Race, identity and branding

Posted on: February 12, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

Race, identity and branding

Some introductory thoughts
Racism and sexism are, sadly, cultural universals.  The recent evidence of human warfare going back at least 10,000 years points to how long we have found reasons to kill in large numbers.  Evolutionary psychologists present data-backed arguments that we are ethnocentric by nature and some degree racism is inevitable.  Just as gender differentiation easily can devolve into gender stratification [read: structural sexism], racial/ethnic differentiation perhaps as easily degenerates into racial/ethnic stratification [read:  structural racism].  Though we cannot change human nature we can change human institutions, and though socially created institutions can and do increasingly mute and redirect this basic part of our nature (e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), we will have to be forever vigilant in efforts to control our darker angels.  Expanding on that idea is beyond my present task, but those are my views as a sociologist.

Both racism and sexism exist in the sector, but which is worse?  Here’s how a small sample responded to that question.

Screenshot 2016-02-10 09.19.07

So, by a good 10% margin, those sampled see widespread institutional racism as a bigger problem with the aid industry than institutional sexism.  Given that, let’s explore some aid worker voices on the issue of race.

I have previously written about the impact of gender in the aid industry.  This post addresses race, racism and the intersection of ‘race’ and identity.  That racism and sexism exist within the humanitarian aid system is not in question, nor, to point out the obvious, is the fact that one’s perceived gender and race impact the construction and maintenance of one’s self identity. Though this discussion raises the issue of intersectionality of race/ethnicity and gender, that also is for another post.

Our survey responses
Below I go into detail presenting, analyzing and commenting on our data relative to the topic of race.  The voices presented below are in most cases on point, insightful and bitingly critical.

As an appropriate place to start, here is one comment written in response to Q7:  “Why does it have to be white as point of reference?”  images


Why, in English language discourse related to development work, why is white the point of reference is an on point, critical question, the answer to which the likes of Jared Diamond and other cultural historians have grappled with in great detail.  Ironically, the thinkers of which I am aware are all Westerners because I am from the Global North, speak and read, embarrassingly, only English and hence this is all I know.  My point of departure for all thought and analysis is, well, necessarily Western/ethnocentric and, since I have a penis and identify as male, perhaps even phallocentric.  And so it goes, my cards -embedded biases- are on the table.

Branding is for all of us
Branding is important.  Indeed, organizations spend a great deal of time, effort and money to “get their name out there” and to have their logo be recognized as something desirable or positive.  The vast majority of all social entities -be they for-profits, political parties, social clubs or, indeed, non-for-profit humanitarian aid organizations- worry about public relations and will make efforts to “spin” what is known about them using social media, press releases, advertising and a myriad of other techniques.

You and I do this as well, constantly, albeit not always consciously.  Sociologist Irving Goffman‘s work on impression management remains part of the canon, and his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life could be useful reading for aid workers at any stage of their career.  In a previous post I go deeper into the ‘moral career’ concept.

Brand = identity to some extent regarding both units of analysis, the organization and the individual.

One of the key insights that I gained from reading Abu-Sada’s (ed.) In the Eyes of Others is that though an NGO -in this case MSF- may go to great lengths to brand themselves, people on the receiving end of aid tend to see the aid workers collectively as a monolithic Western entity.  Just as organizations can only be partially effective at managing their identity, the same is true for individuals.  All of us, though we may try to “brand” ourselves as our own unique person (“I am truly wonderful! — in a complex and nuanced kind of way, of course”) find that sometimes we are not seen as who we think we are but more so a generic category like “female”, “white”, “young person”, “Western”.  And, yes, that does describe our modal survey respondent.

Here is what our sample population looked like.

Screenshot 2016-01-24 17.27.40


The race question on our survey
Most surveys ask at least some demographic questions, and the phrasing of these tend to get complicated and for good reason.  When writing the “race” question for our survey we wanted to get at the tremendous depth and complexity of this part of one’s self concept and in the end decided a more or less direct approach.  Q6 asked “Which below best describes you?” giving “white” and “non-white” as the only possible choices.  That was the bait.  The followup Q7 then asked “Please use the space below to (1) react to the inappropriateness of the choices in the question above and (2) describe how you identify yourself based on common cultural-linguistic, ethnic, racial, tribal, national or other categories.”

