I spent quite a bit of my childhood in a small village in southern India, in a two-room house that my grandfather built for his family of nine. I ran through the village with my cousins eating dried berries during the day and voluntarily slept on a cot in front of the house while frogs leaped around me at night. My grandfather raised up the sturdy wood logs, laid the brick, and planted neem trees behind the house. Upon that land, before he decided to build his house, there was a small thatched home that he lived in with my great-grandmother and her brother.
My great-grandmother was a laborer. She used her hands to till the land, to plant seeds, and harvest crop. Stories and a tattered black-and-white photograph, the only one that exists of her, is the only knowledge I have of her. And when I go back to the village where my extended family still lives and walk through the green rice fields that she used to tend to, I see hundreds of others, many of them family, doing the same backbreaking work that my ancestors did. Many of them smiling in recognition.
When I hear people, most recently Donald Trump Jr.’s comments praising poor people in India saying, “I don’t mean to be glib about it, but you can see the poorest of the poor and there is still a smile on a face …” I think about my family, my ancestors, people who are coiled up in the very DNA that I hold. And they smiled often. They smiled when they were with family and friends, they smiled when their children succeeded in school, they smiled when someone told a joke, and they smiled when they finally rested their heads at the end of a long day. But they also cried, and got angry, and felt empathy, felt joy, and felt fear. They felt a whole range of human emotions because they were human beings with hearts, minds, and souls — just like the rest of us.
When Western people, especially rich Western people, paint simplistic images of poor people in other countries, it denies them their humanity. It is out of touch and adds to the stereotype of thankful, happy, childlike poor people in other countries, denying them any other human emotion, feeling, or thought.
It builds into a narrative that says all poor people in non-Western countries are simple minded, dumb, one-dimensional caricatures who are unable to have more than one human emotion. Dehumanizing people happens in two ways: Either we make people villains or we make them noble, yet simple and unaware. Dehumanizing people by giving them such rigid structures of personality and emotion is problematic either way.
It’s also dangerous, because it denies the rights of people in poverty to have emotions that are less than positive or thankful, to feel angry if they’ve been wronged, or not be as kind if they’re having a bad day — the same grace that we often extend our friends and neighbors.
Sometimes, my great-grandmother slept in the fields — not because she didn’t have a home, but because she wanted to make sure no one stole her crop. My dad often tells me she was ready to beat up any thieves that came at the dead of night and I’m sure there were instances where she did. I often picture this moment when I need strength. I think about her petite frame in a cotton sari knowing she could tackle whatever danger came her way at night. But I also think about how she might have felt fear creep up and how she might have felt anger, too, if she saw someone attempting to sabotage her crop. Because no matter how nurturing and gentle she might have been, she could also feel anger and stand up for herself when she knew she was being wronged.
When I hear comments along the lines of, “wow, they have nothing but they’re so happy,” or I see images of black and brown kids with Western volunteers with captions like “these are orphan children with no parents, but I’ve never seen joy like theirs before,” I think about how those images and words are based on the gaze of Western, mostly white, people. I think about how it centers the folks visiting the country and takes away the agency for the native people to define themselves, their country, and their life the way they want to.
Words that are meant to sound nice, that are meant to be compliments, much like Trump Jr.’s comment, are un-nuanced, simple, and othering — things that lead to perspectives and stereotypes that will continue to cycle through society until they are scrutinized. And I hope they are scrutinized until we find a way to talk about poverty and people in other countries with respect and complexity, and struggle with what shared humanity between all of us means.