“Feminism” is actually “Whitewomanism”: Why White Feminists do have a part to play in overcoming racism.

Last week, I wrote that I believe sexism and racism are interlinked and that as a White woman I can speak about racism through using my experience of sexism. Since then I have received some thoughtful and interesting feedback, including some people calling me out and challenging me on what I had said.  I am grateful for that, and it’s forced me to really consider my motives behind writing what I did last week. Firstly, I still do firmly believe that racism and sexism are interlinked and are different manifestations of the same kind of oppression.  I do not believe that that absolves me from playing a part in racism.  I do not believe that my experience as a White woman equals the experience of a Black person and especially a Black woman, but rather runs parallel (and intersects over the Black and ethnic female experience).  I do believe, however, that I can use my experience as a woman to examine my own complicity in racism and to speak out more effectively.

Being White means that I do not experience the full brunt of sexism and misogyny that other women of colour experience.   As I said in a comment to my last article, White Privilege transcends even sexism.  But this is precisely why I believe that it is even more imperative for White women to speak out against racism and sexism.  How we can do this effectively is a difficult field to navigate, but one that I think is important to explore.  By no means do I know all the answers to how White people can be allies, but I want to add my own input through a feminist lens.

White feminists are especially complicit in racist structures precisely because we are feminists.  Historically, feminism has been centred on White women’s rights rather than Black or other minority groups.  The early feminist movement in America ostracised Black women through their utterly ridiculous inability to accept that Black men were not rapists of White women.

Even today, many feminists (myself included) unconsciously equate feminism with White women and completely ignore the fact that sexism and racism converge in the experience of Black and ethnic minority women.   By pretending to speak for “all women,” mainstream feminism ignores the reality: that whether you are a White woman or a Black woman will determine how and the extent to which you experience sexism. (I’m not going to continue proving this. If you still honestly disbelieve this, I noted a few statistics in my last article and a simple google search will enlighten you to the shocking disparity between Black and White women.)   By refusing to recognise these different experiences, mainstream feminism ignores Black women and ethnic minorities and by default “all women” actually becomes “all White women.”

The recent scandals surrounding the nude leaked photos exemplify the back seat that Black and ethnic minorities have been forced to take in mainstream feminism.   Women rallied around Jennifer Lawrence when her photos were leaked, but there was very little outrage surrounding the Black women like Jill Scott or Gabrielle Union whose pictures were also leaked.  Before the devastating case of Sandra Bland (who, aside from whether or not her death was a suicide or a brutal murder, should not have been in that fucking cell in the first fucking place) there was very little attention on the violence that Black women suffer at the hands of police in America and there is still not enough recognition of this.

One only needs to look at the ambivalence with which White feminists feel about Black women such as Nikki Minaj  to understand how mainstream feminism is racist.  Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video is an unashamed celebration of Black female sexuality that smashes the idea of women’s bodies being only instruments of pleasure for men.  As this article demonstrates, Minaj has done a lot of work to reclaim female sexuality for our own purposes.  The women in Minaj’s videos are active sexual agents rather than passive, sexualised objects; women that are not merely there to be looked at by men but control their own sexual desires and appetites.   This is just a part of feminism as the “No More Page Three Campaign” was, but many mainstream feminists actively deny that Minaj is a feminist.

Similarly, we can see how mainstream feminism has failed through the fact that many Black and ethnic minority women do not even want to identify as feminists.   Alice Walker recognised this when she defined herself as a womanist, and many women of colour feel more comfortable with this label because it is truly reflective of their experiences.   The reaction of White feminists to womanism perfectly demonstrates our inability to understand.  While some White feminists have attacked womanists for creating divides between women, others have rushed to identify themselves as womanists too or intersectional feminists. This is no doubt done with the best intentions, but it perfectly, and rather ironically, demonstrates how White Privilege operates within mainstream feminism. Firstly, by denying that there are divisions between women denies the experience of Black and ethnic minority women and completely ignores the fact that it was White women that first created the divides between us.  Secondly, by rushing to identify with women of colour, we actually take over space that is created specifically by women of colour for women of colour, as womanists like Trudy from Gradient Lair have pointed out.

How can White feminists fight against sexism and racism in a way that is inclusive of all and reflective of the reality of gender struggles?  Rather than invading their space, why not recreate our own to be more inclusive?  Why not redefine what it means to be a feminist by centring the debate on how racism and sexism intersect over the experience of women of colour? Why can’t we redefine what it means to be feminist?

White feminists need to recognise that mainstream feminism is actually “White feminism” and start challenging that.  We need to start calling each other out by ensuring that, when we speak about feminism, when we write about feminism, we include other women’s experiences.  We must recognise that the dynamics of race create a completely different experience of sexism for women of colour and that the so-called solidarity of “womanhood” is impeded by racism.

Secondly, we need to listen – to Black women, Asian women, Native American women, Romani women.  We need to listen to their experiences of feminism and take on board what they are saying, without immediately becoming offended or self-defensive.  The thing about “structural” is that there is no “I” in it.  Just because you yourself do not believe you are actively racist or sexist, does not exclude you from being a part of overarching social structures that make you an unwitting accomplice. Listening is the simplest solution, but the hardest thing to do effectively.  It is hard to accept honest feedback; to hear that what you thought was helpful or necessary is, in fact, not at all.

