The Modern-Day White (Wo)Man’s Burden: Trends in Anti-Trafficking and Anti-Slavery Campaigns

In the early 1990s, the debate on human trafficking was restricted to a handful of feminists and revolved around establishing “the trafficking of women” as a case of labor migration or one of “female sexual slavery.” Two decades later, the debate is more complicated and widespread, yet within the proliferation of attention, a convergence among some of the most vocal and visible campaigns is discernible. This article takes up three prominent campaigns that dominate contemporary debates internationally—modern anti-slavery, abolitionist feminism, and celebrity humanitarianism—and considers the politics that emerge at the points of their convergence. It is argued that rather than getting to “the bottom of things,” as Emma Goldman urged over a century ago in relation to the “traffic of women,” a 21st-century version of the “white man’s burden” is apparent, supported by contemporary western, neoliberal interests that maintain boundaries between the haves and the have-nots, while bolstering an image of a compassionate, benevolent West. The article points toward an alternate framework, one that is lodged in a commitment to social and economic justice, decolonization, a redistribution of wealth, and respect for subaltern experience and knowledge.

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