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What happened to helping the ‘stranger?’

Geraldine Mukumbi | Sunday, April 28, 2013

The front page of the April 22 issue of The Observer had a headline that read, “‘Provide welcome to the stranger.'” The attached article highlighted the steps being taken to create a welcoming space for undocumented immigrant students within the University. Ironically, 10 pages later was a feature titled “#thirdworldsolutions to #firstworldproblems.” As an international student who is a different type of immigrant and a different type of stranger, I found this article in its entirety to be offensive. As such, I hope to highlight how features such as “#thirdworldsolutions to #firstworldproblems” fracture and divide our increasingly diverse Notre Dame community.
First and foremost, the term “third world” is highly problematic and far from ideal. This offensive term is no longer in widespread use due to its condemnation of certain nations to their own separate “world.” Critics of the term have discussed how in normalizing  the stark differences between “first world,” “second world” and “third world,” we erase the important historical and contemporaneous socio-economic ties between regions, hemispheres, nations, ethnicities and language groups. These phrases have been purposefully replaced by the terms “developed” and “developing” nations. But my criticisms of the article extend far deeper than word choice.
More disappointing was that under the veneer of humor, the feature affirmed a mass of stereotypes and misinformation. Granted, there are some who may use the excuse of humor to dispel this critique as just another complaint from another minority, but these are genuine concerns. The power of stereotypes is we hear them so often and presented in a number of creative forms to the point they become a version of the truth and our perceived realities. They may be funny, but for the subjects of these stereotypes they merely succeed in painting an entire group as only one thing. In the case of this article, the so-called “third world” is made up of backward “others” and primitive landscapes.
 “#thirdworldsolutions to #firstworldproblems” also reflects a trend widespread across this campus in which certain groups of people who are considered different are constantly stereotyped. This situation is exacerbated by the silence of those who are subjected to these uncomfortable situations on a daily basis. This silence should not be misunderstood as a sign of endorsement of such insensitivity, but should be read as a sense of widespread frustration and exhaustion. When these stereotypes are then published in a newspaper that prides itself on uncovering the truth and reporting it accurately, it creates a situation where silence is not an option. It’s an issue we need to actively address.
 When you consider the University is making strides to enroll more international students, articles like this pose a barrier to the inclusive environment the University is trying to promote. The online version of The Observer is accessible to prospective students from developing nations and it reflects the image of an unwelcoming environment. Such articles merely shed a negative light on the inclusive nature of our campus, perpetuating the already existing bad image of Notre Dame’s approach to matters surrounding diversity.
What is especially discouraging is this feature was written by someone who actually spent some significant time in Morocco, a developing nation, where she met people and hopefully established relationships with them. However, she still managed to dedicate a whole page to reducing a population of people and an entire region into seven stereotypes. I hope that is not a reflection on her person or her experience in Morocco, but perhaps points to the troubling limitations of these global immersion programs we students take part in. However, that is a problem for another day and platform. Additionally, it should be noted many of the stereotypes circulated in “#thirdworldsolutions to #firstworldproblems” could be used to disparage less-privileged communities in the highly developed nations of North America and Europe. My main aim in taking time out to share these thoughts is to encourage this newspaper to cherish the power it has in penning news. It’s a privilege that comes with responsibility. In the case of the published article, this involved creating realities for those students who may never have been exposed to Moroccans or anyone from a developing nation.
 I am confident The Observer will continue to publish features and articles about developing nations. As a citizen of one of these nations, I urge you not to forget we are people with dignity. I am confident in the future you will remember there is more to our existence than the negative stereotypes that plague us. Many of the problems that impact some communities in our respective countries are tied to complex issues and histories which exist beyond the scope of anyone’s tasteless jokes. Neither do these problems define our countries, cultures and identities. My sincere hope is your newspaper will grow in terms of cultural sensitivity and respect of people who hold passports of a different color. I hope in the future, the sentiments expressed in your articles will align with the mission of this institution so Notre Dame can truly be a home for a wider range of people.
Geraldine Mukumbi
Lewis Hall
April 28