Finally, we must also act on what we hear.  When considering how to be an effective ally, many people suggest that to “shut up and listen” is the best thing White people can do.  I do not agree with this; I think it should be, “Shut up, Listen, then speak.”  Shutting up entirely only perpetuates the racial and sexist structures of the societies we live in. After self-reflection and listening, I do believe that White people can speak out and must speak out.  We must do it with care, and with awareness of the uncomfortable position we are in, but we should still do it.

Similarly, while White women should not be the leaders of feminism that does not mean we should be silent.  Rather we should speak more, and more effectively.  We should speak about how unacceptable it is that mainstream feminism has become synonymous with “White”; we should speak about how, as White people, we too are angry that we live in a society that oppresses others just on the basis of their skin; how angry we are that we play an unwilling, often unconscious role in this oppression; we too should start exposing the racist and sexist structures that underlie every element of our societies.

The fact that we are part of the problem makes it all the more necessary for us to add our voices in support of others. I do not know how exactly to continue from here.  My next steps will be to continue calling out myself, and to continue listening and speaking out at the injustices that.  And I hope that others, especially White feminists, will do the same to create a better and more effective discourse on feminism.


I, racist, sexist. A letter to a Black man in America from a White woman in Rwanda.

This article was written in agreement and expansion to the brilliant article in The Huffington Post by John Metta.  If you have not already, please read it

Dear Mr. Metta,

I, racist, am a White woman living in Rwanda.  I read your article yesterday morning and have been unable to think of anything else since.  It has been a long time since I have been a tacit contributor to the racist structures that exist in my homeland the UK, many of which I believe parallel your own country and large parts of the world.  No one has benefited more from White Privilege than me.  I was able to attend one of the better (Whiter) schools that you talk of, and I lived in an affluent (Whiter) area in the UK as well.  Growing up, I did not take much notice that the people I saw on my television screen, in my novels, and in the news were mainly White and those that were Black were often ridiculous stereotypes.   Moving to Rwanda has opened my eyes to assumptions, privileges and attitudes that I did not even realise I had.

Here in Rwanda I work with vulnerable and orphaned youth and it is through them I have realised the extent to which White Privilege has been translated across the world. The experience of being a White person abroad testifies to this.  When we go outside of our home countries we are given easy access to the best jobs, our visa process is simple, we are treated with respect and as honoured guests in countries that, not too long ago, we plundered and controlled.   Even as foreigners, we are still in a position of power.  White Privilege is not just inherent within American social systems; it has been twisted into various manifestations everywhere.

I have been a silent, albeit uncomfortable, observer of racism because I was unsure as to how I could assist.  As you so rightly said, being a White person excludes me from ever understanding the experience of racism.  At the end of your article you asked White people to use their position of power to speak against the injustices many Black people suffer.   I have often wondered how I can speak with authority on a subject I know nothing of.   I believe this is a dilemma that many White people feel, unsure of what place we can take in the Black struggle.  But reading your article today, I was struck with a solution.  Yes, I am White and I know nothing of racism.  But I am also a woman, and I know all too well what it is like to live under a system that is inherently and structurally oppressive.

I am a woman and I want to tell you that the social systems in place across the world dictate our lives as they do Black lives.  They restrict our movement, the spaces that we feel safe to occupy; they shape the things that we feel comfortable or are allowed to say; they decide the amount we are paid for the work that we do and the type of  jobs that we can have; and they necessitate the measures we take to protect ourselves.   I want you to know, as a woman, I too am living with institutionalised prejudice that I cannot speak out against.  When we do speak, like you, we are called “over-sensitive”.   You become the “Angry Black Person”; I become the “Hysterical Crazy Woman.”  Like you, those who are brave enough to speak out face derision and death threats in social media and even in person.

First, let me be clear.  I do not want to tell you this as a means of taking away from anything that you have said; I am not interested in making comparisons to determine who has suffered the most.   What I am interested in is the clear similarities between the Black experience and the female one, and how I can use this as a tool to speak out against racism.  You asked whether White people will be brave enough to use their position of power to speak against the system that gave it to them. I am here to answer that today I do feel brave enough to speak out, because I recognise the inherent similarities between the female and Black struggle.

So much of what you said resonated with me as a woman.  We too have only recently gained “equal” rights in humanity’s history.  In the UK women’s property, and by extension the woman, belonged to the husband until 1882, not long after slavery was abolished for Black people in America.  It was not until the 1960s and 70s, while Black people were fighting for their basic civil rights, that many women both in the UK and the US got the right to make fundamental decisions about their bodies.  We experience slavery too; 98% of trafficked people are women and are forced into the sex industry.  Like you, we are often told to be grateful for how many steps we have taken since then and, like you, we wonder why those steps ever had to be taken in the first place.  We see today that while our countries may have righted some of those wrongs (although there are many more that have not been) there are other women and Black people whose lives and bodies are controlled in the most damaging ways imaginable across the world.

In America, as you said, Black people are prey to a violence that is allowed to exist by the very systems which are meant to protect you.  So are we. When I hear of a rape or a murder of a woman, I know that its location is not random, that it could have been me or any other female anywhere in the world.  I do not see it as a one-off incident because it is not, just as the tragedy in Ferguson was not. It is a manifestation of the structural violence that is directed at women and Black people across the globe, albeit in different forms and different outlets.  In her book “Men Explain Things to Me”, Rebecca Sotlin said that every 6.2 minutes there is a reported rape in your country and 83% of girls aged 12-16 have experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Across the globe around one in ten women will experience forced intercourse in their lives.  Similarly, in America, Black people are 4 times more likely to be murdered than the national average.

