Digital Self-Validation, Real-Life Silence: How White Women Use People of Color for Their Moral Compasses

We need to straighten some more things out for people traveling abroad, apparently. While the work women of color shouldn’t have to do is exhausting, I’m going to take a slight satisfaction out of writing this, so let’s go.

I could honestly go into greater detail about just how I stumbled upon what I’m about to describe to you, but for the too long don’t read version it was essentially the lovely algorithms of Instagram filtering people into my discovery feed that I do not want to see. But because I’m curious, of course, I’m going to click – it led me here, so whatever.

In the photo, I saw a tiredly familiar scene. The place? Africa. The people? A young white woman surrounded blissfully in all her colonialist wonder by a gathering of African children in their village. While not a surprising antic seen commonly from white women traveling abroad, one thing did stick out like a white woman exploiting people of color for her gain: she works for Donald Trump and was traveling with Melania Trump on her recent visit to the African continent. (Greater yet, she’s opened a space in her heart to raise money for these children to have schools – quite lovely, indeed, until you remember that she actively supports a Cheeto impersonator who hates people of color back in the United States of America. Too bad your boss is cutting back foreign aid, huh. THAT COULD REALLY HELP THOSE KIDS.)

My mental faculties had to do about five million rewinds to comprehend the hilarious irony of it all. Here was someone who is not at all embarrassed to work for a man who takes no shortcuts when destroying the lives of people of color, smiling benevolently with these children and saying such colonizer bullshit as:

  • “Some of the most well-behaved children I've ever seen.” (Me: What the fuck were you expecting with your white ass around?”)

  • “This place completely changed my life.” (Me: HOW. Literally, how. Because you get to feel better about yourself?)

  • “Regardless of these conditions, the students and faculty of this school are without a doubt some of the most kind, appreciative and humble individuals I've been lucky enough to be able to encounter.” (Me: Why? Because they’re Black? MY GOD, this narrative of the “poor but grateful” local needs to fucking stop now.)

It’s all quite vexing. But clearly, to reign it in a bit, what we have here is a classic case of white people curating their self-presentation online to appear like better people than they actually are. The “benign” choices of the filters we use or the photos we pick do not happen in a vacuum – they are deliberate decisions aimed to communicate an upgraded version of ourselves to others. Quite naturally, we make a rhetorical choice to highlight the positive traits we’d like others to associate with us: charity, compassion, or friendliness, for starters. But fundamentally it’s crucial to remember that what we decide to post about ourselves online is part of a greater performance of enacting and managing our identities and our value systems.

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One way I see this play out too often when it comes to digital media + travel + white people is in the vein of poverty tourism, or in polite terms: the practice of tourists visiting impoverished communities to capture a glimpse of what it’s like for the 736 million people in the world living on less than $1.90 a day. You know the drill: white person travels to impoverished country, white woman is inspired by the smiles and happiness of locals despite the fact they sleep in shanty towns, white woman takes photos with locals (preferably young children) and posts on Instagram, white woman is now reassured she is part of the global story of overarching kindness and cross-cultural understanding. How nice.

Honestly though: what western, privileged narratives are you pulling from and implanting onto your experiences in one of the poorest nations in the world? What local/political/cultural experiences are you sweeping under the rug, while you prioritize your own narrative? What do you have to gain from centering yourself in the lives of these communities? (If you read the comments on the post, you’ll get your answer.) Why should the communities be humble – because you are white? This narrative is hardly unique (here, here, and here): it is an all too familiar formula that countless other white women have also utilized about their experiences abroad, packaged and posted on Instagram as a selfish way of curating their identity.

But let’s remember who we are talking about here. We are talking about conservative white women who voted and support that piece of poop man who is apparently our president. And the conservative white women who voted shamelessly for the likes of Kemp, DeSantis, and Zodiac Killer Cruz. These women, for all their selfless posturing online, are the same ones who stood silent while migrant children were being detained and having their rights removed; while the supposed president of the United States refused to find fault with white nationalists in Charlottesville; while people from other countries are being called “animals” and “rapists”; while Trump called countries like Haiti “shitholes” -- basically anything that dehumanizes us, you stay silent on. Oh, and by the way, it’s not like your president gives a flying f*ck about those children you exploit.

Here’s what I’d like (conservative, in this case) white people to do: stop pretending, in person and online, to care about the lives of people of color. Stop using people of color as props to make yourselves look better, or to straighten out your moral compass although trust me, you need it. Just come clean about your racism. When you call the police on Black families having a cookout, why don’t you just admit on camera that you hate them. When you post pictures of yourself with African children, why don’t you just write in your caption that “sure these little African babies are cute but I’ll f*ck over Black youth with horrendous policy decisions every day in America.”

Just, for once in your feckless lives, stand up in the racism you believe in.

The Melanin Collective