Almost exactly two years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to accompany a group of my students to India for a course designed to specifically examine how notions of “justice” operate in an Indian context. As you might imagine, we saw literally hundreds of noteworthy things. With time, though, I have mentally sifted through some of these memories of what went on during our travels and realized that the most poignant moments of analysis came from events that no one had planned.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this came from our tour guide for part of the trip, the highlight of which was the Taj Mahal. The students generally revered him as an expert on all things Indian, and indeed, he was our translator, middle man, and local authority. He took his tour guide duties seriously, and this involved him telling us all sorts of stories (of the blatantly racist variety, which have long been discredited by serious historians) about how Indian culture came to be. As a light skinned Brahmin (the highest caste), he repeatedly reinforced that the millions of darker-skinned people living in utter poverty chose that sort of life, that the stick-thin children working for pennies were from ungrateful families who refused to use the free public education offered by the government, and that most of the country’s problems could be attributed to the refusal of this very underclass to embrace the same moral fortitude and work ethic that the upper classes had already realized. From a factual perspective these were all blatant falsehoods, of course, but they were an integral part of his discourse.
With a few noteworthy exceptions, most of the students bought into his story and went on to solicit his take on a number of other social situations that struck them as odd or interesting. Perhaps needless to say, my colleagues and I subsequently told our own versions of these same stories, wherein we translated our translator, in a sense. Our goal was to situate his story as a) part of the very thing that we came to observe, b) an example of how persuasive an authority figure can be to people who aren’t familiar with another sort of discourse, and c) as an example of insider discourse that, despite its Indian adornments, was a very similar story to the ones that many privileged Americans use to describe the American poor. Despite the fact that he was nowhere on our itinerary sheets, he was the very thing we came looking for.
I continue to wonder how many of our students realized that our entire trip was made possible because of systemic inequity. To be clear, I am absolutely not saying that there was no value to the trip — just the opposite, actually — for what I hope was one of the more intriguing phenomena to them was the manner in which they could identify power and privilege at work when the subject was someone else, but they had a much harder time swallowing that reality when it came to their own behaviors and desires.
After all, it was unsettling to think that our tour guide might be part of the problem, for most of them were desperate for some sense of order and stability in a place where, without the guide, we would have been relatively helpless. They wanted to trust him. Moreover, it was difficult, if not impossible, to discuss the “white savior complex” in a way that was meaningful to students whose entire reason for going was just as much motivated by notions of moral heroism as it was the desire to travel. It was also easy to dismiss so much inequity in the name of “just how things are” and “this is what they’re used to.”
On one of our last days in India, we visited an extremely poor Dalit (“Untouchable”) village, where an old woman screamed at our group from the doorway of her newspaper hut, saying something about “another group of rich people who’ve come to look at us but not help.” Her words, while they were not entirely true, still had tremendous weight, and reversed the power discourse back onto us for an answer. All of that left me wondering, “Who’s the data now?”