Most everyone who started the survey, 991 people, answered the “race” question (Q6) and 542 (56%) giving at least some narrative comment in Q7.  The bait worked, and in numerous instances the respondents were insightful, articulate, poignant and often hilariously funny.  As is the case when nuance is used, some did not appreciate and/or understand our intent.

Of note -but somewhat predictable- is that a higher percentage of “non-white” respondents chose to write a followup Q7 response, nearly two thirds, 66%, doing so as compared to just over half, 53% of those identifying as “white.”  Not only did more “non-whites” respond, their average word count was about 19% higher as well.  They had a bit more to say.

Many themes in the written responses
This first example hits well on two main themes generated in the responses to Q7, and is well worth a close read, methinks:

“(1) I think the choices in the question reflect the notion that aid workers can be classified in just two categories: white (either North American or European, expats with higher salaries and more leadership positions than locals) and non-white (the locals from whichever developing country the organization is established, working alongside the white leaders, doing most of the grunt work on a lower salary. Much like the Lone Ranger’s Tonto, if that’s not too rude of an analogy). Is this notion inappropriate/politically incorrect? Perhaps. Is it false? I don’t think rpiflierso. They’re simply caused by the resulting power dynamics in a context where whites are generally better prepared to handle the global networking required for the growth and expansion of an organization, and the non-whites/locals, who are better prepared to conduct all the field work without wreaking culture-shock havoc on the beneficiaries.

(2) As for myself… I always say I have a nationality crisis. I was born to a Costa Rican mother and an Jordanian father. I have dual Costa Rican/Canadian citizenship, and spent most of my childhood and adolescence between countries in a culture-neutral household (because of the cultural differences between my parents, my home life never mirrored the culture of the outside world, wherever we may have been living at the time), so I grew up as more of a cultural observer rather than replicating any of it. Physically, I’m ambiguous, people can never place where I’m from. I think and express myself more naturally in English, but I write all my “romantic, thought-out masterpieces” (I’m one of those frustrated writer people) in Spanish, I also speak French and I read and write Farsi (although the vocabulary has long been locked up in my brain, having fallen out of use when I was three years old). The only place where I don’t feel completely external to the culture around me is in an office full of converging personalities from all over the world where the dominating atmosphere is “tolerance”, not some unspoken attitude pattern that everyone seems to know except for me. And this is not because it sounds so “Oh, I’m a citizen of the world, y’know?”, but because everyone is just as awkward and culturally-misplaced as I am. But, for practical purposes, I am Costa Rican in Costa Rica, and Canadian everywhere else (less visa issues).”

The first theme has to do with white being the point of reference.  The gap between how things are and how we would like things to be is wide in this context.  In the field, at HQ and perhaps especially in our personal lives we want for skin color to be no factor at all, but it is.  Can we ever close that gap?  We all create or happily find color-blind bubbles in certain contained contexts and for some limited periods of time, but most of the time, especially in the field, this is not the case.  To pull a line from the above,  “Is this notion inappropriate/politically incorrect? Perhaps. Is it false? I don’t think so.”

The second theme has to do with identity and how people define themselves. That we live in a globalizing world is obvious.  There is a small but rapidly growing number of people worldwide for whom national/racial/ethnic identity is very complex.  Cosmopolitanism is on the rise, and the 400,000 or so humanitarian aid workers worldwide are a rapidly growing part of this trend.  All the more reason to hear their voices and tell their stories.

More themes
We have the pithy:

“Outraged at above question, passed on outrage to the office, before seeing this question [Q7]. Identify as White, British.”

Some appeared to dislike the question and judged:  “(1) This is racism and sexualism. (2) World inhabitant.” and others just the opposite: “I love this question but (predictably) fit into the categories above.”

These examples made me smile, though all for different reasons.  The last one hits what was a common point made above, i.e., whether we like it or not, color matters.

