I stumbled on a seemingly innocuous tweet accompanied by a photo, both from Rainn Wilson (AKA Dwight Schrute from the sitcom “The Office”).
The tweet: @rainnwilson “Meeting with some of the 1st girls we taught in Haiti @JPHPRO 5 yrs ago @LideHaiti www.facebook.com/lide.org”
The accompanying image:
Analysis and Interpretation
First let me presume what Wilson intends to express to his fans and followers. For one thing, he’s traveling. He’s able to travel. He’s traveling to an exotic place. He’s not on vacation. Next is that he is on the front lines. He is with who he identifies as “Haitian girls”. The most important thing he is telling us though is that in some way, shape or form, he’s a teacher, “…the girls we taught…”.
Did he actually teach them? Cursory research finds no indication he spent any time in Haiti teaching children five years ago (during the height of “The Office”). Putting that aside, or even giving him the benefit of the doubt does not much minimize the analysis. More likely we will find that he is doing what the wealthy does; support teaching with his money. By extension then, he is teaching, because he is representing (paying for) a particular “us” who are then teaching a particular “them”. Everyone in their place.
Look at the young women in the photo; the “girls”, as he identifies them. None of the five are looking at the photographer. One looks at the floor, the others look almost nervously at each other. This represents a disassociation between the human beings in this room/facility. A hierarchy between teacher and pupil. The women do not appear eager to be seated in a line up and being displayed. The photographer wields power here. The photographer may or may not in fact be the teacher, but from the look of the expressions of the women, the photographer is above them, or superior.
This is the link on the tweet which leads to a Facebook page. The latest entry on this page is partially featured in this image:
The text which I have included in the image includes: “[Kara] has nowhere else to go’ the facilitator says”, and “the name ‘Kara’ is a pseudonym used to protect the participant’s identity”. The post continues, “The first photo [above top] in this posting is Kara’s ‘A Tree Alone in the Sky’. The second [above lower] is a girl much like Kara in the Lide program…”
Unpacking this text and image raises questions, revealing post/neo-colonial rhetoric. Note that the “girl” is given a pseudonym (Kara) and “nowhere to go”- she is essentially a non-identity. There is also a “facilitator”. A facilitator (even with a lower-case “F”) is a title. It is a job, a duty. It carries a sense of import, while the simple “Kara” does not. A facilitator here benefits from being nameless and faceless because the facilitator can and does represent us, the powerful, the smarter, the more civilized, the blessed, the fill-in-the-blank-in-how-we-are-better. We are the facilitators we are not the singular downtrodden; not them. Here the facilitator magnanimously even offers a name to the girl. Poor, poor Kara. There is a definite hierarchy here.
Now take another look at the lower photo, of the “girl”. First the post tells us they are protecting the identity of the girl through using the pseudonym “Kara”, yet they then post a photo of “a girl much like Kara…” Are they telling us that the girl in the photo has no identity worth protecting? And how is this girl “much like Kara”? Is it simply the color of her skin? It is almost sure that we will assume so. The “girl” with the story and the “girl” in the photo are at best stereotyped. They are fulfilling the colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial image of the “native”. We’re comfortable with that image.
The concepts of identity, agency and autonomy are in short supply here. At best they are ignored. At worst they have been manipulated and contoured to fit a narrative of race, ethnicity, need, of sympathy, of hopelessness, etc.
Now let me take a deeper look at the two groups referred to by Wilson. The tweet mentions @JPHPRO, and a visit to their site “Haitian Relief Organization” shows their mission is “To save lives and build sustainable programs with the Haitian people quickly and effectively.” That seems fair enough.
But who serves on their board? Well, along with actor Sean Penn, the six others are all high-powered White people from the USA or the UK, with the exception being Jean-Max Bellerive- who happens to be the Prime Minister of Haiti. While there may be questions about how much money they receive and where does it go, I would believe that it is all legitimate and is not pocketed. However, the point here is to see who is deciding on development projects and opportunities for Haitians- overwhelmingly it isn’t Haitians. An argument could be made that the organization actually not for the Haitians. Rather, it is for Americans, simply as a place where they can direct their charitable contributions.
Back to the “Lide” Facebook page. The “About” box for this organization offers the following link: https://www.monafoundation.org/staff.php. Discovering that this (global) organization supports “universal education”, certain postcolonial studies warning bells go off- as “universal education” being coded (as in “we are normal, you’re not, we’ll teach you how to become normal- and in the process discard your language, culture, etc.”). Who is on the Board of Directors for this organization? Out of eight directors, six directors are women, not a single director is Black, but oh yes, one of the directors is Rainn Wilson himself.
The organizations discussed here are not inherently bad. They may in fact be considered “good causes”, depending on the criteria with which they are judged. However, through postcolonial critique they reflect and support the power structures, hierarchies of wealth and cycles of perpetual dependency which define neocolonialism.
Where is power located? The power in this example is based in the “First-World”, empirical, neo-colonial capitalist structure. It is where the wealthy, the church, and NGOs decide much of the developmental projects and opportunities for places like Haiti. In that sense, the best interests of the lower class recipients are not necessarily represented, but instead could be subjected to the whims of the Boards of Directors and what may look good or feel good, or what will generate additional funding.
Who, if anyone, wields the power? As discussed above, government, military, Boards of Directors, wealthy individuals (actors, musicians, etc.), clergy, charity workers, and even tourists wield power through deciding where conditions might be improved and where not. That in itself is not bad, however it depends on the criteria used to make those decisions.
What pathways does it take through a society? From systems of education both in the USA and the neocolonial states, to the eliciting of sympathy (but not empathy) from church congregations, from diplomacy and unfavorable trade agreements, from perpetually portraying the “other” as helpless, primitive, as always in need. The “other” are almost never successful unless they have become incorporated in the very same organization that “saved” them. Then often they will be featured somehow. Otherwise they are always shown to be in need and they always need more.
What impact does it have on individuals? For the “givers” there is a sense of altruism, it may assuage their inherited (White) guilt, help them to deny or ignore history, and believe it will please God and help them get to heaven. They get to feel good about themselves, feed their ego, record an exotic experience, or take advantage of cheap labor.
For the “needy”, they learn dependency, they learn they are not good enough or not as good as those from the empire, they learn to reject their own culture as being “less than”; as being a source of shame.
From somewhere hot,
Facebook.com/lide.org. Web. 29 March 2015
Jphro.org. Web. 29 March 2015
Monafoundation.org. Web. 29 March 2015
Rivken, J., & Ryan, M. (2004). Literary theory: an anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.