Questioning the Emancipatory Potential of International Volunteering

Authors: Jacob Henry*, University of Hawaii
Topics: Cultural Geography, Geography Education, Africa
Keywords: Volunteer Tourism, Public Pedagogy, White Identity Development, Race, Africa
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Napoleon C1, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


International volunteering/ volunteer tourism (IVT) has been described by some scholars to hold the potential for social emancipation. However, much of this work neglects the inherently racialized nature of most IVT, including the (often white) racial identity formation of the volunteers themselves. I argue that the pedagogical potential of IVT lies in its spatial disorientation of volunteers’ constructions of race. Drawing from critical whiteness studies, I illustrate how volunteers’ racial identities are differently challenged in Africa than in a university classroom or even in a service learning setting ‘at home.’ Using online volunteer blog narratives, I contend that IVT programs are not inherently liberatory, and even that the shadow of neo-colonialism looms large over the industry. However, IVT—especially in Africa--also forces white volunteers to move beyond the discourse scholars have called ‘colorblindness.’ Additionally, in Africa, volunteers readily accept the apparent legacies of colonialism and apartheid to be questions of racial oppression. The elite IVT participants are--albeit briefly—exposed to places beyond their privatopias and given license to ‘see race’ as an organizing principle of societies. Their immersion into a racialized, non-western public may provide the foundation on which to build pedagogies of the public and also in the interest of publicness: I begin to question how facilitators can link this new racial consciousness to problems beyond Africa and structural violence—perpetuated by these elites --which encroaches on publicness around the world.

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