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‘White Fragility Training’ for International Volunteer Trips?

When Kimberly Lucht volunteered with Panama-based dance service nonprofit Movement Exchange in 2012, the experience of teaching dance to at-risk youth inspired many discussions relating to race and racism in dance among her fellow volunteers.

For researchers Zoe Luba and Dr. David Thomas of Mount Allison University in Canada, those are exactly the type of discussions lacking in U.S. college students’ international volunteer experiences.

International volunteer trips have been criticized for providing vacations for ill-equipped students with no relevant skills, who use experiences as resume boosters or Tinder profile pictures. Instead of exploring this aspect of voluntourism, the researchers focus on evaluating volunteers’ “shift of consciousness” regarding privilege, race and racism rather than the tangible impact of their work.

In “White Fragility and the white student abroad: using critical race theory to analyse experiential learning” published in the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Luba and Dr. Thomas argue that U.S. college students studying or volunteering abroad experiences relating to international development should have more rigorous ‘white fragility’ pre-departure training related to the volunteers’ role in the global hierarchy.

When Lucht volunteered, neither her university nor the nonprofit’s training promoted these questions; rather, they occurred from innate curiosity. But as Luba and Dr. Thomas’s research and Lucht found out, Lucht was the anomaly.

Copyright Movement Exchange

The researchers interviewed U.S. and Canadian undergraduate students participating in international development internships in Mysore, Karnataka, India, and used Critical Race Theory (CRT) (defined as “a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationships among race, racism and power”) to analyze how the volunteers – out of 17, 16 white and one black – handled issues of race and structural racism while living in non-white settings.

According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 325,339 U.S. students studied abroad during the 2015-2016 school year, representing just 1.6 percent of all students enrolled in higher education. Of those, over 70 percent  are white students, another problematic aspect of the U.S. higher education system. The researchers included one black participant for comparison purposes, and in fact, this student did not have issues articulating race and privilege.

A few years later, Lucht became the organization’s in-country program director. For the majority of the mainly white U.S. university students she led, those types of conversations didn’t occur as organically as they had for her. In fact, for most volunteers –  Lucht estimates was the first time abroad for about a quarter of them, and many were dance, not political science or sociology, majors – they had never even heard of things like neo-colonialism or the white savior complex.

Valuing the importance of teaching students about colonialism and global hierarchies – especially in a country with such deep colonial roots  as Panama – Lucht compiled a handbook that facilitated discussions of these topics. She wanted volunteers to question why it was easy for U.S. dancers to travel so easily to Panama and not the other way around; why lighter skinned, non-indigenous ballet dancers are more likely to secure a spot in a dance company; or even why some Panamanian youth can’t believe black U.S. volunteers are from the U.S. Without this training, volunteers might have traveled to Panama without ever questioning the power (especially white) Americans have.

As it turns out, the interviewees in Luba and Dr. Thomas’s study didn’t consider issues of structural racism, global inequality and colonialism during their stay in India, and were even uncomfortable at the mention of them, using euphemisms when necessary.

According to the authors, the problem lies in inadequate pre-departure training, especially considering that the U.S. system generally works to insulate white students from settings of racial tension. Current training typically includes highlighting cultural differences or goal setting. Though those are important, the researchers argue that leaving out training related to systemic global issues can also inhibit volunteers’ ability to adapt to the host cultural and also gain a sense of appropriate professional distance from complicated topics like disease and poverty.

Worse, without proper context into the country, they may also return to the U.S. with stereotypical or racist views of the country or community.

In 2008, Anthony Ogden published “The View from the Veranda: Understanding Today’s Colonial Student,” in The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad. Although Ogden’s article discusses study, not volunteering, abroad, the students’ attitudes seem to overlap across international programs. Study abroad, argues Ogden, now caters to the “colonial student” which he describes as “the U.S. university student who really wants to be abroad and take full advantage of all the benefits studying abroad offers, but is not necessarily open to experiencing the less desirable side of being there.”