Patriarchy, like racism, manifests itself in more nuanced ways.  Women are taught from the earliest ages that it is more important that we are wanted than to want anything ourselves.  We are told to measure our self-worth by how many men see fit to pursue us, how quickly we can secure one of those men, and how long we can hold onto him for.  Masculinity is the “norm” in the worlds of business, sport, and sex.  Laurie Penny in her book “Unspeakable Things” speaks of the desperate balancing act many women in the business world play; the thin line between dressing and acting feminine enough that we are not threatening, but not so much that we are taken as stupid.  When you see your television screens dominated by White people, we see ours dominated by men -with women rigidly typecast as the mothers, the wives, the girlfriends, the lovers, the objects that are there for men to chase.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the struggles we are facing are the same as in the Black female experience.  It is here that the parallel structures intersect and become one.  In America, Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate that is 35% higher than White females.  Other ethnic minorities suffer the same; Rebecca Sotlin reported that one in three Native American women will be raped, and 88% of those are committed by non-native men.   133 million women and girls have suffered from female genital mutilation across the world predominantly in Africa and Asia. Here in Rwanda, a country where gender empowerment is celebrated and the cabinet has one of the highest female proportions in the world, 31% of women have reported domestic violence. I watch females  struggle against the patriarchy that holds them down every day.  I listen to my students say to the girl who plays basketball, “But you will have to stop that once you get married.”  I hear men tell my women that females are biologically not as clever as them but, not to worry, we can give birth and raise children.  And Rwanda is a success story.  I do not even need to tell you that elsewhere Black and other women of colour do not even hold basic rights like the ability to drive a car, or vote, or make choices about their sexual health.

Just as discourse on racism is framed to cater for White people’s feelings, discussions on women’s rights protect men’s egos.  We focus on what women can do to avoid rape (don’t go out at night, don’t wear tight clothes, don’t drink too much) rather than saying the truth, the simple truth, that rape would not happen if men did not commit it.  We as women are also to blame for the continuing existence of sexism in our countries, for our fears of speaking to men about our experiences.  We have been raised to please men, and this hinders our ability to speak out against sexism.  We buy into ideals of what women should be; should wear; should say; how many calories we must eat, how – despite everything else we may do – we are still a failure if we cannot get a man.  Sexism exists because of our inability to externalise our experiences to men, just as you cannot externalise yours to White people.

But, as you said to me about racism, sexism also exists because men perpetuate it just as White people perpetuate racism.  I say to you, as you said so truly to me: that men, every single one of them, are complicit in this sexism because they benefit directly from it.

I am not saying this to separate us; I am saying it to bind us. I am writing this to you because I want you to know that, as of today, I no longer feel that I am unable to speak out against racism.  In the early beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, women and Black people worked together.   We drifted apart because we were unable to see that it is the same fight that we are engaged in, although it manifests itself in different ways.  It is the fight of groups that have long been oppressed through nuanced structures in our society that deny our ability to self-realisation.  It is the fight for equality and the essential nature of what it means to be human.  Your article helped me to realise this today. You started your address by quoting the wonderful Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I would like to end by quote her talk “We Should All be Feminists”:

  “Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry.  Anger has a long history of bringing positive change.  In addition to anger, I am hopeful, because I believe in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.”

Racism is a grave injustice as well. I am not afraid of being angry any more. I am not afraid of whether it is my place to speak out for Black people.  I, racist, and you, sexist, stand at opposite ends of the world fighting separately for something that should be fought together.  Together, we have an avenue to speak to and for each other – you as Black men and women, and us as White and Black women.  Together, we have the ability to remake this world, and ourselves, for the better.

Thank you.


It is Christmas day and I am sitting in a modern coffee shop in the Union Trade Centre right in the centre of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.  Behind me sits a group of English/French expats introducing a new arrival to the cultural differences and subtleties he needs to be aware of.  To my side, are two sharply dressed young men speaking animatedly in a mix of Kinyarwanda, Swahili and French.   Two white travellers in baggy harem trousers are snapping photos of the incredible view of the sprawling city below. Across the room, a large family enjoy their Christmas meal from the traditional Rwandan buffet and the little girl is pointing across at me whispering “umuzungu” (white person) to her mama. This is my new home.

Seeing as I am to spend a year here, I thought it would be fitting to speak a little bit about the country Rwanda and its history and progress.  Rwanda has been on the international map for a variety of reasons, most start and end with the genocide in 1994.  Talking about the genocide is difficult; there are so many unanswered questions.  Who shot down the President’s plane? What were the real roles of the RPF, France and the CDR? There are so many ideas, thoughts and opinions – loaded, naturally, with a lot of emotions- it is hard to separate the truth from it all.  There are some things we may never know but the brief (generally) agreed on history is below.

The capital of Rwanda, Kigali.

The Genocide: Rwanda’s death:

This account is based on the information at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I am aware of other conflicting accounts but have chosen to use the national history that most Rwandans adhere to.

