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Confronting the Beast: Racism’s Role in Human Trafficking
January 18, 2018

In honor of the week of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, it seems appropriate to shine a more direct light on the ways in which racism intersects with the trafficking in humans. Just as monetizing human beings on the basis of skin and origin defined the slave trade centuries ago, so too does it inform and mold modern day slavery. While racism is an issue we’ve touched upon previously, we should not shy away from a more direct examination. Unsurprisingly, racism infiltrates everything, from beginning to end.

In vulnerability and who is most at risk

Almost anywhere in the world, victims of trafficking are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities. In America, the Bureau of Justice Statistics determined that between 2008 and 2010, nonwhite children accounted for 358 of the 460 cases (or 77.8%) of child sex trafficking investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the majority of whom were black and Latino. In Thailand, the ethic minorities are the hill tribes and stateless children who have been denied basic rights and protections, leaving them most vulnerable to trafficking. In European countries like Germany, the most vulnerable are the Roma ethnic groups. Wherever racism lends itself to poverty and exclusion, we find pathways into commercial sexual exploitation.

The racial roots of sex trafficking and sexual servitude are so long and deeply embedded, this short article can’t begin to cover the scope, so for now, let it suffice to say that in both direct and indirect ways, racism leads to sex slavery. For those interested and inclined to learn more, here’s some recommended reading: Cheryl Nelson Butler, UCLA Law Review.

In restitution, and how victims are seen and treated

Racial bias is insidious in the way it compounds abuse upon abuse. Not only do sex trafficking victims suffer from the abuse and trauma of being trafficked, when they are children of color, they are often further victimized by a system that is less likely to see them as victims, and instead is more likely to view them as criminals and sexual deviants. Children in prostitution should be seen as victims in need of help, regardless of how they got there, if for no other reason than of being under the age of consent. Instead, child prostitutes who are racial or ethnic minorities are more likely to be targets of harrassment and arrest, and when arrested, are more likely to encounter harsher punishments (Butler; see also: Ann M. Lucas, Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice).

Even while being trafficked, racial bias can determine how badly women and children are treated. According to a U.N. World Conference report, at a Bangkok conference, the country’s delegation emphasized that:

some women of certain racial or ethnic groups were subjected to abuses in larger measure than other women, while particular forms of violations, such as trafficking in women and girls frequently involved racist attitudes and perceptions, and were often directed at certain racial and ethnic groups, indigenous women and migrants.

In the white savior industrial complex

Sometimes, even in intentions to do good and spread justice, racism can rear its ugly head. It comes in the form of the white savior who wants to rush in and play the role of hero, “rescuing the poor savages who cannot help themselves,” seeking to feed the hungry while ignoring or even promoting policies and larger socio-political structures that create the hunger. (For more on this, see: Teju Cole, The Atlantic)

To combat trafficking means confronting honestly all the factors that contribute to it, even–or especially–the devious ones. For many of us, racism is a difficult and uncomfortable topic. It creates a lot of resistance; it’s the thing we don’t always want to look at, even when it commands us to, even when our fellow human beings beg us to. But confronting the devil in the world at large means confronting the devil that lurks within.

On how we can do better

“How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives.” (Teju Cole, The Atlantic)

To simultaneously promote racial justice, fight trafficking, and avoid the white savior complex requires doing more than rescuing victims. It requires tackling systemic and institutionalized racism–both in causes and in our understanding of who is “worthy” of help–and it requires interventions that are approached ethically and with humility. At The Freedom Story, we have made every effort to draw from local expertise and engagement, as almost all our mentors, counselors, and leaders come from neighboring villages so that the people the kids turn to for help look just like them and understand on a fundamental level the culture and society in which they live. Our role on the U.S. side is not the hero at the center, but the advocate on the sidelines: supporting and helping make possible the dreams of the people and communities with which we work, and where possible to tear down whatever barriers are in the way.

As in all areas of allyship, the question isn’t: How do we save these people?

The question is: How do we bring our collective efforts together for a greater good?

For the point isn’t to judge, condemn, or condescend. The point is, don’t we all want to live in a world in which every man, woman, and child is free?


Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.

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