Is There A Way To Do A Slum Tour Without Being Exploitative?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions everyday and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red at the bottom is the takeaway of the discussion.

Question:

I am going to Johannesburg and in my mind has always planned on visiting Soweto for its historical significance. Reviewing the tours, a lot of them seem to border on slum tourism (even when run by locals). Having lived in India for a long time, I was always disappointed when visitors treated impoverished communities as photo ops. So my question is: is there a way to visit these places without being exploitative?

South African Responses:

South African POC here. For many of the Soweto township tours, they are run by lcoals. South Africans don’t allow ourselves to be taken advantage of so easily. So as long as you find a tour run by a local Sowetan and you ask the right questions before, GO! I think those tours cover important history that otherwise goes unnoticed. Also things like ask permission before you snap photos, find out how the community benefits, etc.

White Responses:

I think it is possible (Disclaimer: I have not been to Joahnnesburg, so open to correction!” Look for a tour company that employs guides from Soweto, and is ideally owned by someone from the community, too. Also check to see if a percentage of your tour costs are donated to locally-owned organizations working there. If you do visit Soweto, do not take pictures of anyone there without their permission. Also be sure to buy from businesses/vendors.

I am White, I stayed in Joburg for 4 months and my friend and I had the opportunity to book a bicycle tour and Soweto was a stop pit during the tour. Also the guide was from Soweto so it was nice to get first hand stories about the townships. It was a small group (we were 4). We personally didn’t take pics but one of the guys had a camera on his hamlet and just filmed the whole tour.

I know nothing about South Africa but Lonely Planet is a great resource. Their books are usually ver aware of this issue (Maui book has MANY warnings about “secret hikes” or beaches and, in my experience, don’t recommend things that are exploitative or sacrilegious. Also, they tend to recommend locally Native Hawaiian owned and operated shops and tour companies) Usually good information on how to ensure your money goes into the right hands/pays the crafts person.

White woman’s thoughts: I’d research the tour guides carefully, seek local, Black-owned companies, and don’t take a single photo. REALLY REALLY don’t take photos of kids and post them to social media.

When visiting places with history of oppression, I think it’s important to make sure “locally owned” means owned by a member of the oppressed group. Also, if you are blogging/taking pictures about the location, center the stories and perspectives of lcoals, not your own. Let people choose how and if they want to be represented online and respect that decision, even it doesn’t seem “authentic” to you. Think of how you like to be represented in pictures and give the same respect. You are a guest. It’s important to hear the stories of communities as long as you can actually listen to them.

1.Only go with a local guide who as ties with the community. 2. Don’t bring a camera. 3. Spend money in the community–find a tour that takes you to a local business like a restaurant where you can actually contribute to the economy.

I’ve been to Soweto and did it right by going on a study abroad focused specifically on a global development. But I went back as a tourist and advice to stick to things like bungee jumping (so fun!) rather than going into communities. Agree about no photos. And tip well!! Pay good money! It’s a great neighborhood full of history that should be celebrated rather than vilified or turned into an amusement park. Be respectful.

I lived in South Africa for quite some time and can understand the desire to go see Soweto. However, there are other ways to learn about its historical significant without going on a guided tour. Those township tours are often very invasive to the communities that live there and typically only the tour guide profits from the experience. Even if you don’t take photos, it’s impossible to not be exploitative simply because of your race and the means of which you are entering the community. There are other ways to learn about the country’s history in a respectful way! I encourage you to visit the Apartheid museum in Joburg, ask questions to those who are willing, and read as much as you can!

White person who works in international development here. It’s great that everyone is saying choose locally owned and run tours and talk about photos and INFORMED CONSENT. What are you doing with the photo and if you’re sharing it and what’s going to be written, etc,, but you always have to think about the inherent power dynamics at play here. Even if companies are locally owned and run and a handful of people are benefiting (because it’s still a business) is this what the community really wants? Or is this just a means to an end? But actually they’d maybe prefer a way that wasn’t’ so exploitative and didn’t intrude on their lives. I haven’t done ANY research on this particular example, just my thoughts from my experiences in community driven development. The question to always ask in these particular situations is ‘would this be cool and happen in my country?’ or ‘if that was me, how would I feel?’

I went on a tour of a township with a local last year when I was in Cape Town. I didn’t research it at all, it was include din my tour package so I went along blindly. The only photos I took were 1) of a mosaic and 2) a monument dedicated to some of the leaders who lost their lives while protesting during apartheid. We also went and ate at a very popular local food vendor and to a kind of brewery in a shack. We didn’t have a lot of interaction with locals, and it didn’t feel overly exploitative. But I also didn’t feel right being there. I always thing about what it would be like if a bunch of people from a foreign country came to my neighborhood taking pictures, staring into my yard and home and watching me go about my daily life in awe. Taking photos of my children and handing out candy to them? I would feel like an animal in a zoo. It’s disrespectful and rubbernecking curiosity. Why do we have to be IN a neighborhood to learn about it? Google is damn right. Also there are museums for that shit too. The District Six museum was one of the most informative, evocative, and powerful places I’ve been to. Going there was enough, I didn’t need to being the community where just my presence could re-traumatize people, and I wouldn’t’ encourage others to do so –from a White passing Canadian.

I’m White passing with a White parent. I spent time in Joburg with fellow Americans and South Africans. Don’t go on a tour of any townships. Don’t do it. You probably don’t have the knowledge to definitely tell the acceptable tours from the bad ones, and you don’t want to get yourself in a situation that is not acceptable. You may go with the very BEST intentions and still end up on the bad side.

POC Responses:

 Focus on doing activities that highlight the positives of the region. @nowhitesaviours has awesome posts on how to be a responsible + respectful tourist.

 There are plenty of tourist spots you can visit in Soweto that don’t involve slum tourism. There are several museums all around Soweto, places like Vilakazi street, the Hector Pieterson Museum, the Orlando Towers, and a lot of venus that have popped up that provide entertainment as well as historical education. I’m not sure what is included in some of these “slum tourism adjacent” tours, but there are so many options that don’t involve being exploitative.

African person here. I really want to say stay away. Soweto don’t need White People there period! They’ve done enough. I get the fascination for poor places or historical places, but Google that shit! People still having flashbacks and PTSD just watching a White person scroll through and with a camera too. No, Bill! South Africa is one of those places that people visit to see the poverty side or Nelson Mandela cell then go back to their beautiful hotels and edit the pics to share with their other privileged friends. Visiting certain places is exploiting even if you don’t have a camera. Let these people live! Can we make signs that says, “NO PHOTOS REAL PEOPLE TRYING TO LIVE!”

Yea, I’ve lived in South Africa and the key is to find someone local there. Ask them questions. Ask them if their willing to take you to show them their home (if they live in Soweto). PAY THEM. THANK THEM. BE CONSIDERATE. ASK FROM A PLACE OF CURIOSITY. TIP THEM. And please don’t bring sweets for children. Give high fives. Spend the entire day. Eat food. Sit down and have conversation.

Don’t go to places like Soweto (POC with fair skin here, Argentina) sometimes even if they have ties to the community does not mean that they don’t exploit their own (not judging extreme places one does as they can). I’ve been in Joburg and there is a wonderful enlightening, beautiful museum explaining life in Soweto without disrupting their life. Stay out of those places. But do not miss the Apartheid museum and tip the guide!

Takeaway 

No. There’s no way to do a slum tour without being exploitative. They are voyeuristic and there’s really no way around it. Even though this is a real way to learn history, please keep in mind this isn’t “history” if this is a current situation.

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