The infamous ethnic clash between the Hutus and the Tutsis is well-known in the public sphere; in fact before the arrival of the Belgian colonialists they were merely classist terms.  Tutsi literally means ‘owner of 10 cows or more’, and people could change from a Hutu to a Tutsi and vice versa depending on their economic status.  The colonial machine worked quickly to change this into an ethnic divide, meticulously justifying their approach by citing differences between skin tone, nose length and also intelligence.  They tended to place some Tutsis in higher positions and give them social preferences such as better access to education, although generally both Tutsis and Hutus did not benefit from the Belgian reign.  Colonial influence was enough that by the time independence arrived there were increasing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. By 1957, Rwandan themselves were beginning to cite the differences between Hutus and Tutsis.  Sporadic, periodical violence between Hutus and Tutsis blotted the pages of Rwanda’s newly found independence throughout the decades preceding 1994.  The Rwandan civil war, starting in 1991, between the Tutsi-sympathetic Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the government helped to strain relations and increase fears and hatred towards Tutsis.

It has become clearer that the genocide was planned systematically by the government’s leading party Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), although it is debated whether President Habyarimana was involved.  National radios and newspapers incited racial hatred towards Tutsis and in 1993 a list was drawn up of ‘traitors’ who were to be executed.  Reports of specialised camps equipping young men with weapons and training them to kill Tutsis reached even the UN, although no action was taken on this.  The French government, despite being aware of ethnic tensions, sold weapons to groups in Rwanda and many Rwandans today still believe the role France played in the genocide is larger than previously thought.   The spark finally arrived when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and he and the President of Burundi were killed in the crash.  Hours later, the genocide began.  People on the traitor list were hunted and killed in their own homes, and the violence quickly spread as groups of Interahamwe (following orders from government officials and the Presidential Guard) began killing in horrific and brutal ways.

The international community, rather than assisting, only came in to evacuate foreigners.   One of the most heart-breaking facts is that the number of UN troops used to evacuate westerners could have been enough to stop the genocide and preserve peace. The killing only stopped when Kagame’s RPF invaded Kigali and took over, placing Kagame as President. It is unclear how many were killed in the genocide; the number ranges between 800,000 and over 1 million depending on sources.  Many people were never able to find out what happened to friends or family, and to this day people are still searching for news of their loved ones.   As the beautiful and moving Gisozi Genocide Memorial puts it, ‘Rwanda was dead.’

The mass graves at the Genocide memorial in Kigali.

The mass graves at the Genocide memorial in Kigali.

The Rebirth:

Knowing the destruction and death that occurred only 20 years ago, it is amazing the steps that Rwanda has taken.  The Rwandan government is serious about development; they want to become a middle-income country by 2020 (a goal that could still be achievable) and it is on track to reach most of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.  Looking at the statistics, it is estimated that 97% of all children attend primary school and the GNI per capita has increased by 40% from 1980 to 2012.  Rwanda scores highly on gender equality; the cabinet is roughly 1/3 female, the percentage of boys and girls attending school is more or less equal and the government even funds entrepreneurial women without familial support.  Transparency International has rated Rwanda’s corruption level as negligible.

The development of a country is never a simple story but the quiet optimism of the Rwandan people is infectious.  What is most interesting is the idea of healing that seems to permeate the country.  People my age and over have in their memories some of the most horrific acts that have been known to humankind.  As Paul Collier has shown, it is easy for any country, especially a developing one, to slip back into a spiral of civil war, violence and destruction.  This has not happened in Rwanda, largely because of this emphasis on healing.  Everywhere there are memorials with the words etched upon them ‘Never again’.  Up to 2012, Locals tried genocidaires (people who committed genocide) in their own communities in grassroots people’s courts (Gacaca courts).  Genocidaires who are repentant can serve half their sentence doing community work in the very places they once slaughtered people.  This article even details stories of genocidaires working hand in hand with the very people whose families they killed. The country’s past is ever-prevalent, but the pull of the future is stronger.  There are no Hutus or Tutsis anymore; instead, there are Rwandans.

Faces of the Future.

Faces of the Future.

The NGO and the Celebrity: A Dying Romance?

Since its release in late November, Band Aid 30’s new single stormed the charts and raised more than £1 million in just a few minutes for the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It also attracted widespread criticism from commentators who were less than pleased with the third return of lyrics such as ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?” – (a rather ridiculous rhetoric seeing as Christianity is the most practised religion in Africa at the moment, and Sierra Leone and Guinea are predominantly Muslim countries making the question completely irrelevant to the Ebola epidemic). But it is interesting that 29 years ago the first release of Band Aid received generally positive views, how widely it has been condemned it has been condemned this time.The Band aid story is part of a wider debate about celebrities and their involvement in NGOs; a controversial, complicated subject that no one seems clear about. The ‘celebrigod’ burst onto the development scene after the first release of band aid, but could their day be over? Is mass fundraising moving elsewhere to mobilise the masses?

