I was a junior in high school when a nonprofit organization came to my school to talk about its efforts against human trafficking.
As horrified as I was by the entire idea of human trafficking, I was uncomfortable with the way the presenter sensationalized his role as a Mission Impossible-type agent set on getting “the bad guys” — a phrase he repeatedly used.
As he showed photos of victims being rescued, blown up to huge proportions on our gym’s projector screen, I felt sick for those frightened faces, for those slumped, boney shoulders that had been so used and — in a way — were still being used, objectified and exploited under the label of “the rescued.”
As the presenter continued to recount, in Hollywoodesque fashion, the way he infiltrated buildings and shut down traffickers, tossing helpless bodies over his shoulder and carrying them to safety, something just felt off. I believe the root of my discomfort was the presenter’s focus on himself and the lack of any information of what we could do as teenage students to help solve the problem besides giving money to his organization.
Let me emphasize, for clarity’s sake, that I strongly believe that human trafficking is an horrific evil that needs to be eradicated. That being said, I also believe that it should not be used as a means for individuals to set themselves up as heroes or white saviors.
In addition, and perhaps in connection, I believe that we cannot allow organizations to co-opt terms that have long been associated with the history of Black slavery. The word “slavery” is broad. Human trafficking is, in fact, a form of slavery. But appropriating terms like “the underground railroad” or “abolitionist” feels wrong.
Those words symbolize a past historical movement that should be honored and preserved. While slavery is slavery, we have to be able to tease apart the complexities of historic slavery, systemic slavery (go watch “13th” on Netflix, please), and modern slavery, whether for labor or sexual exploitation.
Recently, a number of people have been posting pictures on social media of themselves holding signs that say: “I’m an abolitionist.” Really? You would presume to claim a title associated with people like the great Harriet Tubman? Have you actively risked your life to free others?
It’s especially sticky when contemporary leaders attempt to claim historical titles. Dictators of the past century sometimes appropriated phrases and terms from the Roman Empire in an attempt to bolster their own power and credibility.
The word “abolitionist” has a specific connotation and connection with the history and disbanding of Black slavery. History.com defines the word as, “A person who sought to abolish slavery during the 19th century.”
From well-intentioned individuals holding up pieces of paper to heads of organizations addressing large crowds, the question must be asked: What does this kind of language accomplish? I fear it gives those who buy into it a wholly undeserved sense of self-importance. It makes the issue about them. My hope is that we can address the very critical issue of modern human trafficking without resorting to ill-conceived appropriations or white saviorism.
Devin Glenn is a junior at Brigham Young University studying interdisciplinary humanities and Chinese.