Reminding Ourselves: A Day Without Dignity
Now every year, TOMS launches an awareness campaign to raise awareness about “shoelessness”. In their words:
I think sometimes we forget what we have, and occasionally it’s important to remind ourselves. Most people don’t even realize how many children in developing countries grow up barefoot and all the risks, infections and diseases they endure. For most of us, modern shoes our so comfortable and accessible, we all but forget about our feet, but they are a source of constant focus for others. I wanted everyone to personally understand the impact of shoes, and the difference they can make, so we thought, “Why don’t we get a taste of what these kids go through every day?”
As I read that paragraph, I thought about Jason Sadler’s very controversial and equally offensive One-Million T-shirts Campaign to send used T-Shirts to Africa because according to him, “different countries, different villages, different towns, they all need shirts, some people only have half a shirt to their name and some children don’t have a shirt at all”.
I’m sure Jason regrets not asking people to go naked for a day. Sigh.
Ok. Back to TOMS.
Who are these people in “developing countries”?
Is the developing world a homogenous other? Why do we keep reproducing these dichotomies and stereotypes? “People there don’t have food; people there don’t have clothes; people there suffer; they grow up barefoot; they all need shirts”
Isn’t there inequality in America?
Why do “we” need to “remind ourselves” and “get a taste” ? It’s really about “us”, isn’t it?
What about this culture of reminding ourselves of difference in a way that objectifies others and makes gross generalizations- all in the name of awareness? This culture of hopping on to the next insensitive exercise to create awareness. People have breast cancer and cancer-free people decide to create awareness/“remind themselves” by posting the colour of their bras on facebook or stating where they like dropping their handbags. Children get abused and instead of documentaries, petitions and indictments, “privileged” children, many of whom don’t know what it feels like to be abused, feel the need to jump on an exercise and post a picture of their favourite cartoon character to “create awareness”. The fact is that we are all aware of difference, injustice and gross inequality. We are all well-aware that people go through different struggles. The media has created enough awareness about poverty, starvation and war “in the developing world”. We really don’t need another awareness campaign especially not another condescending remind-ourselves exercise.
Awareness makes sense when people come together to talk about issues that plague their society and develop a real hands-on solution to these issues. Awareness doesn’t make sense when people who are not directly affected, but by virtue of the fact they think they are so privileged, come up with disrespectful exercises. It’s almost as ridiculous and insensitive as people coming up with a campaign to abstain from talking to their immediate family members for one week, in TOMS words, because “sometimes we forget what we have… and so we thought, ” why don’t we get a taste of what these [other] kids go through every day?” I wonder why we need to objectify people to be grateful for our lives? Where do we draw the line? HIV/AIDS for a day, anyone?
More importantly, awareness campaigns should not be taken seriously if there is no real information about an issue. Bringing up an issue is the first step but awareness programs must go further. Okay, some people don’t have shoes. Do they consider their ‘shoelessness’ as a problem? Have they never had shoes in history? Why don’t they have shoes now? Are their communities far from shoe markets? Have deforestation/famine, war, economic crises, the closure of a factory and consequent retrenchment of workers caused a drop in real income and affected their ability to meet their needs? What about the raw materials for making shoes- rubber, leather, cotton etc? Are they readily available? How has this affected the price of shoes? How have the people in question adjusted to these unfavourable trends? Have they improvised in any way? What role has technology played in all of these? Has their condition been improving or steadily getting worse? Are there some practices/government polices/NGO programs that are stifling initiative and hindering people’s ability to meet their needs? How can these be addressed?
TOMS has been lauded as a company committed to social entrepreneurship i.e. making money while improving the lives of people. Instead of disrespectful and stereotypical campaigns, why isn’t this mission reflected? Why aren’t they producing documentaries about how particular people are improving their lives and becoming empowered, about sustainable business initiatives involving local shoemakers/cobblers, about local markets, about local investment, about challenges in particular regions and how these challenges are being tackled in order to create a model that others can perhaps follow. If people are really affected by these issues, why isn’t TOMS giving them a platform to speak out? Why are social entrepreneurs and awareness raisers trying to “remind themselves” and “get a taste”?
My home country, Nigeria, is one of those countries with the “developing country” label and yet, in spite of economic inequality, shoe markets/shops abound. Yes, “modern shoes” abound (Please, what do traditional shoes look like?). In all my sixteen years of living in Nigeria, I never met one person who didn’t have a pair of shoes to his/her name. This doesn’t mean that there were no such people -I still wonder if there are- but it points to the fact that this was not a part of my “developing world” reality. Furthermore, walking barefooted in Lagos, Ibadan or Abuja was/is not a problem but a practice. I had seen well-to-do people, some of whom traveled abroad on vacation every summer and live in mansions, walking barefooted on Sundays not because they were poor and helpless but for religious reasons. Do TOMS awareness raisers know this? I doubt it. Do these people who walk barefooted need to be pitied? No. Does anyone need our pity and misguided self-reminders? No.
This kind of ‘awareness campaign’ has other -perhaps unintended- repercussions as some young awareness raisers suddenly start thinking that they are responsible for the development of the ‘developing world’ and have the right to withdraw their assistance when this world ‘misbehaves’. I was quite shocked to hear about an argument between a boy from Cameroon-I think- and his Canadian friend. Realizing that he was losing the argument, the Canadian boy said something like “ It’s the fault of Canadians who send money to all these starving children every month. Now that they are well-fed and have the chance to come to our country, they think they know everything and have the right to argue with us.” WOW! Thanks, World Vision, for raising awareness.
In conclusion, awareness campaigns such as “A Day Without Shoes” that place awareness raisers in a privileged position, make them feel superior to others and reinforces stereotypes in the name of “reminding ourselves” instead of focusing on detail, context and local agency should not be supported. The next time someone asks me where I’m from and proceeds to ask me how come I speak English fluently and I’m dressed well or wearing nice shoes even though I’m from a “developing country”, I know who to blame for this.
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