The road to hell is paved with good intentions: Postcolonialism 101

By | October 8, 2009

Women wearing Gomesi at a wedding in Uganda.

Image source: / CC BY 2.0

Earlier this week, over on Jezebel, there was a post and a series of comments that left me pretty conflicted.

Okay, that’s an understatement. The truth is, it pissed me off.

The post begins with a discussion about a piece on the Today show about “Trash the Dress”, a popular trend amongst quirkier brides, which involves a post-wedding photoshoot in which the newly-married “trash” their expensive wedding garb by climbing trees or having a food fight or performing open-heart surgery or some other messy, unexpected, amusing task which may or may not result in their wedding dress being to some extent injured or ruined, while a photographer takes pictures. This trend has actually been around for years, but Today is evidently slow to pick things up. My own feelings on this practice, being a non-wedding-loving person myself, are pretty apathetic. I do expect that once the trauma of wedding-planning is over, it might be cathartic and fun to blow off steam by symbolically or literally destroying one of the central pivots on which so much wedding stress rotates. In the US, at least, the wedding dress is arguably a garment with more intensity of purpose and expectation placed upon it than any other article of clothing in our culture. I have known otherwise-sane women to be driven nearly mad by Dress Trauma: finding samples in sizes they can try on; deciding on a style that they personally like, that is not miserably uncomfortable, and which will not offend or scandalize anyone present; wrestling with the often-obscene cost of a garment meant to be worn for just a few hours of one’s life; having alterations made; worrying about whether the altered dress will still fit once the big day arrives. So yes, I can vaguely see the attraction to the “trash the dress” trend without thinking it’s something I’d ever necessarily want to do.

The Jezebel post’s author, on the other hand, is upset by the dress-trashers. Why? Because it’s wasteful, when there are rape survivors in Uganda who don’t have wedding dresses.

Now that I have your attention, I’ll again ask you to go read the Jezebel piece, it’s not long, and it’s like a perfect illustration of When Discussions About Privilege Go Horribly Wrong. I’ll wait.

Before I move forward with my own criticisms here, I’d first like to take a moment to make a full disclosure of my feelings about weddings: I’m not so into them. I did not have one, myself, because doing so struck me as wasteful, self-indulgent, and just plain boring. It’s not something I ever dreamed about or wanted for myself. I don’t particularly enjoy attending weddings either. It’s simply not my thing. My husband and I were married in the council chamber at City Hall, just the two of us, and I remember the experience with probably more fondness and tenderness than I would have if I’d spent the time and money for even a modest affair. That said, I strive to avoid being judgmental of folks who do go the route of the Big Honking Wedding. It’s their event, and even if I don’t understand the appeal, I am willing to respect the right of other folks to express themselves in their own way.

(The only recent exception to my “weddings, meh!” philosophy was the “Forever” wedding dance video on YouTube that circulated this summer; and I’m convinced that’s not so much because it was a wedding, as it was that one of my secret wishes in life is to someday be able to burst out into a group dance number in public. And also because the beauty of having friends and family who’d do that for you is pretty powerful. If you have not watched the video, I strongly recommend it.)

The Jezebel piece takes its terrible turn when it attempts to compare the indulgent wastefulness of dress-trashing with a charitable organization in Uganda, recently profiled in British Marie Claire, that seeks to facilitate weddings for women who are rape survivors of Uganda’s ongoing civil war. As these women were not only raped but in some cases kept as prisoners, their chances for marriage were thought to be zero. Enter a Nice White American Lady to sort it all out.

…[H]aving fallen in love, many of the grooms were unable to come up with the traditional dowry, let alone the trappings of a wedding. And planning marriages amidst the chaos and despair of the camp was a challenge that the newly-married Katie Karpik appreciated. They raised the money for a wonderful wedding, and six couples were able to get married – in dresses donated by British women to an organization called Jireh Women. More than 50 gowns and bridesmaids dresses were donated, and Karpik says they’ll continue to use the gowns for future weddings.

Karpik is a 25-year-old woman from the midwest who went to Uganda to do relief and missionary work, and met her husband, a Ugandan pastor, there. Here’s a nice picture of the two of them. They live and work in one of the two hundred or so displaced persons camps in which those rendered homeless by Uganda’s twenty-year civil war reside. I am absolutely certain that Kate Karpik is, indeed, a nice person with good intentions, who believes strongly in trying to help the people with whom she lives and works. However, there are a few aspects of this situation that are deeply problematic, and which go totally ignored by both the original Jezebel post and the stream of comments that follows.

Allow me to break it down for you.

