White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)

Let’s face it: I have a problem with being a white American traveling in India. Chalk it up to white guilt or simply a recognition of (historical and present) privilege, but my whiteness preceded me everywhere I went and reminded me of echoes of the past—the white, British colonizers who oppressed and dehumanized Indians for years, who demolished their culture and devalued their lives.

Admission: I am not an expert on either Indian history or British colonialism. But I couldn’t help but be aware of the damage wrought by people who looked like me, worshipped in the kinds of churches I attend, and spoke my language.

I guess it was a good thing to be aware of. But beyond awareness of privilege, I’ve wondered what I could do. Colonization is over, but the real inequalities are still there—because of nationality, class, place of birth, first language—all of those things.

Boyeon and I had some interesting conversations about this. How she, as someone from a country that had been colonized (by the Japanese, for those of you who missed out on East Asian history), felt a certain kind of empathy for (and to her, perhaps from) the Indian people. How walking down the street, she felt a kinship—both as someone from Asia and from a formerly colonized country.

For us, this sometimes played out in how we interacted with people on the street. For example, Boyeon frequently was ready to ask questions, get directions, and get answers for other basic travel information. I, however, was not. Granted, this is partly because she’s more extroverted than I am, and I’m self-reliant to a fault. But one of my major hangups, as I told her, was really my lack of knowing the local language and how imperialistic (and particularly American) it felt to expect everyone to know English. (And our cramming of Hindi did not help us at all in the Bengali-dominated Northeast or Malayalam-speaking South.)

And while I didn’t feel the Indian people holding me accountable for British failings, I did realize that I wanted to find a way to acknowledge those failings, to recognize my positionality within that space, to work to counteract any ways in which power and privilege became barriers between me, the place, and the people.

Needless to say, my brain was on overdrive. Because traveling as a white American, I take so much for granted—speaking an “international language” as my native tongue, being catered to by the tourist industry, the usefulness of my passport into other places (in terms of often easier visa procedures, etc.).

And I’ve seen Americanness gone wild: the well-meaning intentions but destructive actions of missionaries and voluntourists. The American travelers who expect everyone in the world to speak English and who get upset if they don’t (and don’t even try to learn a word of the local language). Those who view everything around them as exotic or strange. And those who indulge in “poverty porn”—taking photos in the faces of every local around them, treating them like objects in their Facebook gallery or who go on tours of slums or who talk about how people in poverty in developing countries are “so happy and peaceful” and that we should learn from their simplicity.

I even found this mentality at the church service I went to with Boyeon. The church was founded by a white American generations ago. The week I was there, they’d invited the founder’s great nephew (or something) to speak. He came all the way from Washington State! He was a blond, white American with two kids and a wife (he showed a picture)! And he spoke in big exclamations with an overly enthusiastic smile like Joel Osteen! He didn’t acknowledge his positionality or lack of understanding what it means to live in Kolkata but proceeded to dole out trite advice like a dutiful, patronizing superior!

It felt like a colonizing presence took up the room, took up a father-knows-best attitude and brought these Others closer to the (white, American, evangelistic) Truth. That whatever their cares were, they had to let go and let God take care of them and then everything would be fine.

Because it’s that easy when during a prayer earlier in the service, one of the assisting ministers shared a story of a man in Kolkata who recently took his sick son to twelve hospitals and was refused entry every time (eventually, the boy died in his arms).

This impassioned prayer was followed by this message from a white pastor from Washington that was something akin to “we all have our burdens, but pray and give them to God and they’ll go away.”

I wanted to ask him if he knew where he was. If it was possible for him to listen, to be in allyship with the people of India. Or if he’d just come to show them the Way.

I still haven’t found the answer to reckoning with my privilege, to being an ally in this space or in other developing countries. I mean, I know this is literally a post about #whitepeopleproblems, but something that as a global citizen, I want to reckon with. I need to reckon with. Because I think to dismantle white (American, middle-class, educated, alble-bodied, etc.) privilege, we (as white, American, educated, etc. people) first have to recognize it and then do something about it.

It’s a tall order, but when I find out how to be an anti-colonializing presence in this globalizing world, I’ll let you know. But in the meantime, time to go study some more foreign languages.

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5 thoughts on “White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)

  1. so I wouldn’t mention this at all except for the topic of this post, which I think means you would want to know: I believe the language you mean by “Keralan” is actually Malayalam

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    1. Thanks for the correction! I’ll fix it ASAP 🙂 My friend who showed us around kept referring to it as Keralan. I should’ve known is was Malayalam, though, because I have a friend whose family is from that region and they, of course, speak Malayalam.

      And I always welcome nudges, corrections, challenges, etc. here. So I appreciate it!

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