The logistical setup of many international volunteer trips also hint to catering to “the colonial volunteer,” in which students experience the “feel good” aspects travel and volunteering without considering issues of systematic racism or questioning why the U.S. exports white, middle-class university students to volunteer.

Lucht wanted to avoid this, but it didn’t come without consequence. Training, like the researchers suggest, is easier said than done.

During one Movement Exchange trip in spring 2017, some volunteers took issue with two words Lucht included in the training: colonialism and white savior. Having heard these words, two volunteers were offended and later alluded to the suggestion that Movement Exchange was brainwashing them into a certain political mindset.

Movement Exchange was forced to consider where they fit in pushing volunteers to go out of their comfort zone, especially in regards to uncomfortable topics.  

“With an organization like Movement Exchange you’re catering to a client – you’re catering to a customer – if that customer doesn’t like what you’re providing, they’re not going to come back. Is this worth it to the business to jeopardize clientele for white fragility training? I agree and disagree,” says Lucht.  

After the incident, Movement Exchange removed the “trigger words” from the handbook, though “we still have cultural hierarchy and cultural awareness, but those are so washed-down words when really the reality is there is a history behind this and we have to talk about it,” Lucht argues. They still do – but not as explicitly.

Volunteer organizations’ main focus has to be the intentionality, argues Dr. Beth Gazley, Professor and Director of the Masters of Public Affairs program at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Many volunteer projects deal with big, global issues, and volunteers need to be more aware that those can’t be solved by flying to another country and teaching English for a week, for example. Perhaps in some cases, a successful volunteer experience might be shifting a white American student’s understanding of why sweatshops exist and why developed world consumer choices matter.

Gazley says that ultimately, organizations have to make choices: how much they are going to give volunteers, and how much they expect out of them. They must consider how to strike that balance and also ponder how much is this really going to challenge the volunteer to think to about their role in the world.

While some organizations like Movement Exchange have good intentions to do the least amount of harm as possible, a politically divided and hot-button America doesn’t make things any easier. The inability to speak bluntly about racism and other sensitive topics is a common theme among volunteers and facilitators of volunteer trainings. Not everyone sees that as a bad thing.

Sophia Hyder, who left a 15-year career in international development to start cross cultural communications consulting, says that during her workshops with clients she never says “let’s talk about racism,” even if that’s the issue the client is facing. Even less hot topic buzz words like “diversity” sometimes prevent people from examining themselves and their actions – and that is the introspection needed to grow and overcome biases.

When Brian Drout, a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University in China, traveled to volunteer the Dominican Republic in 2012 as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he had months of preparation and training. The trip was part of a service learning class sponsored by the International Studies Department. Preparation didn’t shy away from privilege, race, and socioeconomic status – to such an extent that Drout even admits some students questioned whether or not it was ethical to go on the trip.

However, the topics of these discussions were rarely referred to by what they explicitly were. Instead, students watched videos like Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” and questioned why they are permitted to travel for a week to teach English in the Dominican Republic.

I asked Drout his opinion on calling the training “white fragility training” or having a “discussion on racism.” For him, it’s problematic to avoid words with certain people, as this is accommodating someone who is already accommodated in our society. But he also recognized it’s important to meet students where they’re at. If they’ll be offended by buzz words, they’ll likely stop listening. At that point, they might also refuse to ponder the crucial questions the words are intending to ask.

Regardless, Drout’s pre-departure training made a lasting impact. Later, he studied abroad in Peru and then taught English in China post-graduation. His behavior and cultural sensitivity in Peru and China, he explains, were a direct result of what he learned prior to traveling to the Dominican Republic.

For example, white marathon runners in China are given free trips to races and used in advertising campaigns. Drout chooses not to accept those freebies and questions why a white face continues to be held in higher esteem than other races. He takes issue with white American’s ability to get a teaching job so quickly in China – “If you were a foreigner with a heartbeat you would get a job” – over locals with more qualifications.

In an unequal world with many instances of unethical travel, arguments like Luba and Dr. Thomas’s speak to the need to redefine the goal of volunteers’ experiences on international trips. As Lucht’s example proves, it might come with a cost – but volunteer organizations will define whether or not it’s worth it.

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