Amina and the white man’s burden

So, the Gay Girl in Damascus ended up being Tom MacMaster, a 40 year-old American student at the University of Edinburgh. It is needless to rehash what has been said, I highly recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent article on the subject. There is however one aspect of the affair that has confirmed some nagging features of the progressive blogosphere, and this is the subject of the following short paragraphs.

Some years ago, I attended a large conference in Rio de Janeiro (name and time of the event withheld to protect the innocent).  I attended lots of amazing presentations, but there was a particular panel that has remained embedded in my brain, and which I secretly called the “white man’s burden panel”. Here was an international, sophisticated and multicultural audience in an exotic setting, yet a panel that was supposed to talk about international development issues consisted almost entirely of white American males talking about what they were doing on behalf of developing nations. Looking around the room, I felt immensely insulted, there seemed to be a very strong implication that nothing would ever get done unless white American males were involved. But what depressed me the most was the fact that these were the good guys, this was a group of progressives clearly interested in doing the right thing. Yet why the strong undercurrent of condescension? Things went from bad to worse when one member of the panel started showing us a video of him watching a football match with black kids from the favelas. I could literally see that in his mind he was already showing the video back to his progressive friends in the United States:”Look how unbelievably cool and multicultural I am”. He completely missed the point that he was showing his tourist video to an audience in Rio de Janeiro. We could see the favelas for ourselves.

This episode has left such a strong mark in me because it has always exemplified an odious element found in NGO and progressive engagement with development countries. Despite the good intentions, I cannot help but feel that a lot of involvement is nothing more than cheap posturing, a way to earn diversity points for the next dinner party. As it was brilliantly satirised in this YouTube video on hipster culture (NSFW), “we put on a rave on this abandoned Mosque, and all the proceeds are going to that thing that happened in the Middle East, or Africa, or wherever…”

This is why I think that the Amina hoax has resonated so much with me. Of course Amina had to be a middle-aged white guy from Georgia. Tom MacMaster did not have a real Amina, his world-view demanded one, so he invented her. It was such a brilliant exploitation of Orientalism, liberal guilt and progressive stereotypes that he could get away impersonating a Syrian lesbian for five years until some people started being suspicious. There is a lot of dedication that went into the hoax, but it also plays with the U.S. centric view of the world. There are hundreds of legitimate voices out there, but the one that caught the blogosphere’s imagination was the half-American one.

The Anglophone dominance online is not imposed unilaterally, many of us in developing countries are guilty of pandering to the narrative of the European and/or American as the saviour. We have valuable indigenous voices in our own languages, yet I have to admit that many of us still crave the recognition from the Anglosphere (heck, I’m a Costa Rican still blogging in English fer crissake). However, the sooner we recognise the biases that have made the Amina hoax easier, the closer we will be to discovering authentic online voices elsewhere.

For the record, I am not a Middle Eastern lesbian posing as a boring middle-aged Latin American guy with a humorous llama obsession.

One thought on “Amina and the white man’s burden

  1. "For the record, I am not a Middle Eastern lesbian posing as a boring middle-aged Latin American guy with a humorous llama obsession." So you say. But you may be deep in denial.

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