Originally published for Broadly on October 22nd, 2018.
In 2018, the scales on which we weigh morality have begun to slowly shift. Many of its detractors have derisively tried to attribute the change to the rise of “call-out culture” or “cancel culture,” but the reality is that the rubric of what defines goodwill is no longer limited to intent. Power imbalances, agency, and execution are all critical factors for assessing the merit of any charitable effort, and social media has increasingly empowered the groups whose spaces are being infringed upon to continuously hold people accountable on those merits.
Last Tuesday, social media influencer and music manager Julieanna Goddard, the “Queen of Snapchat” also known as YesJulz, shared pictures of herself at a Ugandan orphanage and ignited an online conversation about the detrimental effects of “voluntourism.” Goddard was in the country with rapper Kanye West, for whom she had organized the trip to Uganda to record his next album— she also helped put together Ye’s Wyoming listening party in May.
After a controversial meeting with President Donald Trump, West left the country to travel to Uganda. For months, the rapper has come under scrutiny for his divisive language about race and his affinity for Trump, who has a contentious relationship with the Black community.
After arriving, Goddard immediately began sharing moments from the trip. In one photo captioned “WE GOT LOVE,” she poses with a group of children from the Masulita Children’s Home in Wakiso. The internet reaction was not universally positive, with many pointing out that the photo was an obvious example of voluntourism—a phenomenon in which overwhelmingly white groups people go to countries in Africa or elsewhere in the Global South to engage in short-term charity, regardless of having any skill or qualification relevant to a given cause.
When challenged on the matter, Goddard responded on Twitter, largely to Black women in media who called into question her efforts.
When Black women expressed concerns about the harmful optics of the “white savior complex” on display, Goddard responded defiantly, stating that “the SJWs (social justice warriors) are out in full force and are the most damaging of all.” At one point, Goddard even falsely accused OkayPlayer music editor Ivie Ani of writing a negative piece about her for The FADER— but the internet quickly pointed out that she had mistaken her for another Black woman.
Goddard also accused me of “falsely reporting” after I publicly asked what efforts were made to help the orphans picture beyond handing out Yeezys. She then informed me that I could “contact the United Nation” for answers. (The tweet has since been deleted.)
The UN confirmed that they recommended that West and his team support both Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO), as well as Reach a Hand, a nonprofit that advocates for sex and reproductive health rights and HIV/AIDs prevention of 12 to 24 year olds. West did in fact visit the UWESO, where he said wanted to “help with the infrastructure” and gave away sneakers to children.
We reached out to Goddard for a comment and her representatives said that “Julz will not be responding to any questions regarding West or any criticism involved,” but that she has a “passion for music and combining those efforts to help children who don’t have access to the arts, especially foster children, since she was a foster child herself.”
Goddard’s aim in going to Uganda may very well be filled with good intention. She undermined those very intentions with the way she went about implementing them, and in the defensiveness she showed toward Black women when called out.
West’s tour group may have made some kind of effort to support Ugandans, but the entire trip still feels marred by the weight of the seemingly self-centered nature of the visit. All of the egocentric fanfare belied any genuine designs, rendering a philanthropic effort down to a perceived vanity outing for self-satisfaction.
As Teju Cole brilliantly wrote during the heyday of the Invisible Children Crisis, “A nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.” And, yes, this can apply to a Black man such as West.
In layman’s terms, voluntourism, in the form of things like orphanage visits, serves as a space for people such as Goddard and West to exercise the white savior complex, based in a Western white supremacist structure of individuals with privilege—be it social or economic—practicing perceived goodwill to the less fortunate. It’s a cheap salve that many Westerners think they can smear on to address a systemic wound brought about by centuries of colonialism, none of which can be undone with a volunteer visit (complete with a photo-op as a coda to document all of the “life-changing” progress). Bundled with the package is the social media acclaim you receive for your noble effort of boldly going into a less-developed nation, whether it comes in the form of Facebook likes or retweets, regardless of whether you are doing more harm than good.
“People tend to use examples from their own volunteering experiences to demonstrate that projects can actually be helpful, often relying on statements that start with ‘I believe’ to justify voluntourism,” Noelle Sullivan, an assistant professor of instruction in global health studies at Northwestern University, wrote for HuffPost. “Many reports overestimate the effect of the work, based on no independent empirical data whatsoever. The voices of those purportedly helped are almost entirely absent from volunteer testimonials and the websites of companies that arrange these trips.”
As of 2015, according to UNICEF, 11 percent of the 17 million children in Uganda are orphans. Many of these orphans lost at least one parent due to complications from HIV/AIDs, and have been fostered in approximately one-third of all households, according to the Uganda Demographic Health Survey. For the children who do not have the benefit of being taken in by family or being fostered, they have resorted to either the streets or institutionalized care, commonly referred to as orphanages, which are overwhelmingly deregulated and absent of much oversight, often resulting in harm for the children involved. As a result, institutionalized care is commonly viewed in the humanitarian industry as “an option of last resort,” absent no other form of alternative care.
The toxic nature of Westernized fetishization of third-world countries’ suffering, however, has created a market demand for young children as a commodity to draw fundraising from overseas tourists, volunteers, and donors—even when some of these children have parents around. The product is a cartel economy that in Uganda alone has proliferated to over 400 institutions, frequently at the expense of the futures of the children themselves, who are at risk of diminished intellectual, social, and behavioral abilities.
In fact, orphanage voluntourism has become so profitable that many orphanages intentionally exacerbate the conditions at their facilities, intentionally manipulating the circumstances to tug the hearts (and pursestrings) of the relentless rotation of visitors. In these cases where children are sometimes deliberately deprived of resources, the children have a probability of developing attachment disorders from the consistent cycling of volunteer caregivers.
The objectives for participating in such a mission tend to be largely self-serving. In the case of West and Goddard in Uganda, the sneakers they gave wear out. The Beats headphones they handed out don’t last forever. The photo, however, remains as a constant mood-booster for people who visit these African countries like Uganda—a reminder of when they irrevocably changed the lives of impoverished Africans, despite the fact that they remain in an exploitative system largely separated from their families and under the power of a despotic, bigoted, and under-resourced government led by Museveni (who West broke bread with on Monday, to the disapproval of opposition leader Bobi Wine).
Despite valid concerns and inquiry, however, Goddard defended her social media coverage of the trip as a reflection of magnanimity in the face of being repeatedly criticized for failing to acknowledge the optics of willfully exploiting the dynamics of being a white person in a Black space.
“There are very valid reasons why Black people (specifically, Black women) critique her visibility in Black culture,” Juliana Pache, the social media director at The FADER, tells Broadly. “She often deflects critiques of her white privilege by stating that she is half Puerto Rican, but it’s worth noting that ‘Puerto Rican’ is a nationality, not a race. In any given space across multiple continents, she is a white woman, and on some level, whether consciously or subconsciously, she can, and often does, play the victim when called out for her nonsense. ‘Jealousy’ is a cheap and convenient card to pull on people who critique her problematic visibility.”
Altruism is beyond the act of desiring to do good; true selflessness comes with a level of self-awareness about how one’s talents can best be of service to truly help people and avoid interference with progress. In the case of Goddard, simply being co-signed by West is not a justification for running roughshod in spaces without accountability. Boundaries exist, people will challenge you, and the threshold of expectations can be high.
Systematic privilege often blinds people from realizing when they’ve infringed upon spaces without proper diligence or care for the marginalized communities and cultures therein. As long as we keep seeing more “WE GOT LOVE” orphanage photo ops, I fear we are a long way away.