There are many problems with band aid, the most obvious being the lyrics. In the original 1984 version, if you were to take Geldof at his word you would believe Africa to be a barren area where ‘no rain or rivers flow’ and ‘nothing ever grows’ thanks to the menace of the ‘burning sun’. This time round, the lyrics have been modified slightly but the infamous Christmas question still remains amongst other gems such as ‘where to comfort is to fear, where to touch is to be scared.’ We can at least be thankful this time they’re only talking about West Africa (only a mere 6 million km squared or so) rather than the entire continent. Of course, these lyrics feed into our unhelpful stereotypes on Africa and Africans, the dangers of which I wrote about last month.
But aside from the lyrics, the entire act has been criticised as self-righteous and patronising, that feeds into the uncomfortable idea of westerners as the ‘white saviour’. Al Jazeera ran a piece calling for Bob Geldof to ‘back off’, arguing that in fact West African artists had already released two much more fitting anthems for Ebola. ‘Africa Stop Ebola’ warns listeners about the dangers of touching dead bodies (one of the ways Ebola can be contacted) and urges people to go to the hospital (something many are too afraid to do.) Aside from this, others have questioned the ability of band aid to raise a large enough amount of money to have an effect. Proceeds raised by Band Aid 30 will not solve the Ebola epidemic, and fundraising efforts were already well-established by the time the recording was released. Médecins sans frontières had already raised 20 million pounds by November 2014.
So why does Band Aid exist? And why do celebrities so often become spokespeople for NGOs and crises abroad? Celebrity activism is largely regarded to be a recent idea; in 1984 Band Aid’s first release sparked a huge surge of celebrities taking on global campaigns for themselves. By having a celebrity on their side, an NGO could reach a large, loyal fan base over specific emergencies or appeals. Furthermore, many NGOs have justified their use of celebrities through their ability to influence political figures, who seem to enjoy brushing arms with the latest chart topper. An NGO can use the celebrity to create a spotlight over an issue that may need attention, which can generate large amounts of donations, support and even policy change. As Bob Geldof put it during the first Band Aid release, “This is not Charity. This is finely tuned politics.”
The flipside of this, of course, is the fact that celebrities can only often be used for ‘quick-fix’ campaigns that may not be the answer to the problems they are attempting to solve. The Ebola epidemic is a classic example; celebrity attention focusses on the immediate curing of and prevention of the spread of the disease. While this is extremely important and does need to be stopped, there is little or no focus in the media world on the overarching problem – the lack of infrastructure within these countries that allowed the disease to spread so quickly. Professor William Easterly has pointed out that celebrities’ altruistic intentions may do more harm because one issue gets an overwhelming (albeit fleeting) focus while others are not even discussed in the public sphere.

It is striking how for Band Aid it has been third time unlucky; the media has been quick to brand it as ‘patronising’ and ‘self-indulgent’ and there has been a vast range of criticism from different sources including NGOS themselves. Why this sudden change in the wind? The fact of the matter may be that the age of the activist-actor and Samaritan-singer may be over. With new platforms like social media becoming a quick and effective way to spread one message to many people, NGOs may have found another ‘quick-fix’ solution that doesn’t involve flying Kiera Knightley out to South Sudan. Campaigns such as the Ice Bucket Challenge have flooded the internet in the past year and mobilised hundreds of people that otherwise would not have donated to that particular charity; something that celebrities have been used to achieve in the past. Over the coming years, it will be interesting to see how NGOs tap into the massive fundraising potential that social media could possess and the affect that it may have on the influence of celebrities’ roles in crises appeals.

This isn’t to say that social media fundraising does not have exactly the same if not more issues, but it could well skip out the celebrity ‘middleman’ and harness the fundraising power of selfie-lovers. There will always be questions about the sustainability, ethics and effectiveness of large-scale, ‘quick-fix’, appeal fundraising, but are we witnessing a shift in approach by NGOs? Is this the end of the celebrity and the NGO? Watch this space…

Saving Africa? The Unintended Consequence of Aid Campaigns

“What about Ebola?”

This was one of the first comments from my friends and family after they found out I was going to spend a year working in Rwanda.  Despite having my best interests in their thoughts, it surprised me how many people’s minds jumped straight to the Ebola outbreak at the mention of an African country.  At the time of writing, there are no cases of Ebola in Rwanda and, in an ironic twist, US citizens are being screened upon their entry into Rwanda.  I am more likely to contract Ebola if I visited Spain for a week than I am in Rwanda.  But, according to many, Rwanda is in Africa and therefore Rwanda has Ebola.  I was shocked at how many well-travelled, well-educated people have asked me this innocent question and it got me thinking about why we have such a homogenous view of Africa.  I believe the reason behind this is the negative stereotype of Africa that has evolved in the West, which aid campaigns often unwittingly perpetuate through their campaigns.

Taken and inspired from Anthony England's map https://twitter.com/EbolaPhone

Taken and inspired from Anthony England’s map https://twitter.com/EbolaPhone

The image of Africa, more than any other continent, country or person in the world, has become the poster girl for discourse on aid and development.   Charities and non-profit organisations fighting poverty have used to great success the image of the poor African in order to increase donations and interest in a campaign.  Think of any TV advert for an international charity, and the chances are it will include a close-up of a crying black child and an image of a starving/thirsty/uneducated/ill African (delete according to the appropriate campaign).

While these adverts are often created in order to raise funds for Africa, they also inadvertently promote a damaging racial stereotype that has become the norm for many Westerners.  This is the stereotype; the idea that ‘Africa’ is one whole, one country almost, affected by famine, disease, war, poverty and a multitude of other horrors.  The image that is used in these well-intentioned adverts has come to stand for over 54 states that cover 6% of the world’s surface area.

By portraying the ‘African’ as helpless and needy, we immediately devalue their opinion and their input.  The African becomes childlike, unable to think for themselves and –crucially- without autonomy.  The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken of ‘the danger of the single story’ and warns that such a stereotype can only lead to misplaced pity that patronises the other and leads to misrepresentation in the media culture.

