I originally wrote this for Peace Corps Morocco's Gender and Development (GAD) Committee blog. I decided to put it on my personal blog as well, but you can find the original post here.
See if you can spot what these three anecdotes have in common. One is from home, and two are from my Peace Corps service so far.
I think it’s because development work, both at home and abroad, has for so long been part of that same gendered framework that boxes people into inequality. Peace Corps, more specifically, emerged right at the end of the European colonial period, during a time when international (and domestic) development was even more patriarchal than it is today. We cannot take our work here out of this context—we should always be questioning how it colors our view throughout these 2+ years.
The Shadow of the Ugly American
My first instinct in helping, as you can see from my stories, is sympathy, which means “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Empathy means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” But sympathy isn’t productive—instead, it is reductive. It reduces and simplifies the people you’re trying to help.
If I spend more time just hanging out with my friend and hearing about her life, if I learn how the girls in the Dar Taliba do have fun without a designated “safe space”—I can begin to understand them as full, complicated human beings, instead of underprivileged projects. In time, I might even be able to empathize with others—that is, to see where they’re coming from, get how they’re feeling, and know if there’s a way I can actually help them (and vice versa). I might not end up accomplishing that much on paper, but at least I’ll have real friendships.
Yet even if I’m befriending people and learning the language, there are still a thousands ways I can be the Ugly American. This is now a pejorative trope that refers to “perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home.” Since Peace Corps was established to counter this very picture, it seems like the Ugly American’s shadow is always hanging over my head, reminding me of what I could so easily, and unintentionally, become.
Personally, like so many with privilege, I have been able to benefit from systems of class and race without ever having to acknowledge the concept at all. Every time I post pictures on facebook or random epiphanies on my blog, I’m wary of becoming like voluntourists whose primary goal is not to understand their host community, but rather, show that they understand it.
Gender and Development, but also Gendered Development
I need to find a way to work productively here, even with that Ugly American ego creeping in the context, threatening to envelope me. If I am going to make these years worthwhile, I need to be myself—my outspoken, feminist, and eager beaver self. But I need to recognize when that self is actually pushing other voices down rather than amplifying them.
As individual Volunteers with varying levels of privilege, we must critique the power structures that lead to gender disparities not only at our sites, but also within the context of our Peace Corps experience. How do our diverse backgrounds affect the way we see life, do work, and relate to people at our sites? As gender advocates, we cannot be selective in what we view through this lens.
I believe productive work doesn’t have to be tangible—it can lie in relationships, conversations, and individual shifts in mindset. That’s what I love about GAD’s approach to work; even if I don’t implement a girls’ empowerment camp, there is still value in my individual conversations surrounding gender. Similarly, critical conversations about gendered development are vital among Peace Corps Volunteers, as our individual services do not exist in vacuums. After all, isn’t it true that we can have a higher impact on our own Peace Corps community than the sites where we serve?