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 aren’t exaggerating. Like men often need to double check something a woman tells them. Say, you press on a button, and it doesn’t do anything. Some men will then feel the need to press the button again, just in case you did it wrong. It’s a habit of the privileged — to only believe their own eyes, and disregard the life experience of people less privileged.
Plus, seeing this kind of poverty is often a way of feeling reassured that those living it are very different from us, that we are safe from the disaster. We seek to confirm our stereotypes, our world vision of “us” and “them.”
We can see this in the incredible ease at which white people can accept things that are culturally unacceptable in their own countries, because they feel like people from poor countries aren’t human in the same way as people from their own country. Expats living in India get ‘maids’ and treat them like dirt. When I used to work in a French company in Delhi, we had a cook, who wasn’t allowed to eat with us, but had to eat on his own, in the kitchen. With disconcerting ease, we accept this kind of violence, that isn’t part of our cultural norms at all back in France. My colleagues acted in a way they never would with a white person.
Whatever the reasons why I felt the need to see poverty, the fact that I felt like my desire was something I could legitimately follow is directly and solely linked to my privilege, as a white person from the Western world, which gave me a feeling of entitlement over the lives of brown people in slums.
There is actually a whole industry being born around this feeling: throughout India, tourist guides now offer guided tours of shanty towns. Visiting people’s homes to witness the disaster of their living conditions only happens because of the sense of entitlement that white people have over people of colour. I mean, a white person would never go and attend randomly some other person’s wake, or walk through a hospital looking at cancer patients, just to feel better about their own health. We would never go walking around a neighbourhood in our own towns, walk into buildings, stare into at people’s lives, wide-eyed, not caring whether they see us or not.
Then there are the things white people say when they come out of slums:
“They have so little, but they look so happy.”
“They are always smiling, they know what really matters.”
We say these things to convince ourselves that the people suffering have a completely different mindset from us, more simple, and philosophical, happy with the bare necessities.
This is all part of the way western white people romanticise poverty, and it is intensely harmful to underprivileged communities. Acting like their differences allow them to keep on smiling through their tragedy negates the reality of their problems, and is really a way of justifying the unjustifiable. It is way of gaslighting those who stand up and complain — when really, their life is so much simpler and more happy than ours.
It’s problematic, too, because we take other people’s suffering and use it for our own benefit: seeing the charm in the simplicity, the beauty in the poverty… It is a way of acting like what matters in the world is what we can get out of it.
Plus, we tend to reduce the complexity of the problems at hand, with our generalities born from a quick glimpse of other people’s lives. Poverty cannot be reduced to material deprivation. Actual poverty is a deprivation of agency as much as a deprivation of possessions. The poor struggle for the present and that robs them of the possibility of projecting themselves into the future.
What we really mean
Ultimately, what we admire and romanticise in poverty says a lot more about us than about the people we are observing. It shows the limits of our society which we know are there, but can’t quite place. The need for a world outside of consumerism. Behind the racist goggles that shape our worldview, there is actually something to be learned from our need of poverty porn. The things we actually admire in poverty: simplicity, community, are sorely lacking in our societies.
The problem comes when we fail to recognise that something which can be chosen can also be oppressive when it is foisted on you, when you have no other choice. Wanting a simpler life as a privileged person doesn’t have to be the same as saying “they already have it,” because they don’t. We want the simplicity but to maintain our agency. In fact, that is what attracts us, because we feel like our possessions have become a burden, like we would be freeer without them.
It is the same for the sense of community . We admire how close people are in poor communities, how warm and welcoming. But this hides the ways in which community can be a burden when it is not chosen — when community limits who you can be, and yet you can have no life outside of it. We might want more of a sense of community which is lacking in our western lives, but we want a chosen community. A sort of bubble we draw around ourselves, containing only chosen individuals. Not the kind of community where different sorts of people have to tolerate and help each other, no matter what.
Society means that we are fertile ground for racist, sexist, classist ideologies, growing inside of us. Planting new roots. But we can pull them out, over and over again. Just so long as we are ready to question ourselves on why we think the way we do… and accept that the answers might make us not like ourselves very much.