Just watch this excellent video by Rusty Radiator Awards (also the organisation of the month!) to see what I mean.

By aiming to assist ‘Africa’ through these campaigns, the stereotype has damaged our relationship with African countries, and hindered the development process that it was trying to solve.  The fact is that our stereotype allows no room for the autonomy of the African people.  It does not allow ‘Africa’ a voice, other than one that is crying for help, and it depicts its people as totally reliant on someone else (namely us in the West) to save them.

But it has more far-reaching consequences than this.  By ignoring the multitude of voices in Africa –business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, labourers and academics, white people and black people, the needy and the rich– we ignore their potential input into the development of their own countries.  We have a tradition in the West of having a preconceived idea of what Africa needs, and seem sure that we know how to ‘solve’ the elusive problem of ‘Africa’.   Unfortunately, Africa is not a rubik cube.  One only needs to read ‘Dead Aid’ to find out that in many cases foreign aid has been detrimental.  Over 1 trillion US dollars have been spent on aid in the last 50 years, and many believe this money has been largely wasted.

The list of catastrophes that well-intentioned NGOs have inflicted upon their supposed beneficiaries is endless.  When I interned for an INGO in London one of my colleagues told me how his first trip overseas involved coordinating a project that was designed to supply poor women sanitary pads.  When he arrived there with thousands of packages of sanitary pads in tow, it became clear that the reason women did not have sanitary pads was because they did not wear underwear.  The pads were rendered redundant and he later found out the women had their own hygiene systems in place anyway.  It took only a week in the field, hundreds of pounds and thousands of sanitary pads to find out the entire project was useless.  Everyone has now heard of the infamous proposal by the company Iwearyourshirt.com to send out over a million T-shirts to Africa, despite the fact ‘Africa’ did not need them and the shipping and packaging costs of the project could have been bypassed if they’d used African textile companies to create them.  While these examples are small, more serious failures include the US aid efforts in Afghanistan and Western involvement in Mali.

So how can we implement successful aid?

Ernesto Sirolli gave a TED talk in 2012 where he laid out what I believe to be the fundamental principle of good aid: to listen.  Our idea of what ‘Africa’ is and needs completely ignores cultural differences, religious preferences and economic peculiarities of particular countries.  As Sirolli demonstrates, it is surprising how many NGOs conduct projects and set-up campaigns without actually checking if their proposed project is needed or will be useful.

Before anything is done, we must ask what is needed.  But the stereotype of the weak, ineffectual African tell us that Africans do not have anything to say, that they will welcome any kind of aid with open arms.  This is not the reality.  Development and governmental aid could be changed and become more effective by discarding the image of the needy African and instead working with local entrepreneurs, business owners and academics.

I believe that our biggest obstacle in achieving this is our inability to let go of this tradition of aid campaigns focussing on only the negative stereotype of Africa.  It does not allow us to listen, because we think there is nothing to listen to other than a pitying plea for assistance. There are areas damaged by poverty and famine, subject to disease and corruption – but this does not mean these areas speak for the rest of the continent.  And it certainly should not mean that these people are denied a voice in the future of their countries.

Next time you are confronted with an aid campaign, think twice about what you are seeing.  You may be seeing real issues in real countries that do need attention and assistance, but you are most certainly not seeing the ever-changing and diverse continent that is ‘Africa.’

‘I Hate School’: Roma children and discrimination in European Schools

A BORING NOTE FOR STICKLERSIn this article I use the term ‘Roma’ to describe a wide variety of people, nationalities and cultures.  By using Roma, I mean to refer to traditional traveller communities known as ‘Romani’ such as Tsiganes, Manouches etc. but I also want to talk about new immigrants from Eastern Europe who have found themselves living in precarious conditions.  I’ve grouped them together not only for ease of writing but also because the media discourse tends not to differentiate between communities, and I want to talk about our treatment of all the groups encompassed under what we term as ‘traveller’. The children I mention in this article were of Manouche origin. 

In the playground of a rural French Catholic school there is a group of four children who are visibly separated from the rest.  It is easy to spot them; not only because they are standing in a huddle in the corner, watching the others rush around, but they are also the only nine children in the whole playground who are not white.   In the harsh December air, the other children wear coats and hats but these four wear only jumpers and are shivering from the cold.  But the real reason why these nine children are so noticeable is because they are Roma children, and the only Roma children in a school of roughly 500.  The bell rings and kids begin filing up to re-enter the classrooms.  But the nine are led back into a separate classroom, reluctantly trailing after me

“Ready to continue lessons?” I ask.

One of the girls, a 13 year old, says, “I hate school.”

This sullen remark stops me in my tracks.  Many children- myself included-have uttered the same sentiments at least once in their lives, normally when the alarm rings on a Monday morning at 7am. But this seemed different; it was not a moan or a whine, it was a cold, hard fact.

There has been much media attention across the whole of Europe over the issue of Roma communities.  Last year, the case of a young girl known as ‘Maria’ suspected of being kidnapped by a Roma family in Greece made international headlines. The tensions in Sheffield over ‘gangs’ of Roma children out late at night has been in the BBC’s limelight for some time now.  It can’t be denied that much of this publicity is negative and it seems much of the blame is being placed with the Roma people themselves.  In France, the interior minister Manuel Valls has told Romas to return to their country” because they do not respect the customs of French life. In England, Nick Clegg has argued that Romas must be “sensitive” to the English culture.  David Blunkett has also argued that there must be a change in “behaviour and culture of the incoming community” before the situation implodes.