  • 1. inappropriate response to inappropriate question. 2. I identify myself and others based on a complex correlation of the amount of stamps, number of passports held and whether or not a person uses a mac.
  • I had to check with my colleagues about what my answer should be. I have a white skin, but the definition of white in survey usually is caucasian white, which I am not. I am Lebanese first then an Arab.
  • 1) I get it, most expats are white, f*ck us for caring 2) Yooper
  • I’m not sure “white” appropriately captures the whiteness of a white Canadian woman working in development. You should have used “pasty”.
  • HA! I was wondering why that was so horribly stated. Points for humor. I am American, white, English-speaking, blue-collar-rust-belt SES, yet ultimately over-privileged in the grand scheme.
  • White but not Anglo-Saxon. No post-colonial guilt trip.images.1
  • 1) Sadly reflects the world view in many cases. 2) Why can’t we all just have two boxes: human and non-human?
  • I’m really white. White, middle class American. Blonde, even.
  • Not surprised — when we’re “in the field” we are often self-identified as being either white or non-white. It’s icky, it feels wrong, and yet, there it is. Skin color tells half your story for you before you’ve even opened your mouth.

Some perhaps missed the point

  • 1) only albinos would consider themselves ‘white’ in my opinion. 2) I am me. I accept me. Just the same as I accept all those not me. Colour is irrelevant.
  • The world thank god is not so black and white.
  • Appropriate or not, skin color simply does not provide any meaningful data. Despite its limitations, a regional identity would be more significant here. In my case, my identification as a European suffices for this survey.
  • This description works for me as I am white bread, but if I had to identify as non-white as my only option I would not be very happy! It is like colonizer or colonized. Possibly we could look at a description of pigmentally challenged vs not pigmantly challenged? But seriously I have never understood the value in these types of questions…

Thought provoking
There were many responses that underlined the main point I am making in this post.  Here is one that hits that perfectly:  “Those choices were very inappropriate. Yet, I am still white. It is not so much that to me, this is my most distinguishable feature, but living in Africa, it somehow seems to be so to others.”  Where you are in the world -your social context- has a big influence on how you are seen.  The following examples restate that point in various ways and illustrate the sad fact, again, that skin color matters.

  • I’ve noticed that in the African country where I work, everyone who is not ethically African (black) is “white.” So I’m not sure how this question plays out with say ethnic Indian Africans?
  • I think that there’s absolutely a place for this question, provided that we’re given the opportunity to react. Perhaps the question is halfway there, and you should be asking how we identify versus how we’re perceived. This probably comes from my time prior to entering the aid sector, when I worked with Indigenous Australian communities, and was familiar with extensive debates regarding whether you were ‘black enough’- I worked with a number of Indigenous Australians who appeared outwardly ‘white’ but identified strongly with their Indigenous heritage. So while these people were absolutely Indigenous, they were often treated as ‘white outsiders’ who had no place making policy decisions or managing community programs. It’s a complicated issue, but it’s often perceived as (pardon the horrendous pun) black and white. So maybe the question comes from this perspective and is appropriate in that sense. I would be really interested in hearing the discussion that took place around this question some day! As for me, I’m a white Australian of German and Namibian heritage. I was raised speaking English and some German. Aside from the cultural-linguistic/ethnic/etc business, I also identify as a queer woman.
  • It sets up a dichotomy and forces one to choose between two categories that don’t best describe an individual. There are many more adjectives that I would use to describe me. It sets up a world view which I have to deal with on a daily basis but would like to see us move beyond.
  • It would be best if it didn’t matter, but it usually does, and it’s most often the distinction above that does matter. you can’t list every race, every selection will be inappropriate to someone… I’m European.
  • It’s pretty blunt. It’s certainly imbalanced and biased to see a global minority written down as a majority, and other majority generalised as a “other” group. Many expat aid workers are white, and are defined as such by each other and local populations (whether ethnically white or not), so the options reflect conversations you hear but it’s stark to see written down.

This last one makes the point so clearly.

  • In terms of how whiteness tends to inform differential treatment of and reactions to aid workers by both their organisations and the populations they serve, this split may be depressingly appropriate.

