Recently, a fire raged at the historic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, nearly destroying it. An 856 year old monument, Notre Dame was a sacred piece of history and art, an early example of Gothic architecture and a holy place for many of those practicing Catholicism. It is completely understandable how history and art lovers and Catholics alike mourned across the world. However, a large amount of the public’s reactions – particularly those in the United States and Western Europe – served as a blatant example of ethnocentrism.
As soon as a few hours after the cathedral began to blaze, immediate action towards fundraising was initiated by French President Emmanuel Macron, donations began to pour in from the wealthy. A total of $1 billion dollars was raised by the time the fire was put out, with hundreds of thousands of dollars coming from fashion designers, cosmetic companies, and even American companies such as Disney and Apple. Not long after the news of these donations broke, people began to question these donors: “where were you when we needed you?”
The Flint water crisis. The hurricane in Puerto Rico. These were actual crises where human lives were involved, and while they gained some attention online, the reactions and donations still pale in comparison to the response to Notre Dame. If one were to argue that these fastidious donations for Notre Dame were in the name of arts and culture, where were these billionaires when an inferno devastated the National Museum of Brazil in September? Donations aside, the public reaction differed greatly as well. It became evident through the fire in Notre Dame that those from Western nations often seem to care more about cultural monuments when they represent Western culture.
Of course, many of these crises occurred outside of France, and although Apple and Disney were among the donors, most donors were French. It could be stated that these events did not attract as much help because they did not pertain to France. Still, France has many issues, namely their poverty rates. The amount of French citizens that are homeless increased by 21 percent in the past year. Many French citizens reacted to Notre Dame the same as we did – asking why the cathedral so easily gained this financial support in a mere 24 hours, and yet, the poor are left begging the government for help.
Marginalized groups have historically been put at the bottom of the priority list, if they’ve even secured a spot on it. Notre Dame served as a monument for white, Catholic, European culture – an institution with a prestige that the wealthy seem to value more than the lives of humans who will only make in their lifetime a fraction of what these billionaires make in a year.
According to some sources, Flint is still without clean water. It is a well known fact that the majority of Puerto Rico was without power for ten entire months after Hurricane Maria, with the government they never asked for, neglecting them as American citizens, or even just as people in need. These voices always have been overshadowed, but will they always be? It’s up to all of us as members of society to elevate them, to push for acknowledgement, empathy, reform and assistance for those in need.