What strikes me as bizarre is, despite the numerous calls for Roma people to make the effort to integrate themselves, there has been little attention what can be done concerning our behaviour and our culture in Western Europe.  How can we call for Romas to be integrated into our society, when we bar them at every step of the way?  At the school I work at, the nine Roma children are subject to constant scrutiny.  Parents have written in to the Headmaster, stopping the children attending class with the others.  Now they must spend all day with me and a specialist teacher.  My job has turned from assistant teacher to constant bodyguard, who must stay close to them at all times – even when they go to the toilet. In the playground, the other children do not talk to them. One of the older kids did some work experience earlier in the year with the school kitchen; when parents learnt a Roma would be handling their children’s meals, there were a multitude of complaints and some children refused to eat the food.

Across the whole of Western Europe there seems to be a similar pattern.  Roma communities are being systematically raided and forcibly deported by French police.  Earlier this year in Lyon, a group of Roma children were stopped attending their school by protesting parents and instead had to have lessons at the local police station.  In Greece, Romas have accused the media of vilifying their communities and the case of ‘Maria’ demonstrated the international prejudices against Roma communities.  In Germany, there is a deep concern over the supposed wave of Roma communities that will flood Europe in the near future. 

And we in England are in danger of heading the same way.  The inflammatory comments of former home secretary David Blunkett and the sensationalist stories released in the press over the Sheffield case ignore much of the excellent progress that is occurring within England.  Recent reports from the pilot project ‘from segregation to inclusion: Roma children in the UK’ and the Romani project in Manchester have demonstrated that the biggest problem concerning the education of Roma children is the discrimination they face in school – not a bad attitude or high absences as many would have thought.   When we look at Spain, as well, it is clear that the problem does not just lie with new immigrants.   Spain’s Roma integration policy has been startling successful, and its no surprise that much of it focusses on education.

When I think of all this, it is not much wonder that my 13 year pupil doesn’t want to attend an 8 hour day where she is institutionally ostracised by the very people who are meant to be giving her a basic right of education.  In a school where no other child talks or plays with her, and she must spend the whole day with a foreign white 22 year old teacher, it’s not a surprise that it is an effort to get her to engage in her lessons and relish her education.   If we’re not ensuring that Romas are integrated into our schools in Europe, how will they ever become integrated into our society?  Can we legitimately expect Roma communities to even want to be part of our culture when they face such racism and discrimination from every facet of our society?  I am sure that if my pupils were allowed to integrate with their classmates, learn a variety of topics and be trusted as other students are, then they would not ‘hate’ school.  And I’m sure that many Roma communities would be more willing and able to access our lifestyle and culture if they were given the same opportunities as someone who lives between four walls of brick.

Many Roma peoples come here to find work, and find a better life. Yes, their customs are different from ours and, yes, this will lead to certain tensions.  But in order to integrate Roma communities into our life, we must make the first step.  And that first step can be in our schools.

Alternatives to Volontourism

        ********NB This article talks about UK and European opportunities only*********

In my last entry, I spoke about the dangers of volunteering in a developing country and suggested that young people leaving school may wish to reconsider becoming a ‘volontourist’.   Many people, however, do feel that they want to volunteer or at least travel.  In this list, are options that could be considered by people who still want to volunteer.

Local Volunteering:

There are many opportunities to volunteer within your own area, many of which will teach you valuable skills and enable you to make a positive impact, often with no cost to the volunteer.  If you are specifically interested in international development, you could volunteer with a local INGO.

Please look at NCVO’s website to find out more, and also to contact your local volunteering centre.

European Voluntary Service:

This is an EU-funded scheme that places 18-30 year olds anywhere in Europe on a social project up for a year.  The projects range from volunteering in care homes to working in cultural centres promoting European mobility.  Every project is carefully selected and it is illegal for projects to have volunteers that replace staff.  The emphasis is on developing the volunteer’s skill base, so volunteers have the opportunity to learn a new language, and develop skills important to the social sector.  Volunteer expenses are fully covered by the EU.


This is specifically for skilled professionals who wish to change career, or take a break.  VSO advertising for specific roles and each role has certain requirements but generally volunteers must be over 25 with at least 3 years professional experience, and often a masters in a related field.  All expenses covered.

Project Trust:

While I hesitate to recommend any ‘volontourism’ organisations, if you must go, go with Project Trust.  They are one of the only ‘gap yah’ organisations that put their volunteers through a selection process which involves a 5 day stay on a Scottish Island.   They place you on their programmes according to your suitability (you don’t get to choose) and all projects are 12 months long.


Finally, if your main priorities are seeing the world and having unique experiences – maybe you should consider travelling rather than a fixed volunteering programme.   If you do want to go deeper than just a whirlwind tour, why not look at Workaway.  This gives you the opportunity to work just 5 hours a day in exchange for lodging and food, and it’s a unique and wonderful way of travelling. You could end up helping out in a hostel, teaching English or even working on an environmentally-friendly social project.

As you can see, there are hundreds of incredible ways to travel the world, experience new places without signing up to be a volontourist.