“White” and “non-white” differences
There was a slightly higher percentage (66%) of “non-white” respondents that chose to respond to Q7 than “white” (53%), indicating that this was a slightly more important question for those that self-identified as “non-white.”  What I have found in these “non-white” responses are the same patterns as in the “white” responses, mostly that identity is both incredibly nuanced and at the same time quite binary.  This one sums it up well:

“I am Filipino-American. Colleagues in the Philippines treat me as a local/national with a foreign passport. I have similar experience in other countries within South East Asia. In West and East Africa, I am often perceived as Chinese. In the Middle East, my ethnicity is often associated with hired domestic help. I am extremely proud of my ethnic background and cultural heritage but there have been times in the field when I wanted to look like the typical expat aid worker – 6 feet tall, blond and very white. The color of one’s skin shouldn’t matter especially in this line of work, but who are we kidding?”

Here are the “word clouds” from both. Quite obvious which is which.

Screenshot 2014-07-31 07.28.20

Screenshot 2014-07-31 07.28.50












Aid Worker voices regarding identity
Many respondents used this open-ended question to riff and reflect on their identity, and I was a bit surprised at the range of identifiers that were used beyond the obvious country/region of birth, etc..

Atheist” was not uncommon as was “queer“.  Many used the opportunity to express a sense of global citizenship  (“Global citizen of Georgian origin.”) and/or anti-or a-nationalism.  One respondent simply wrote “nomad.”  Those who were comfortable as seeing themselves as fitting neatly into a category (e.g., German or ‘Murican) were one large group, but a roughly equal number went into some detail about how what they saw themselves as was quite complicated (as seen in many examples above).

What, if anything, can be concluded from the responses to Q6 and Q7?  First, aid workers in general have a sense of humor but more importantly most have an in-depth and critical sense of identity -both who they are and who they are seen as.  Most recognize the reality of white bias both within and outside of the aid industry and many struggle with the “race” question on many levels.  Those with more stamps in their passports will recognize the fact that “white” or “non-white” matters a great deal in some parts of the world (much of Africa) and less so in others. I will hazard that seasoned aid workers manage their identity as much as they are able in order to maximize their effectiveness (and/or personal safety) in various situations and locations, accenting or downplaying gender, race, SES, or other status markers so as to get by successfully in various contexts. But despite our very best efforts and intentions we are as we are seen by others much of the time.  Here is an example that sums up the complexity of identity and ends with a direct statement about how clients view her (emphasis added).

I am European but I left my home country to go to university and have not lived there ever since, so I don’t think I can be defined by my nationality. Language, none talks my language so that does not work either. As silly as it sounds I am global, my colleagues speak the same language I do and they understand the issues I talk about. I think my identity is very much linked to my work, or not work rather to a community of people who have to move around a lot too working on similar thematic areas I do. Yes I am white, but it is not an important part in my own identity but it does play into how clients I work with perceive me.”

This response from a female aid worker adds an additional twist to our understanding.

“I just choose white as the locals here perceive me as a white woman in a political sense.  That’s what I have been felt here, and that bothers me a lot.” 

What is true on the personal level is also the case for organizations.  All of the logo flags, branded t-shirts and other forms messaging cannot fully counter the naturally monolithic impression that many beneficiaries have of the generic ‘do-gooder” organizations that they encounter.  In an earlier post I wrote about the views aid workers expressed about MONGOS, most of them negative.  I’ll assert that one factor is the fact that the actions of one small MONGO can despoil the image of the entire array of humanitarian aid organizations. One bad apple spoiling the bushel is, well, a universal phenomenon.

What are the take home messages from all of the above for individual aid workers and aid organization staff who are tasked with monitoring the branding?  For the aid worker, you should take the message that your struggles with identity are shared by many of your colleagues, certainly, but as well the obvious message that you need to see how you are seen by others both in the field and elsewhere and act accordingly.

As always, contact me with questions or comments.

A question:  What does it matter how you see yourself or even how others see you -that is, what is happening in the minds of people- as long as the job gets done?  Perhaps the more important question is to what extent does your sense of self and how others see you in the field impact what you do and what gets done?

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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