It’s entirely possible that Uganda has absolutely no cultural wedding practices at all, and therefore would require the imposition of Western standards of wedding dress in order to be, y’know, civilized about the whole wedding thing. It could very well be that prior to the introduction of white polyester satin to their primitive culture, Ugandans didn’t have weddings at all. But somehow I doubt it. Well-intentioned or not, the colonialist implications of this are shocking, and even more shocking is the fact that not a single commenter has mentioned it. Sure, the humanitarian work of trying to help these women get married is no doubt well-intentioned, but how dare anyone suggest that the fucking lack of a shitty white dress was the primary or even a freaking tiny ancillary obstacle in this scenario, or that supplying the dress is an aspect of it that even deserves lauding?

Oh, fuck this. I’m not going to even pretend this is a possibility. I’m going to the most basic and accessible reference source we’ve got: Wikipedia. Check it:

A Gomesi, also called a Busuuti, is a colorful floor length dress. It is the national costume for women in Uganda… The Gomesi is only worn on special occasions such as funerals, and weddings. The Gomesi is worn at wedding ceremonies during the introduction, also known as the Kwanjula. During the Kwanjula, all female members of the groom’s family are required to appear dressed in Gomesi. (Source, also see the image at the top of this post for an example.)

Could it be that, yes, Uganda has its own wedding attire, likely varying by region and class position, but nevertheless, it’s intact. And maybe it’s just a bit insulting to impose our own “THE DRESSES THE DRESSES OH GOD WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE DRESSES” wedding culture, since we’ve been running this colonialist game for centuries and it never gets less offensive and wrong. Maybe less time might have been spent shipping Western wedding gowns to Uganda (which, incidentally, ALSO costs money, not to mention the cost to the environment of the shipping process, etc) and more time spent enabling these women to get married in the standard wedding attire of the country in which they live. Though the Western wedding dresses were donations from women in the UK, I think it’s a fair bet that the cost of shipping alone could have paid for traditional wedding apparel in Uganda, and probably made up some of the dowry too. It’s true there is an outside chance that producing traditional wedding attire in the camp itself was not possible for one reason or another–I don’t know the exact circumstances–but I still maintain that it would have been more appropriate to try to make that happen. Here’s a picture of some of the newlyweds in their Western attire.

I’ll say it for the third time: I am sure that Katie Karpik is a very nice white lady, and I have no doubt her motivations were exclusively to bring these women an idealized wedding they likely never thought they’d get. I also don’t doubt that Western wedding gowns are rare in Uganda, except amongst the upper classes, and likely nonexistent amongst the displaced poor most affected by the civil war, and as such, wearing one really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But it’s still troubling, and still offensive. For the same reasons it’s troubling and offensive when Vogue puts a $10,000 bag on the arm of a poor woman in India and calls it fashion. In the Vogue situation, it’s the exploitation and objectification of an exoticized “other”; in the Ugandan wedding-dress case, it’s the imposition of a dominant Western culture over endangered local traditions. Both are forms of neo-colonialism.

I’m not disgusted because I think helping women in Uganda is a bad idea. I’m disgusted partly because I think the approach is misguided. I’m disgusted more because the only reason anyone is really feeling this story is because it’s a soft, cheery tale with an easy happy ending. Sad brown women are raped, driven or taken from their homes, but then they get married! And we get gratifying pictures! The end. Sure, these women’s marriages may be happy tales to a point, and sure, I bet the experience of being married in an expensive dress gave these women some wonderful memories they’ll never forget. But it’s incredibly difficult to argue that a set of lovely images makes a lack of clean drinking water less of a problem. And a pretty wedding does not ensure that the rest of these women’s lives will run their course happily ever after.

This is how colonialism works: it operates by first othering a different culture as “primitive” (and occasionally “noble”, and always vaguely sad and impoverished), and then by setting up the story that the imposition of non-primitive Western culture is helpful to the people in question–the subtext is that Western/globalized culture is superior to all other cultures, and thus by imposing it we’re bringing those behind the curve up to speed with the rest of us developed-nation types. Except it never really does bring anyone up to speed. Especially when we’re talking about nations filled with brown people. It instead works to keep the colonized subservient, as a natural resource to be pillaged, and inferior, as a spectacular counterpoint to the high culture of the colonizing nations. The prevalent thinking in Great Britain, during the height of their empire, was that they were doing India and some of Africa a great service by colonizing them and enforcing British rule; clearly, if these folks knew what they were doing, they’d be as advanced a civilization as those in Europe. So maybe they need a little help. This is history, of course: we don’t colonize like we used to, when the sun never set on the British Empire. We no longer make a habit of powering into sovereign nations to install our own regimes–often toppling existing leaders or systems of government in the process–that we can control for our own benefit from afar. No, today we’re far more subtle than that. Most of the time.