Want to help the developing world? Don’t go over there (yet). Lessons from a volontourist in becoming a volunteer

In July 2009, I left school and booked flights to Rwanda for one month, and South Africa for two to spend some time volunteering.  I was not alone; many other of my former classmates were busy booking their flights to various corners of the globe.  From building a school in Tanzania to teaching street children in Rio de Janeiro, the possibilities are endless.  And more and more people seem interested in doing it.  In a world where the job market is flooded with qualified graduates, it’s not surprising that middle-class young people are searching globally for that extra-curricular gem on their CV.  Alongside this, a genuine desire to help often fuels people to book a flight and spend a few months ‘doing good’.

Unfortunately, this well-meaning desire is misplaced and ends up doing a lot of harm.  I found out the hard way.  I arrived in Rwanda ready to save the world.  I left feeling ashamed, confused and angry.  Unlike others, I did not go with a gap-tastic company – I chose a small organisation that was extremely choosy about their volunteers, and I did not pay a fee.  I did not replace any members of staff, but rather was a supplement to their work.  For many people, this classifies ‘good volunteering’.

But it was not enough.  I felt that I was unable to help in the way that I wanted.   The problem was not the charity that I went with, or the work that I was doing – it was me.  In reality, I was only an 18 year-old girl whose main achievement in life was winning my school’s History prize.  At that age, how could I have the self-awareness, confidence, knowledge and skill base to help anyone, including myself?   ‘Volontourism’ is currently being widely discredited by NGOs and local aid workers who believe that well-intentioned volunteers often only hinder development.  In Cambodia, tourists’ benign desire to spend a day hugging orphans and giving out sweets has actually led to orphanages being completely overrun and some even hiring ‘fake’ orphans.  Pippa Biddle, in a strong denunciation of volunteering efforts, has argued that ‘little white girls’ should stop altogether in going out to these areas of the world to help.  As VSO have pointed out, there’s something rather sickening and colonial with the idea of barely adult teenagers hopping on a plane to take selfies with starving children.

'Bad Volunteering': My first trip to Rwanda as an inexperienced 18 year old was not a success for the development world!

‘Bad Volunteering’: My first trip to Rwanda as an inexperienced 18 year old was not a success for the development world!

So should we stop volunteering completely?  I do not think so.  Rather, I think we must reassess what we mean by a volunteer.  We must change our concept of what volunteering is and who qualifies as a volunteer.   Going over there as an unskilled, inexperienced 18 year old was a mistake – I should not have been a volunteer and instead I was just a volontourist.  Volunteers are people who have specific skills and/or experience, as well as the self-assurance to support project initiatives in challenging areas of the world.   More often than not, these people are not 18-year old, middle-class school leavers.

I have identified some volunteering ‘cans’ and ‘cant’s’ in the hope that people read this and bear it in mind before they choose to donate their time.  I know that I would have liked to read something similar before booking my trip.

  • We cannot be qualified to volunteer just on the basis of our birth or background. Being Western and part of the global rich is not a skill or an experience. Just because we are born in the UK does not mean we have anything to ‘teach’ or ‘give’ to the developing world.  VSO has called this idea the ‘new colonialism’ and it is no more beneficial to developing areas of the world than the old colonialism was.
  • We can have specific skills and experiences that will be of use. We can gain professional experience, or a hard skill, that will be able to be put into use when we choose to volunteer. These skills may range from engineering, to specialist knowledge on gender issues and development, to translation – but what is important is to have a skill that is useful, and required.
  • We cannot presume to know what the developing world needs. Firstly, in reality, there is no ‘developing world’ but separate countries and regions, each with their own specific needs.  We cannot have a preconceived idea of the problems that we should be solving before we have arrived.
  • We can listen, ask and act on what we hear. When I was in Rwanda, many tourists (including myself) came to the orphanage I was volunteering at with toys, clothes and books.  These were all received with smiling appreciation, and then promptly sold in the market the next day in order to buy money for powdered milk solution for the infants (an extremely expensive commodity in Rwanda).  If I had actually asked what the orphanage needed before I arrived, I could have saved myself and the orphanage a lot of hassle.
  • We cannot pay large fees to large companies in order to volunteer for only a few months. It is often these companies that hinder the development process, and the money often does not go directly to any projects on the ground.
  • We can be expected to be given a small stipend by respected volunteering organisations (see VSO or Tostan) or, if we are volunteering directly with a local NGO, we may be expected to pay for our own flights, food, and accommodation. But we should not pay a ‘middle-man’ organisation for this.
  • We cannot replace skilled, local workers, nor can we come in and take over. Ultimately, successful aid must be led by local people themselves – and we as the Western world can help facilitate this and assist it, but not lead it.
  • We can act as an assistant to the local workforce, and help out in areas that are understaffed or perhaps train locals in a new skill before we leave.
  • We cannot have any beneficial impact by spending only two months at a project. We will only begin work that may never be finished, and our impact will not be monitored.
  • We can spend a prolonged period of time overseas and measure the impact and need of our work, and create long-term sustainable solutions.

So do you want to help?  Then my advice is waiting.  Send a cheque, run a fundraising event, and bide your time.   Learn a useful skill and a relevant language, go travelling, go to University, spend a few years working – do whatever it is you have a passion to do, and then in a few years’ time use that passion to volunteer.

This way, when you finally do volunteer, you will be donating your experience and skill set (rather than just yourself) and you can have a beneficial, positive impact on the community you work with.