In my blog for my Women’s Studies class, I’ve recently spent a fair amount of time discussing “White Man’s Burden.” The term refers to the deep-seated idea that since white people are the “superior, more privileged” race, it is their responsibility to raise all other races up to their standard of living–which again, is superior to all other lifestyles, and obviously preferable to any chosen “victimized” culture’s current situation. And because of this, anytime white people try to “help” those in different cultures, they should logically be received with gratitude for their charitable efforts. Most people have realized by that this is simply untrue. It’s a colonialist idea that was really only relevant until the end of the civil rights movement. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe.
Coming to college, I’ve noticed a few things I was never really aware of before. One of which is the fact that, although conservatives in America are typically thought to be the “bigoted ones,” there’s a lot liberals here who are too. If nothing else, this is because of a lack of information. The thing is, when you call a liberal out about it, it’s a lot harder for them to accept that they’ve said or done something prejudiced, because one of the defining traits they often see in themselves is a fair and just willingness to help others. When they’re made aware of it, they often are ashamed, but at the same time they might feel somewhat justified. After all, they support efforts to help the very people they’re prejudiced towards. Their intention was never to be prejudiced… But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.
The same goes for white/western/upper-middle class feminists. While our intentions may be noble, we will never truly understand who we’re helping until we learn to look past stereotypes. And if we don’t understand people, we won’t understand how to help them. As feminists trying to help women in the “third world” (another subjective term, stemming from the West’s superiority complex) we’ll focus on “issues” we as Westerners would consider problems, or which we find “terrible” (think unfamiliar/foreign). These chosen areas of focus often include the termination of basic cultural norms in other countries, such as the veiling of women or genital mutilation. We could spend all our time on this wasted effort–trying to change a culture which isn’t ours, and once again becoming the safeguarding oppressors of the globe. But in truth, the women of the region themselves may want–and need–different types of support. And unless we’ve talked to them explicitly about those needs, chances are we as Westerners would never consider them a problem, simply because we’ve never had to think about them before. For example, many women spend hours each day carrying clean water back to their homes, just to make one meal for their family. Access to clean water is a constant struggle in these regions, but practically unheard of in the West. In Africa, hundreds of women and children die each day because of a shortage in health care for infants and pregnant women–but this is hardly an issue where we live. We also tend to have relatively safe working environments over here, so we don’t consider things like the structural unsoundness of buildings to be a feminist issue. However, if you’ve been paying attention to the recurring collapses of textile mills in India (which for the most part employ women and children), you probably realize that it is.
If we take the time to see women in other countries as people like us, who all have different needs, we will be able to provide support for our fellow women in a much more meaningful, efficient way. But we can only give people what they’re willing to accept. If we only focus on giving them what we think they need, they’ll never be able to have what they actually need. And if all we’re trying to do is make their culture just like ours, we’re only oppressing them even more.
Hooks, Bell. Global Feminism, 2000.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Under Western Eyes, 1984.
Shiva, Vandana. Our Violent Economy Is Hurting Women, 2013.