On Sunday, Nov. 4, we attended a presentation on Darfur in the Student Union called “Speak Out: stopping sexual violence against women as a tactic of war.” Expecting to hear about violence against women in Darfur, we were shocked by the cultural insensitivity of the presentation. Far from shedding light on this important issue, Susan Burgess-Lent, the guest speaker, patronized and degraded Darfurians, despite her attempt to, as she put it, “humanize these people.” Her choice of words and the implications behind them was so offensive that it became unbearable to listen. We stood up and walked out.
The difference between intention versus impact proved key to understanding the speaker. During her slide presentation, Burgess-Lent attempted to compliment the people of Darfur in her comment, “They are gorgeous people, aren’t they?” She succeeded only in exoticizing and foreignizing them through this objectification. The validation of their beauty was used as a tool to legitimize their cause. She took this exoticization a step further by capturing their images in her digital camera as if they were animals in a zoo. She explained, “I think people liked having their picture taken because they had never seen a picture of themselves before.” With her portable printer, she could give them the pictures immediately. According to Burgess-Lent, this speedy technology was a “great ice breaker.” As long as Burgess-Lent was giving Darfurians presents, she could have given them food or supplies, or the kind of printed paper they could really use -money. Instead, she walked around Darfur like a tourist, taking pictures of people and marveling at their inexperience with Western technology.
Burgess-Lent seemed oblivious to ways in which her white privilege and status as an American colored her encounters with people. She recounted that in a store, an older man had given her food at no cost. Applauding this act, she attributed it to the hospitality of older generations in Darfur, without pausing to consider whether her whiteness had anything to do with the gift. She went on to put down the youth of Darfur by saying that the custom of hospitality has been lost on young people. Who is she, a representative of an imperialistic country – a country that has and continues to exploit the people of Africa – to expect that everyone will be hospitable and give her presents? Her attitude is a manifestation of her lack of awareness of her privilege as a white American traveler.
Her tourism continued to exoticize Darfurians when she commented on how “shocked” she was to find out that they had a garbage collection service in a place that she recounted as lacking “sanitation.”
As Americans, it is time for us to step back and take a good look at our biases, attitudes and assumptions about people outside the United States. People in Darfur are just as human as we are. Their way of life and customs may be different, but they are not abnormal or unnatural. It is not our job to act as their saviors and come swooping down to show them the “correct” American way of doing things. It is our job to work in partnerships with people rather than imposing our own standards on them. And it is our responsibility to call people out in the face of prejudice and injustice.