Just like the U.S. government was founded on racism and has been dominated by white men, the U.S. Peace Corps, and other government sponsored exchange programs, are also historically white. Today, I am a white Peace Corps Volunteer representing, and thus contributing to, a U.S. image that has been whitewashed around the world.
I think international exchange (and following, volunteer support) is crucial for bringing about social change both at home and around the world. Yet I can’t help make Peace Corps more inclusive, or the U.S.’s image less white, without acknowledging my own complicity in this current reality. I’m writing this post to explore my own place in the context of implicit racism in the international volunteering field, and to see what it means to be an ally for Volunteers of Color (VOC).
I first got the opportunity to travel at an early age, without having to think about border discrimination, racism overseas, or being questioned on my “Americanness.” My positive experiences abroad opened my world. Later on, they motivated me to pursue a career in international affairs and the public sector. And with the relevant unpaid internships and continued study abroad experiences, I could.
My racial and class privileges gave me easy access to enriching opportunities, which came at the expense of others, for example those that had to work during summers to put themselves through school. My experiences became assets essential to finding a job in the non-profit sector, surrounded by many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). I knew Peace Corps well—it was part of my circle. I was confident that my Peace Corps application would be accepted for Morocco, even after I had turned down another Peace Corps invitation a year earlier.
Race and identity was not something I had to think about before coming here. My privilege is what made my road here visible and smooth, and as a current Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), and I still don’t have to think about race during my service. Yet for current Volunteers of Color, stepping foot into a historically, and still majority, white volunteer pool, means that my own voice has the power to marginalize.
Focusing on Diversity; Why Now?
In talking about diversity, especially as a white volunteer, it’s important for me to ask why this focus is happening now and realize that before, the white voices at the Peace Corps table had the privilege to ignore how race and racism affects volunteer experience. The small increase in racial diversity is only recent and comes from long-fought battles and hard work from both Peace Corps leaders of Color and Volunteers of Color.
I can’t tell you the racial makeup of the first volunteer classes (because, surprise, surprise, I couldn’t even find statistics on that). But I can tell you that today 29% of volunteers identify as minorities, which is a drastic increase from earlier years. In 2012, Peace Corps finally made a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan and previous director Carrie Hessler-Radelet has talked at length about efforts to reach communities of color in the U.S.
Today, because of the whitewashed image of an American, the (historically and present-day) majority-white makeup of PCVs, combined with discrimination in-country, the (still small number of) Volunteers of Color have to suffer the burden of multi-layered racism that I, as a white volunteer, benefit from. You can understand more about VOC experiences, in general and with racism specifically, by reading blogposts from VOCs. I have highlighted some pieces from fellow Volunteers at the end of this post.
Obviously, the burden of the racism should not just be on those that face it, but rather, on those white volunteers who privilege from it. Yet white privilege still operates in Morocco—I don’t have to actively seek to change the Peace Corps support structures, because my experience, voice, and service is the historic and present default for Peace Corps Volunteers and Americans abroad.
Reframing Volunteer Support
Creating more effective volunteer support mechanisms for marginalized PCVs is essential for bridging Peace Corps’ goals on paper with the daily realities of each volunteer seeking to carry out those goals. Instead of assuming that volunteers are monolithic, selfless robots serving this overall goal, organizations need to look at volunteers as full people, and members of a two-way exchange who are constantly learning and growing.
And people need other people, allies, in order to thrive as volunteers. Because most PCVs are still white, and because any group of Americans carry with them the complexities of U.S. racism, it will take intentional effort from me, as a white volunteer, to support rather than marginalize; there is no neutral ground in this unequal status quo.
Still, institutional changes to include and support Volunteers of Color have been limited. Peace Corps Headquarters has been providing “Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Inclusion” (ICD&I) training for its American and local staff. It wants its senior leadership at posts to “encourage the development of support networks that promote diversity and inclusion.” In Peace Corps Morocco specifically, there are diversity conversation sessions during Pre-Service Training, In-Service Training, and Mid-Service Training, facilitated by our Volunteer Support Network (VSN).
Outside of these 3-4 collective hours over 27 months, white PCVs like me can continue avoiding race, and perspectives from PCVs of Color, if they so choose. There are not other institutionalized avenues in place to unpack how racism and white privilege play out within our volunteer staj and during our service. Most of the time, volunteer support comes in the form of contacting Peace Corps staff. And feeling vulnerable due to racism is not something I have to think of approaching anyone about.
Whether it be a designated staff person in every country specialized in providing support to Volunteers of Color, special retreats for Volunteers of Color or marginalized volunteers in general, or regional meet-ups to discuss these issues in a structured way, it is clear that the ICD&I trainings and diversity sessions are only beginnings. Carrie Hessler-Radelet said herself, in an outgoing interview, that “we have made a lot of progress” on the ICD&I Initiative, “but we’re not completely done, we still have work to do.”
Working on Fellow support for Atlas Corps, I wanted to help incoming volunteers persist amidst the same American xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism that I myself got to avoid. As I wrote in another blogpost entitled “Learning to be an Ally,” I quickly learned that since ignorance and bigotry affects Fellows in different ways based on intersectionalities of identity and service like gender, location of service, traditions, class, religion, or ability, there is no one prescribed solution for how to provide support—and there is no way to shield someone from a reality that you yourself don’t live in.
The same is true when it comes to being an ally for Volunteers of Color in the Peace Corps. While there’s no one solution for creating inclusivity and equitable support, examining my own privilege, complicity, even ignorance, as a white Volunteer, opening opportunities to hear VOC perspectives, and lending an empathetic ear, are some small ways I can help centralize this conversation in a way that doesn’t sideline other voices.
Indeed, the systemic racism that has always existed in the U.S. is a reality that white progressive circles back home are just recently acknowledging. As a white PCV I must remember that I’m serving in an institution that’s also just learning to talk about and fight racism as it becomes more diverse—because it was racism that excluded People of Color from the Peace Corps Volunteer and leadership pools in the first place.
Racism isn’t just people riding down the streets in white hoods and tiki torches chanting hate speech. And I can’t single-handedly disband the KKK by looking at my computer screen. But I can actively keep trying to make Peace Corps a more just, less racist institution by promoting critical and inclusive volunteer support. Such mechanisms are essential if the Peace Corps hopes to reach its ideal of representing the “American people,” rather than just the “American government” and the groups that it privileges (me).
Some Relevant Blog Posts on VOC Experiences with Race & Racism
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!