Volunteering woke me up to my white privilege

by smithstandard

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Cambodia and interacting with its people, you’ll know that it’s one of the most special places on Earth.

Like all countries, Cambodia has its heartbreaks. On my first visit, I was crushed learning in detail about the devastating brutality the country had experienced in recent years. The poverty of many of its people can be like a slap in the face. Child exploitation is still a major issue that authorities are trying to crack down on.

But on the flip-side of that is all of the beautifully-natured people, the people who are working hard to change their luck and improve their country. The children we’ve been fortunate enough to meet have been some of the happiest, most loving humans I have ever come across. The staff at our hotel are genuinely kind and happy and are excited to see us when we return from our volunteering every day.

Volunteering in Cambodia is one of those things that woke me up to my white privilege.

It didn’t completely change everything over night, but it was certainly the starting point for me having more self-awareness. Over the past couple of years, I’ve become more aware that I have an enormous amount of luck on my side by:

  • Being born in the Western world and never personally experiencing poverty.
  • Being born into a loving family and never personally experiencing abuse or neglect.
  • Being Caucasian and never personally experiencing racism.
  • Living in a democratic nation and never personally experiencing the fear of having my freedom taken away or being punished for expressing my political views.

On site of our latest build.

The one that’s been on my mind in particular lately is how I’ve got a hell of a lot of privilege, and rights, as a white woman.

I also feel conflicted about my position as a white woman.

Sometimes, I think I’m doing good things by volunteering and talking about this stuff and other times I think I sound obnoxious, that I’m getting involved in things that have nothing to do with me, that I’m a white woman “trying to rescue others” (it also feels like the Betoota Advocate could write a headline or 50 about how preachy I sound right now).

It feels quite jarring for me when I stop and think about this stuff (shout out to the Shameless podcast for teaching me the word ‘jarring’). Recognising my white privilege was (and still is) quite confronting and comes with insecurities, questions, a bit of shame and guilt, and has caused me to think a lot about how being a white woman has allowed me opportunities and treatment that I’ve taken for granted.

Whilst I may sound a bit preachy, obnoxious and conflicted, I still feel like I am in a position to do some good.

Next month, my partner and I will be returning to Cambodia to assist in the build of two houses for another two families. I really can’t wait to see everybody again and meet new people, I can’t wait to pretend help build stuff when all I really want to do is hang out with the kids and draw pictures. I can’t wait to get amongst the culture, drink rice wine and check-in on families we’ve helped before. I feel conflicted yes, but the joy of what I can do as a privileged white woman, outweighs that discomfort.

Me, pretending I know how to build stuff.

In my opinion, recognising the position I’m in and becoming self-aware, is a better response than ignoring the issue. Consuming podcasts, news stories, books and conversation about this topic lately has made me question everything and helps me stay educated about the dynamics of relationships, privilege, sexes, race, classes and everything in between. And it’s a good thing.

Anyway, speaking of good things …

We have sent money over already for the first house, but still need a bit more money to complete the second. If you would like to contribute (AND WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO), please do so by visiting our GoFundMe page or visiting: gofundme.com/buildCambodia. 100% of donations go towards the build or supplies for the families. NONE of it goes to us.

We’ll be documenting our trip on our stories for whoever wants to follow along on the below socials:

A final note on volunteering …

If you ever go and volunteer into Cambodia (and I highly recommend you do), please do thorough research of the company you choose to volunteer through. Some “charities” have been known to be money-making machines, siphoning donations and exploiting volunteers and children to make profit. PLEASE do your research, ask trusted sources, enquire in-depth, before you donate or volunteer – especially when volunteering in orphanages (read Cambodia’s Orphan Business: The Dark Side of ‘Voluntourism’ for some more background).

I can personally vouch for MyGapYear who ensure 100% of donations go towards the cause and who have adopted a Child Protection Policy. All staff and volunteers are required to sign and adhere to the policy as well as undergo criminal history and police checks. It is a shared and collective responsibility of all adults to prevent child exploitation and abuse, so it is so important you make sure you know where your money and time is going.

Thank you again to everyone who has donated or is considering volunteering. It makes a huge difference to the people of Cambodia and I am forever grateful.

Han x

P.S. If you need more convincing on why you should donate, check out my previous posts – The Chronicles of JosHan: Siem Reap Part I, Part II and Part III.

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