Privileges are unearned advantages given to us by society, based on some aspect of our identity. While privilege isn’t something we should necessarily feel guilty about, it’s something we need to be sensitive towards, particularly while traveling.
Since colonization shaped world history, travelers from Western Europe and the US experience Western privilege over the rest of us. As Westerners travel throughout the world, it’s important to remember the social and historical context of their presence in other countries, and the privilege that comes with it.
Here are a few:
1. You’re likely to find someone who speaks your home language.
Because of the global dominance of languages like English, and to a lesser degree, French and Spanish, as a Westerner, it’s likely that many others can speak your home language. However, the reverse is unlikely. For example, if I travel anywhere outside of southern Africa it would be a miracle if I could find a local that can communicate in Afrikaans – my home language.
It’s important to be sensitive to this power imbalance. As anyone who’s ever traveled could tell you, finding someone who speaks your home language makes things so much easier.
2. Others are likely to know more about your culture than you do about theirs.
Western countries dominate the media in most of the world. The media most people around the world are exposed to is disproportionately representative of Western countries. Nonwesterners are likely to know about Western celebrities, literature, music, TV shows, movies, and so on.
Again, acknowledge this power imbalance, and make an effort to learn about cultures other than your own.
3. Your country isn’t fetishized or seen as ‘exotic.’
Many Western countries, such as the US and parts of Western Europe are normalized by the media and thus seen as the ‘default’, while nonwestern countries are often viewed as “exotic”, “non-mainstream”, or “strange”.
When calling other countries by these terms, we repeat a power imbalance that automatically makes “Western” mean “normal” and everything else mean “abnormal.”
4. People don’t come to your country in order to ‘save’ it with little regard for the impacts of their actions.
Think about it: very few people travel from non-Western countries to ‘save’ people in the West. And even when they do, there isn’t an entire industry built on this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, plenty of voluntourism agencies rely on perpetuating stereotypes about non-Western countries, thus purposefully misrepresenting them. They also often end up taking a lot of the money for themselves instead of giving it to the host organization.
This is often connected to a ‘savior mentality’ which is held by many people in Western countries. This is the notion that people in the West need to ‘save’ people in non-Western countries, because they’re unable to help themselves. Pretty patronising, huh?
So, if you’re thinking of doing voluntourism in another country, ask yourself whether your work will truly be effective. Do you think you’re giving the host country anything they don’t have themselves? Are you traveling to enrich your life, or theirs? Have you researched the agency you’re using? Have you learnt a great deal about the cultures, customs and socio-political issues of your host country? Above all else, ask yourself whether you’re traveling in order to feel like you’re saving helpless people. If you are, think deeply and carefully about why you feel this way.