Barbie Savior Instagram and the True Meaning of Global Voluntourism
[Photo Credit: Instagram/BarbieSavior]
The Barbie Savior account on Instagram—which started about four months ago—has caused quite a stir on social media. With 71 posts and more 103K followers, the account, created by two white 20-something women, parodies the types of pictures many global volunteers post on social media. I recently wrote about the pitfalls of voluntourism and how we can make global work less problematic and sustainable.
However, it's important to bring up the fact that not all voluntourism and inappropriate selfies with brown and black babies are taken by people who look like Barbie Savior. In our concept of 20-somethings who choose to go to developing countries, we forget that whiteness (like race) is a social construct. It's easy to look at a prototypical white-looking person and blame the entirety of challenges faced in global work to a "white savior complex."
Because whiteness is socially allotted power, it is equally as important to understand that people of color can also be implicated in perpetuating a savior complex.
There are many people of color who perpetuate the same types of ideas and selfies the Barbie Savior account draws attention to. That's important to remember for a couple of reasons. To make sense of global work and voluntourism, I find it useful to use an anthropological lens. There are many layers that I have to keep in mind when I do global work and in how I present those experiences in the American cultural that I have grown up in.
1. As a person of color, it may be easier to gain access to a community or group of people because you may physically, culturally, or linguistically pass as a native member of that community. Whether that is "fair or not," it brings more responsibility when working with the vulnerable group(s). 2. The way you characterize your experiences can help perpetuate the same trite and tired stereotypes of a group of people, community, or country. 3. Your place of residence and the name on your passport often gives you certain privilege.
Often, we see this in direct and indirect ways. Western passport holders, often Americans, are treated differently in other nations and during travel. Many non-Western passport holders require expensive and hard to obtain visas to go to many of the same countries.
For example, my interest in global work stems from my interest in understanding different health systems and as a current medical student. However, most of my life, I have been asked by well-meaning people if I wanted to "go back and help" India. There is a danger and foolishness in saying yes, but saying no also seems wrong. I do want to help, but the danger in saying yes comes from the fact that I am no better, more qualified, or well-equipped to help anyone in India – a country of more than a billion people - than the medical students and health professionals there.
Maybe my perceived privilege of American citizenship and education in the U.S. makes it seem that I do, but just because my parents chose to move here does not make me any more special than the thousands of health care providers, social workers, and anthropologists who live and work in India. My typical response to that question is that I have a deep interest in how anthropology and medicine can inform each other and global health feels like a natural fit. But it's easy to see how you, as a member of an ethnic group, can become the "savior" for that society or group. It's essentially still tokenism.
The Barbie Savior account, while being hysterically funny, brings light to important issues. There is a range of comments on the Instagram account from positive to negative. Many of the negative comments focus on how the account seems to discourage people from volunteering or working abroad. I would argue that it's not really about the work, but the manner in which it is done, portrayed and propagated in Western media. It makes no sense in our globalized world to say, "never go abroad or work in any other country than your own." Service professionals including physicians, social workers, lawyers, public health professionals, and academics from all around the world provide tangible services worldwide. To enact change in policies and systems on a global level, we have to engage in communities other than our own. This issue Barbie Savior brings to light for those of us who may not fit the stereotype of the white, western global volunteer, it may be even more important to remember how we can break negative stereotypes and build trust and community within certain vulnerable groups.
The creators, according to Quartz, have between them decades of experiences working, studying, and volunteering abroad. And like many who critique voluntourism and global work, the takeaway is not that "we should never help anyone abroad and all aid is bad." But it allows for self-reflection on how to best help and change some of the current unsustainable practices. For those of us who do not look like a millennial Barbie, but have much of the same upbringing and privilege, that's also an important message to understand.
And if you have the time, please read the hashtags. They really are the best part.