A Day Without Dignity
Today, April 5th, is A Day Without Dignity. Let me explain:
TOMS, a shoes store (please don’t mistake them for an aid organization), has come up with a brilliant marketing campaign that plays ever so gently on the heartstrings of do-gooding neoliberals around the world: buy one pair of our shoes and we will donate one pair to “a child in need”. In support of their do-gooding, they have layered another level of superb marketing on top of this: A Day Without Shoes, accompanied by a slick video. A Day Without Shoes calls on people to go without shoes for a day, which will lead to conversations, which will lead to change.
It sounds like such a good idea but beyond the appeal there are many problems which limit the initiative to simply creative marketing and hoodwinking. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to denigrate do-gooding here; rather, challenging the do-gooders to examine what it is they are doing, why they are doing it, who it actually benefits and how we can do-good better.
1) What does it mean to “get your feet dirty”? What does it accomplish? A number of academics in my field have looked at how, in dominant White society, there is the need for ‘frontier’ experiences, to intentionally experience what it is like on the margins (the poverty, the filth, the danger) and be able to come back unscathed (a sense of accomplishment) and to tell the stories (“I remember the time I came down with Yellow Fever…). This is one of those experiences. In this is the refusal to examine the power relationships, locations, forces, etc… that allow dominant bodies to go without shoes (Would you go without shoes in Calcutta? Why can you put shoes on after a day without them?). A Day without Shoes is essentially a Day on the Wild Side, experience the thrills of poverty (which only the wealthy think are thrilling) and then come back to a closet full of shoes.
2.) This sort of ‘border crossing’ (poor for a day and then back) or ‘frontier’ experience places the focus on us, which is not where it should be. Look at all the people who CHOSE to go without shoes! As a great post over on Project Diaspora also points out, this focus on us creates an artificial divide (us with shoes, them without shoes) which objectifies the other. It plays into the images that we are bombarded with daily – that the so called ‘developing world’ is just that: undeveloped, poverty stricken, disease fraught, war torn, breeding ground of dictators, in need of shoes, etc… while we, the so called ‘developed’ world are technologically advanced, leaders in human rights, wealthy, democratic, freedom loving, love giving shoes, etc.. All of this is somehow justified by increased advocacy.
3.) But what does advocacy do? Does proclaiming your bra color on Facebook change how people suffer through breast cancer? Does going without shoes for a day change anything? The argument flows thus: lack of shoes will lead to talking about lack of shoes which will lead to more people to buying TOMS shoes giving shoes to poor children. Does it work?
4.) It creates dependency. Texas in Africa has a great post on how partnership, local connections, and relationships are a more beneficial model. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish – feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish – feed him forever.” Simplistic saying but it gets across the point – donating gifts-in-kind (such as shoes) is a terribly unsustainable method of giving.
5.) Finally, beyond that and as I have discussed before with the World Vision NFL shirts program, GIK’s both promote consumerism (which is the whole goal of TOMS shoes – “Buy our shoes to help others”) and wasteful spending and also are not usually what the local economy needs. ‘Developing countries’ are full of shoe stores, Chinese knock-offs, second-hand shoes, etc… (see some great pictures) Why bring more in? More so, in most of these countries even the poorest have footwear.
So that is why today is a Day Without Dignity – a speaking out against the consumer driven objectification of TOMS ad campaign which deprives people of their dignity. It is the counter-campaign to TOMS. Go to Good Intentions Are Not Enough to read through all the posts, see the less slick video, and see the pictures of all the shoes – not the children without shoes. Promote dignity, sustainability, critical engagement, social justice beyond celebrity and corporate driven events, and aid that attacks the roots and frameworks of oppression and poverty. This is what A Day Without Dignity is about.
In closing is this call from Tales in the Hood:
I want my fellow citizens to act brighter than they currently do. Going a day without shoes is an intellectually bankrupt distraction which creates the illusion of “caring” and “doing something” while simultaneously accomplishing precisely zero except to further entrench a dangerous misperception about what will “help” “the poor” .. oh, and it also doesn’t hurt the bottom line of a for-profit company whose entire schtick is the cultivated appearance of social consciousness.
This picture was taken when we were living in Ethiopia.
These are the street boys from the country side, looking for some sort of work.