Iraq "the Iraq" and a decline in newspaper and book readership?

LATOYA: Anna, you have to understand that those excuses are just that - excuses. Here's why I say that - you all are great (seriously, fucking great) at calling out sexist assumptions about women in the media. You read an article and can instantly pick up on all the bullshit buzzwords and baseless assumptions that someone has concocted to prove their points about women being weaker/less intelligent/more emotional, etc. It's second nature to you, right? But I bet it wasn't always that way. You have to educate yourself about these issues in order to have that framework in your mind to challenge them. So the same way you learned to critically dissect the lies that women's magazines use to sell issues - it's the same thing. No one wakes up with a working knowledge of sexism, power dynamics in sexual relationships, eloquent critiques of impossible beauty ideals and a deep understanding about how strict adherence to gender roles in society causes tons of issues. You had to learn that.

So, in this case, the answer is learn. You aren't going to be able to fully comprehend everything about everything out of the box. Like I said in one of my posts on Racialicious, it took me about three months to stop fighting against the mass media programming that poorer nations are just a bunch of whiny complainers who want to be like America. So it will take a while.

Women are treated like shit around the world, this is very true. Women are also treated like shit in beacon of freedom America, particularly when you start considering issues like race, class, and immigration. But, just like there are kick ass things American women do every day, there are kick ass things that women around the world are doing too.

But to specifically answer your questions:

1. Yes, we always have to question because if we don't, we contribute to that whole narrative that the US is this great paragon of equality and every place else is some kind of human cesspool. Again, back to the Madonna/Malawi example - you could post on "starving babies in Malawi" and people go "oh no!" because that's what they are conditioned to do and we go buy a $24.00 bracelet that sends a dollar overseas, we mention about the horrendous situation there with our friends over cocktails and then roll right back into whatever stuff is affecting us right this minute. And no one talks about the World Bank, which is the leading reason why kids in Malawi are starving to death, and business moves as usual.

I am not saying that every other nation has no problems and nothing bad ever happens. But, it is kind of strange when we can post about the horrible shit that goes on in say, Italy (like your post on how 70% of Italian gynos refuse to perform abortions, even though they are legal) and have counterposts talking about cool/interesting things like how the Italian police department petitioned for more fashionable uniforms or the issues with modern dating in Italy. It provides a balanced view of the country. But that kind of balanced view never manages to make it over to African or South East Asian countries. So while we can read the literature and watch the movies coming out of those countries - there has to be SOMETHING else going on, some kind of larger social/cultural scene that is creating these works of art and lit - for some reason, our news reporting pretends that the only time they are worthy of our notice is when someone is suffering or something horrendous goes down. The answer is not to stop reporting on these events completely - just to be aware that these events do not exist in a vaccuum.

2. Value judgments are a tricky thing. In general, there is a problem with people conflating two separate issues and making them one. So, for example, let's take the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. I think we can all generally agree that it is fucked up when some citizens are entitled to more rights than others based solely on gender, and that's what Saudi Arabia does. However, the problems come in when people start sticking blanket value judgments that don't necessarily apply to that situation - like saying Islam is responsible for the situation in Saudi Arabia. Umm, no. Some fuckheads in power got together and said this is how it's going down and we're going to justify it using Islam. There are 52 nations that are Muslim Majority countries and that's not how they roll. Look at Turkey - it is a nation that is 99% Muslim. 99%! And they have a very secular government system. Malaysia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Indonesia, Bangledesh - plenty of nations are Muslim and they have different systems set up. But people tend to stick one issue in because that's what they think that is what is happening and miss the bigger picture.

Fatemeh, the publisher of the Muslimah Media Watch blog also points out how condescending it is to want to "help" women in a foreign country without listening to them. We tend to infantilize them (example here) and act as those these poor poor women don't have minds of their own and can't speak for themselves, never realizing that they are actively engaging in these issues - just not necessarily where we can see. From the little I know about Muslimah feminism, people who still actively adhere to Islamic principles tend to work within those guidelines while fighting for equality. Our idea of equality may not be the same as what they want. So, for western people, it's a really big fucking deal if Muslim women take off their veils and wear lipstick. To them, it's kind of whatever, they want to focus on employment options and pay equality.

3. In terms of wincing and wallets, let me just say that there is nothing wrong with being informed. The problem is that we respond, crack the wallet, and we aren't informed. So who knows where the money is going and what it is being used for? Think about it this way - we give out billions of dollars in foreign food aid per year - so why haven't we solved world hunger yet? We waste enough food in America to feed quite a few nations, so the issue is more complicated than just food. We need to critically look at where this money is going and who is benefiting. There are also great ways to get involved that don't involve much money and make a longer lasting impact. Want to end hunger? Start lobbying congress, volunteering with NGOs, raise awareness about how the IMF is "the Typhoid Mary" of international development. (Yes, Jeffrey Sachs' said that — read this sitting down.) Or, looking at how governmental organizations and non governmental organizations have tons of money but can't seem to get it together do fix actual problems, even when said problems could be fixed for about $10,000 (see here). So, there are steps to take that would be more helpful in the long run but people just don't ask questions.

By the way, westerners can report on non-western issues, as can expats living in other countries. The issue is not that they are not entitled to have an opinion, it is just that many times that opinion may be ill-informed and may not have the whole story. So, I think western journalists in particular have an obligation to tread lightly in areas that are not directly our own - after all, since we shape of lot of world policy, our words may have serious consequences.

Related: Meet The Neo-Colonialists: Madonna And Vanity Fair [Racialicious]