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Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

 slummingslumming

This NYT article is so strange I was almost compelled to check the date to make sure it was written in 2008 and not, say, 1884.  Apparently, western tourists are paying to go on “slum tours,” guided trips through the poorest urban neighborhoods in places like Mexico, India and Brazil.  One man who did a tour in India was surprised to see “the small-scale industry, from embroidery to tannery, that quietly thrives in the slum. ‘Nothing is considered garbage there,’ he said. ‘Everything is used again.'”

The article asks whether the tours are voyeuristic and exploitative, or whether they help the privileged understand what it means to be poor. One proponent says that “To just kind of turn a blind eye and pretend the poverty doesn’t exist seems to me a very denial of our humanity.”

My immediate reaction to this is one of disgust. I’m sorry, but you are not helping impoverished people by paying some tourist agency so you can walk through their neighborhood, gawk at them and marvel at how they don’t waste anything. (Um, no shit: if you lived in a garbage dump you probably wouldn’t waste anything either.) One the one hand, it is good for affluent Westerners to be confronted with poverty so directly. Some of the agencies that conduct these tours do try to convert this new awareness into activism by encouraging tourists to volunteer at local charitable organizations, and some of them donate a portion of their profits to those organizations. But this account makes me want to throw something:

“Chuck Geyer, of Reston, Va., arrived for a tour in Mumbai armed with hand sanitizer and the expectation of human misery incarnate. He left with a changed mind. Instead of being solicited by beggars, Mr. Geyer found himself the recipient of gifts: fruit, and dye to smear on his hands and face, as people celebrated the Hindu festival of Holi. “I was shocked at how friendly and gracious these people were,” Mr. Geyer said.”

I guess if you’re the kind of asshole who is shocked by the humanity and graciousness of poor brown people, then, yeah, slum tours might be your only hope for transforming yourself into a decent person.

What the New York Times article didn’t mention is that this practice is nothing new. Recreational “slumming” was quite popular in the Victorian era; upper class people would often walk through Whitechapel in London or Five Points in New York City for the sole purpose of gawking at poor people.  Sometimes upper class women, playing at being Lady Bountiful, would “slum” by bringing baskets of food to tenement dwellers. There’s nothing like an eyeful of Dickensian squalor to make you really, really glad you have a feather bed at home. (more…)

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