Why Do White People Want To Visit Slums?
When I came to India for the first time, I was twenty, privileged, entitled, and accustomed to my colour being the default. But looking back, I think the most problematic attitude I held was that towards great poverty.
I felt a need to see it, a burning desire to enter a slum and comprehend the reality that was the everyday life of so many people throughout the world. I wanted to help, and because of my deeply ingrained white saviour instinct, felt like I had a lot to bring. So I joined an NGO working in the slums, teaching kids. I don’t speak Marathi, they didn’t speak English, and I’m pretty sure the only thing I brought them was a good laugh, seeing a strange white girl being awkward and strange in their classroom.
Since then, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on that need to see poverty, and why I, and a lot of white people from privileged countries, feel that way.
On the one hand, maybe it is an anthropological curiosity to see the life of our fellow humans, to bring some degree of understanding to the incomprehensible. I remember growing up, watching the (also very problematic) Comic Relief clips every year, showing just how little people had, and how hard it was for them just to survive, and as a kid, watching this, it felt both horribly unfair and somewhat unreal. When you have everything you need and a hundred times more, understanding how it could happen that people don’t even have enough to eat feels absurd. In the same way as, when I heard Notre Dame was burning, I just had to go see, not because the disaster made me happy, but just because my brain felt a disconnect between the new information and its perception of reality, and I needed to match the pieces together. In some ways, I guess this reason is quite positive — it puts an end to our denial as to how much people are suffering. A suffering created by our lifestyles, our economic system which rely on these inequalities.
But there is a darker element to white people’s desire to witness poverty, first hand. It stems partly from the fact that we need to confirm to ourselves things we don’t fully believe when people of colour say them. We need to check that they…