Thursday, June 14, 2012

White People Save the World...Again

So while school's out forever summer, I'm doing this federally funded public healthy project, yada yada yada.  It mostly consists of me staring at my computer and trying to summon up the courage to beg strangers for donations for a health fair that I have six weeks to plan (anyone?  please?  it's for a good cause!).  Anywho, as part of this whole shebang, my cohort and I received some free stuff, mainly books.  Woot!  It's like this whole thing was planned with me in mind...

...except not.  I started reading one of them.  Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder is a love sonnet about Dr. Paul Farmer, "A man who would cure the world."  No, really.  It actually says that on the cover.  And the expectations instigated by that phrase have been overwhelmingly affirmed in the 141 pages I've read so far.  Get this - a white guy decides to go treat people with pigmented skin, whether they like it or not.  No, literally.  He sometimes chases them around until they let him give them medicine.  You can't make this stuff up.

Okay, in fairness it sounds like Farmer is actually pretty amazing.  He's done some pretty cool stuff and sounds like he's sacrificed a lot to do it (though you get the sense that the self-satisfaction he derives is far stronger than the pleasures of suburban life for him).  Of course, he does do that obnoxious white hero in a foreign land thing of marrying some lady and having babies with that lady and then proceeding to ignore said lady and said babies to do some other stuff.  And yes, that other stuff is very important, but really, choose.  I mean, said baby will probably have about 100 complexes about the fact that she thinks you're awesome but resents you for choosing those other people over her but then feels guilty about that fleeting thought because really they need you more than she does but dammit, she wants her Daddy.  That isn't really the point of this post.

The point of this post is that these kinds of stories can be okay, if they're true (which I can't help but doubt in this case*) and done well (which this one is not).  Kidder, the narrator of this tale, clearly hero-worships Farmer and leaves it at that.  We hear all about Farmer's life - the white family he grew up with, a white patient he treated, the white girlfriend who wouldn't marry him (and found him to be the only person in all of Haiti that she could have fun with), the white people he went to school with, the white people that sponsored his work, the white teachers who let him get away with occasionally being late for labs because he was busy saving Haiti from tuberculosis (which is horrifyingly alive and well in the world).

There's one thing missing from this story.  One very important thing.  Have you spotted it?

Haitians.  Farmer has devoted his life to Haiti and its citizens, but Kidder mentions almost none of them, except as diagnoses and cultural oddities.  There's the patient with resistant TB, the person who thought one son's Voodoo killed another son, the patient who thanked Farmer with dirty milk, the patient who died because there was no blood bank in the hospital...  There are patients, but not people.  There are specimens, but not names or voices or faces.  They get medicine and tin roofs, but they don't get stories.  Haiti is merely the backdrop of Farmer's tale.

Don't get me wrong.  If this story is wholly true, I don't think that Haitians are a nonentity for Farmer at all.  I think that they are extremely important to him - Farmer's family, the people he seeks out for comfort even when he's not in Haiti.  But for Kidder, they are nothing, just a dark, faceless curtain before which Farmer's face glows with purity.  The point, to Kidder and to the book, is Farmer, not the people he serves and has built his life's work for.

The problem is, I don't think most people would notice this distinction.  Most people, I feel, would see the white man's glory, the problems the white man most solve, the problems (other) white men create.  In short, they will continue to see the white man's world, in which non-white people merely serve as tools to determine the white man's story, whether he is good or bad or some other thing.  In purportedly showing how one man bridges that gap, Kidder widens it even more.

Kidder has mentioned that Farmer marries a Haitian woman.  I can't help if she will get a part in this charade, or if she too will be relegated to the background, less important than the white woman who rejected Farmer.

Wow, it was good to get that off my chest.

*My doubtfulness about the veracity of this tale is due entirely to cynicism.  Too many of these stories turn out to be falsified, and one as fantastic as this seems too unlikely to be real.  I may be completely wrong about this, in which case I must say that I admire the work that Farmer has done and the sacrifices he has made.

6 comments:

  1. The title of this post made me laugh out loud. And then get sad. But seriously, it's one thing for a white guy to do amazing things to help people of whatever skin color. That should be celebrated but not because he's one color and the people are another. Just because YAY helping and doing good things! The problem seems to be with Kidder and his "look at the great thing white people do" stance that taints the good stuff being done. Whomp

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. TECHNICALLY, Kidder doesn't say anything about the whiteness versus the blackness. However, the only people he zeroes in on are white, which not-so-subtly suggests that whites are the only ones worth focusing on. This post was mostly meant to get my angst off my chest (and on to someone else'!).

      Delete
  2. I've never heard of this book, but...you know, I wanted to say just that I'm glad I'm not the only one too cynical to ever believe in any of these stories. I worry sometimes that books about someone going off and Saving the World (usually, like you point out, it's a white man off to save the folks with darker skin) encourage an idea that there's no need for cultural understanding, that no one not from the West could create some sort of positive change. The whole idea of a book like this, or (ugh!) Three Cups of Tea makes me shudder, in the same way as when I hear some 18-year-old boasting about how they're going to skip college to run off and join the Peace Corps and save the world. (Showing not only that they can't do their research, and this insulting idea that any american teenager with no work or life experience can tell Poor People how to live their lives.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As terribly written as Three Cups of Tea was, if I remember correctly, it at least told something about the people Greg Mortenson supposedly worked with. They had voices and opinions and names. I can't help constantly comparing it to this book, and it's amazing how similarly the two white guys are portrayed. I'm surprised that I never saw this one on those Barnes & Noble displays of white hero books that they had up for months and months.

      Delete
  3. I was assigned to read this book, along with my entire freshman class, in undergrad. I quit halfway through. Total hero complex and dullsville. *sighs*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I doubt I'll be finishing this one. It's not very compelling, except to make mad.

      Delete