#105 Apologizing when locals accuse them of being “racist”
It is important to understand that Expat Aid Workers are among the most sensitive, and politically and culturally correct people in the world.
Years of intensive study of social sciences, political sciences and cultural studies, combined with additional years of engaging directly with “the poor”, of listening intently to them explaining their needs in their words, of putting themselves literally and figuratively into the shoes of these same poor, of seeing the world through their eyes, holding them, crying with them, feeling their pain as if it was their very own uniquely qualify the EAW to express righteous indignation on behalf of those same poor. And these same experiences also qualify EAWs to be the arbiters of correct speech, action and thought in the developed world.
Like medieval warrior-monk-scholars, EAWs serve the critical purposes, not only of attending life-saving coordination meetings or changing the world through assiduously crafted email messages, but also showing the world of laypersons by example what true penitence means in the face of incontrovertible evidence that she or he has failed to live up to the high standard of political and social correctness or general cultural sensitivity so resolutely maintained by those who have gone before.
[Central to this doctrine of EAW work and life is the notion that the views, perceptions and opinions of local people, whether beneficiaries, staff, partners, housekeepers, taxi drivers, or just random people on the street, trump those of the EAW. So, for example, if the thing is square, but a local person see it as round, then at least for the sake of discussion – until sufficient capacity can be built through a mutually respectful exchange of views in the context of a participatory process involving all relevant and possibly also a few irrelevant stakeholders – as far as the culturally sensitive EAW is concerned, it is round.]
And in no arena of EAW experience and persona is this need for public penitent expression, typically accompanied by conspicuously displays of deference to (obviously superior) local perception felt so acutely as within the realm of race.
And so there are few things from which EAWs – committed as they are to remaining on the front lines of breaking down the walls of injustice and misunderstanding -derive greater masochistic pleasure than ostentatious displays of obsequious back-pedaling, explanation and lengthy amends-making whenever a local person calls them “racist.”
In the face of such accusations, it is of the utmost importance that the EAW not split semantic hairs or nitpick about the differences between, say, “racism” and “ethnocentrism.” It is also important that there be no discussion of the fact that the very concept of race essentially originated in the context of justifying colonial exploitation… or, further, pointing out the irony of someone invoking a bankrupt system of classification in order to accuse someone else of invoking that exact same bankrupt system of classification. Above all the EAW must never simply point out that what he or she actually said or did was, in fact, not racist at all (it may have been ethnocentric, ill-considered, in poor taste, funny, not funny, culturally-specific humor that did not translate well… but it was not racist). Some kinds of capacity need not be built.
If a local person calls it racism, then racism it is. Better to just apologize…