Technically, what I’m describing may be called postcolonialism, as the colonialist era is largely thought to have ended after World War II. But I struggle with the concept of colonialism being past, since it seems to suggest that it’s all over with, and what we face now is the after-effects, when I’d argue that the colonizing forces have never stopped, they’ve just changed forms. Anytime a Western nation imposes its culture or its priorities on a nation that cannot defend itself against the imposition, that’s colonialism in action. The fact that Karpik’s efforts are at least partly driven by her missionary work is even more troubling, given the long and bloody history of colonialism being used to bring Christianity to the heathens. Colonialism is always rooted in good intentions, in the idea that we are doing good by bringing our superior culture and knowledge and religion to the poor suffering unwashed brown people of the world. But good intentions do not make it a right action.

Which brings us back to Uganda.

In this specific situation, each of these dresses probably represents more money than these women see in a year of work. Life expectancy in Uganda is around 50 years. The average per capita income is around $300USD per annum (depending on where you look, parity rates argue that this equates to around $1430USD of purchasing power). Nearly 30% of Ugandans don’t have reliable access to clean water. That’s three out of ten people, who don’t always have safe water to drink.

And we would dare suggest that one of the more important issues here is a lack of adequate wedding dresses. One of the lasting “benefits” of this wedding-dress relocation program is supposedly that the dresses will go to start a wedding-dress rental business in the area, enabling the women there to develop a source of income. Creating work and sources of income are good ideas for sure–but do we really want to do it by importing a ridiculously overblown wedding culture that serves no long-term purposes or needs for the community? People don’t generally need wedding dresses, in the same way they need access to clean water or reliable systems of agriculture to produce food. I mean, I can read that Heidi Montag’s spent $30,000USD on an Hermes bag and I may want to punch her in the face, but at least I can turn on a tap and have drinking water whenever I want it. It is an enormous privilege to have an expensive Western wedding dress, absolutely. It represents resources and money and power that the Ugandan women living in these displaced-persons camps will never have access to; but when these people are dealing with living circumstances that may involve genocide, military corruption, and serious human rights abuses, the solution to this situation is not to ensure that each woman has access to a wedding dress. The solution is to give them access to what the wedding dress represents.

The Jezebel author acknowledges that the comparison between the “trash the dress” trend and the Ugandan wedding situation is an unfair one. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from making the comparison anyway. I would argue “unfair” is a mild term for it, given even the cursory research I’ve done into political matters in Uganda and the circumstances of these camps. It’s truly insulting. The comments are awash with people opining not the problematic colonialist implications of the Uganda wedding effort, but the offensiveness of dress demolition when that dress could be carefully packed away their dress in a closet for…. some future yet-to-be-determined unknown purpose. Possibly to drag out and show a daughter at some point, so said daughter can laugh at the ridiculousness of styles past. (This is certainly the only post-wedding purpose my own mother’s dress ever served.) So much more responsible than throwing it in a landfill! One commenter observes:

Trashing it is much more offensive from an environmental standpoint. How many of these trashed dresses do you think end up in landfills? If the choices are keep your dress in your closet so there’s at least a chance it will be used again someday, or destroy it and throw it out, the Earth appreciates the former.

Reality: once an item is produced, at some point, it will be going into a landfill. Even if you recycle it for some other purpose, like a christening gown for your kid, or whatever people do with the old wedding dresses, someday, even a hundred years from now, it will all wind up in a landfill. Environmentally-speaking, you’ve committed to sending those materials to the landfill as of the moment you bought the dress. If that bothers you? Don’t buy the dress. It’s only by NOT CONSUMING that you can avoid contributing to waste.

Elsewhere, some commenters suggest that women should feel compelled to donate their overpriced confections to US charities for poor women. I suppose that’s slightly less offensive than the Uganda situation, though I think supporting a wedding culture that makes women feel like shit for not having an expensive wedding dress is far more damaging than just not having the damn wedding dress in the first place. And the self-righteousness with which the suggestion is delivered, and with which those who trash their dresses instead are condemned, is more than I can take. It would seem that to some, trashing a wedding dress is far more offensive than bulldozing Ugandan culture.

Here’s a solution, for those so concerned about waste: don’t have a wedding. Don’t buy into an industry that exploits and perpetuates women’s insecurities and gender stereotypes. Don’t contribute to global warming with all the labor and fossil fuels that go into your Special Fucking Day. And perhaps most importantly, don’t buy some ugly-ass astronomically-priced wedding dress, and send the money you would have spent directly to a displaced persons camp in Uganda instead.

“Wait, Lesley!” I hear you exclaim, “Surely it’s not unreasonable to want to have a wedding!” You’re right; it’s not unreasonable at all, and it’s your privilege, and I’m not going to call you irresponsible for wanting a wedding day that fits the cultural norm. But the least you can do is shut the fuck up about how other people celebrate theirs. Even if it means they’re being edgy and playing paintball in their wedding gown after the ceremony, or rolling around in manure, or whatever. Even if it means you have to restrain yourself from forcing your priorities and expectations on cultures that really don’t need your help, and make efforts to understand, appreciate, and respect difference and where your assistance would be put to better use.

As a piece of general advice: get over yourself.

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