One Day without Shoes

10 Apr

Today is One Day without Shoes. According to TOMS, the shoe company that donates a pair for every pair they sell:

[Today is t]he day we spread awareness of the impact a pair of shoes can have on a child’s life by taking off our own. Why? Millions of children live without proper footwear, exposing them to injury and disease every day (http://www.onedaywithoutshoes.com/).

TOMS is inviting all of us who are fortunate enough to have shoes to go barefoot for the day, or even just part of it, to raise awareness and empathy for the dangers of going shoeless.

I must admit to a sense of deja vu, a KONY2012-esque reaction to this campaign. As I clicked through the website and read about jiggers, hookworm and podoconiosis: I found myself both appreciative and wary of how this initiative feeds the White Savior Industrial Complex. I first read this phrase during the dissection of the KONY2012 campaign, among the tweets coming from Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole, who posted these remarks on 3/8/12:

1-From Sachs to [New York Times columnist Nicholas] Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2-The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

5-The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

7-I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

The paradigm of the White Savior Industrial Complex suggests that the very suffering we strive to save less fortunate people from is, at least in part, of our own creation. The “brutal policies” of US engagement with other nations and peoples creates or exacerbates inequalities and injustices for us to solve, much to our own acclaim. No wonder, then the big celebration, the masses of yes, white and well-shod activists… we rock. And I use the word “we” intentionally here because I don’t have to be white to participate in the White Savior Industrial Complex. But I’m also not just going to call it the No Particular Race Savior Industrial Complex because it’s not that. It’s very much a racially inspired and perpetuated system: just take a look at the poster feet for TOMS’ One Day without Shoes:

Notice the clean white feet, ready to go shoeless for the day. And notice the dark brown feet, virtually dancing with gratitude to the benevolent and the pedicured. It’s not as if there aren’t any white kids at risk of stepping on broken glass, or people of color with nice feet and too many shoes. It’s that racial stereotypes are an effective medium for TOMS’ well-intended White Savior Industrial Complex message. Somehow, disadvantage reads so much more vibrantly to the US public when it’s cast in black and white.

In response to Cole, Kristof (with whom I took issue in a post on 11/18/11) opined, “To me though, it seems even more uncomfortable to think that we as white Americans should not  intervene in a humanitarian disaster because the victims are of a different skin color”  (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/).

Kristof is missing the point. It’s not a question of whether or not to help someone in need, but, to borrow Cole’s words and imagery, a matter of doing our “due diligence” so that our intervention is not interference in other people’s lives, harnessing the “hippo” of our sentimentality so that we don’t wreak more damage in our rampage to feel better ourselves, recognizing how identity and diversity (of race, nationality, sex, age) matter in humanitarianism so that we don’t deepen inequities even as we strive to do good, and ultimately bringing some humility to our “save Africa” hubris so that we don’t end up believing that we can actually (and conveniently!) save people just by taking off our shoes or watching a youtube video.

Cole is asking us all to think deeply about how we can help make the world a more just place, not by playing savior but by being learners and partners. Whether or not we go barefoot today.

** For more from Cole, read his Atlantic article cited above, from which I pulled the Kristof quote.

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