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On the Obligatory Picture With Brown Babies: A Critique of Colonialism, Cuteness, Study Abroad and Facebook

Jan 24, 2012 | Updated Mar 25, 2012

I sign into Facebook. Someone (This someone is often a white, college-age and college-educated woman) has just returned from a summer service trip or a semester abroad to Africa or South America or South Asia and they put up pictures! Some cool wildlife, maybe a meal or two (with the cringe-worthy caption "They have food in Africa!") and then, the adorable pictures come. The pictures of this person holding one (or more!) photogenic brown babies. These pictures have become a staple of travel photo albums and a ritual for the traveler, a documentation of a privileged and condescending gaze upon a small, politicized body. As I click "like" and smile at young, adorable faces, I begin to wonder about the intersections of privileges and oppressions in this document.

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This picture makes the abroad experience accessible to Facebook friends. I wonder about the ability for a picture to be a snapshot of one's travels that invites others to bear witness to the journey, while the people in the photo may never have the opportunity to leave their home and come back. This cultural tourism may be a journey not just for the photographer, but for their friends to learn about developing countries through a first-world lens. These snapshots make the private public. Are these photos enactments of colonialism and violence, or are they simply cute?

Sooner or later, these pictures with cute babies in question become a profile picture, a representation of a person -- OK, maybe a Facebook picture isn't exactly an avatar, but it means something. Maybe you put the picture up because you look realllllly good in it, or you want to show how maternal you can be, but maybe it's just a new part of a well-rounded racial tourism experience. Hey, we just want to model what Angelina and Madonna (and Bono) do when they leave the first world. When I talk to my friends who post these pictures, often a child's smiling face is a snapshot of a positive moment worth remembering, a giggle spent with a new young friend, or it can be a humanizing portrait of an experience that is fraught with guilt, indulgence, loneliness and all of the other possible emotions that can manifest during an abroad experience.

To clarify and position myself: I am a white, college-educated woman. I think these pictures are "adorable" because I love children, not because I have a fetish. And when I spent a semester in Argentina studying social movements and human rights, I took pictures with the awesome kids who schooled me at soccer. Maybe they didn't turn up on my Facebook, but I too am a part of the phenomena of obligatory pictures with brown babies. With a language barrier, I often felt it easier to connect to children, as my limited vocabulary often met those of young people. Simply because I claim a social justice education and activism lens, is my picture with my host granddaughter any different than those I critique? I am still recreating systems of hierarchy based around race, nation, class, education, age and gender, and while I believe educating myself can help liberate me and others from these forms of oppression, I am still enmeshed in these systems. Was there any way I could non-problematically "give back" to the communities that nourished me, or was I always in the position to take?

I know that my particular position informs the colonial objectification that comes from taking a picture of a human being I barely know and showcasing it as an artifact from travel in lands of the Other. However, many of my friends and colleagues who studied abroad and who identify as people of color also struggled with these dynamics. Depending on the color of their skin and the skin color of the communities they visited, politics of (potentially false) access arose. Perhaps they were granted access to certain communities by being perceived as insiders; perhaps I was granted access by embodying imperialism, by personifying a historical threat of violence, invasion, occupation and appropriation.

Many publics have entered the conversation about race, class, gender and educational privileges that are highlighted by international travel, study or service learning. For example: I find this tumblr to be mildly amusing and pretty offensive: gurlgoestoafrica.tumblr.com. I mean, you never really know a person's experience; maybe this site is too harsh on the traveler. But these pictures, the really cute ones, seem to stand alone. And it's certainly easier to post something cute than confront the intersecting histories, privileges and oppressions that led up to this moment. It's not like these young kids consented to having their picture on the Internet and accepted pending picture tags on their Facebook accounts. Maybe the photographers don't even know the names of these kids. These adorable images are of real people who will grow up and live real lives. And they live in a country, a town that is more than simply "Africa."

Outside of how these women see them, babies represent innocence, the good of a society, the products of love (hopefully) and, by extension, they represent the good of the space, city, country they are in. What happens when we neglect to see struggles to provide, to educate, to nourish, the faulty infrastructure that will most likely cripple these smiling kids if their family does not have money? What if, through happy-looking babies, we stop ourselves from engaging with the realities of their contexts? What if our "liking" pictures on Facebook implicates us in a larger history of colonialism and violence? If we see a human connection as activism, are these pictures justice in action? Regardless of your position, let's maintain a critical eye when we see that new bumper crop of photos coming out at the end of this semester!

Photo Courtesy of A. Epstein.