Saturday, August 14, 2010

Undoing Racism and Peace Corps

This is a hard post to write and I don't know how it will be received. I write it with a lot of love for Peace Corps, but also a lot of frustration.

About a month ago I attended an Undoing Racism training through a local organization in New Orleans. I was ready for it. I've been reading sociological blogs for a few years now, making up for lost time at UF when I didn't take a single sociology class even though I would have loved every moment if I had. So by now, with Tyree's help, I've caught up on all the race and gender theory I didn't study in undergrad.

So caught up that when I reflect on my Peace Corps training, and how it did not include the word privilege, not even once, I have to cringe. Training was the most stressful time of service, everyone said so. If you weren't struggling with the new language, the new family, the new life, you were struggling with all the other Americans who weren't acting their best, were suffering culture shock and acting out. And on top of all of that, we had to spend hours and hours training to be teachers when most of us had never taught a day in our lives.

Other volunteers came to our training to tell us how teaching in a Mozambican school was going to be. Cheating and how to combat it was a big topic. Mozambican teachers and their conduct was another thing we talked about too much. We were told of all the bad things Mozambican teachers do - beat students, sleep with students, fail to teach students. I remember a volunteer standing before our training cohort and saying something along the lines of "It doesn't matter what you do, you will still be a better teacher than the ones they have now." It hurts to remember that because I believed it. Because I let it influence the way I interacted with my Mozambican colleagues.

Certainly issues of beating, of sexual harassment, of failure to teach were real. But the idea that no matter what, we, without any teaching experience at all, without being from the same culture or speaking our students' first languages, the idea that we could possibly be better teachers than our Mozambican colleagues - it's absurd and it's racist. It hurts to think this idea was allowed to be planted in our heads.

During training we had Diversity Sessions. But all I remember was other people complaining about them. I remember listening to a conversation after a somewhat successful session on gender roles and having a revelation about Peace Corps recruitment. The conversation was between a male trainee and the female volunteer who had facilitated the session on gender. He was spouting something about how we couldn't be expected to improve gender relations in the country and how that wasn't what we were here for. It was a revelation to me because for the first time I realized that not everyone in Peace Corps was necessarily on board with feminism. As I recalled, no one ever asked me during the interview process if I really believed the sexes were equal. No one ever asked me if I was a racist bigot, or if I was ready to deal with my White Privilege while I worked in Africa. When I think about it now, I think these questions should be asked by Peace Corps, before you ever get nominated for a position.

Because if you don't believe that women are equal to men, or that, as an American, you have privilege that you need to keep in check while in Africa (and for your whole life), you are not going to be the volunteer the world needs. You are going to play right into the post-Colonial world where the North is still in control of the South and Africa will be eternally backward, suffering and in need of foreign help.

There were many times when I felt my culture was superior to Mozambican culture. From the design of the high school curriculum to the number of children a family produced. From the belief in witchcraft to the belief that women shouldn't drink coca-cola. It went completely unchecked during my entire service. Never once did I feel guilty for hitch-hiking, knowing full well that the only Mozambicans able to hitch-hike were nuns and my students WHEN THEY WERE WITH ME.

It hurts now. I wish that the volunteer who told us it didn't matter what we did because we would be better had been stopped. I wish someone in Peace Corps had said, You know what? That's smacking of some white privilege and we don't play that here. I wish that staging, instead of the bs two days it was had been an Undoing Racism training.

Because if you aren't ready to accept your privilege and check it at the airport, you aren't really ready to work in Africa.


Anonymous said...

well said!!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Wow, as an expat abroad for 20 years, I see a great future ahead of you. This experience has given you a great deal of wisdom and humility. You ought to become an ambassdor or consul for the U.S. America really needs people like you interacting with other cultures on our behalf.

Mary, of Expat Abroad

Mary Williams said...

Hello Heather!! Thank you for this fantastic post. My name is Mary Williams and I am an education PCV currently serving in Uganda. We just finished IST. The majority of my cohort has been frustrated beyond believe with the lack of training regarding, white privilege, country privilege/race/ gender/feminism/etc. You name it they suck at it. Luckily our group was able to get the staff(we even got the Country Director on board)to take us seriously. It took months of fighting just to get the trainers to stop referring to the entire group as WHITE. So now that we have been given permission to design Diversity and Inclusion/Cultural Imperialism/etc trainings for the incoming group, we want to do it right so that it may be a model for PC global. With that said we would love your permission to use your letter as part of our trainings. Please let me know what you think and again BRAVA for your courage and talent.