“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” – Teju Cole
I was in my early thirties when I started volunteering at the youth shelter.
“What are you hoping to get out of this experience?” asked the volunteer coordinator.
This was a question I was eager to answer. “I was a resident here for a few months, back in my teenage years, and I want to give back to the place that helped me when I needed it.”
“Giving back,” she noted, nodding. It was obviously a phrase she’d heard many times from people like me: white, wealthy, grad school graduate, lefty. “Anything else?”
Yeah. I wanted to feel good about myself. I wanted the right to brag: Look at me, saving the world. I wanted street cred and the latest slang and the chance to be an ally. I wanted to feel less guilty for having so much when others have so little. I wanted to absolve myself of the sins of my country. Any misfortune I’d suffered was long in the past, and I’d become comfortable and spoiled, so I wanted to put myself in proximity to misfortune so I could talk about it as though it were mine.
I just didn’t know that yet.
I was accepted as a volunteer, and assigned to come up with a creative, recreational activity for the girls during the afternoons and early evenings. I brought beads and jewelry supplies. This made me relatively popular for a volunteer, most of who were regarded with suspicion by the residents.
I was suspicious of the other volunteers too, especially the group of professional white women in heels and suits who came in to lead a nutrition workshop, and were disappointed when it was sparsely attended. I heard one say to another as they were packing up, “That was a waste of time. You’d think they’d be more grateful.”
But I wasn’t like those other white ladies. They were tourists in this world, a world I’d inhabited briefly twenty years before and could therefore claim permanent citizenship in. Even the girls remarked on the difference between me and the other volunteers – I wore sneakers, I alluded to smoking weed, I had a firm grasp of African American Vernacular English. I was, as the girls said, “down.”
It was during this phase of volunteering that I saw a trailer for the movie Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Push told the story of a badly abused, illiterate, pregnant, homeless teenager who found community and hope in a writing class led by a teacher who Got It. Push was one of my favorite books; it was also one of the only books that the girls at the shelter were familiar with. I posted the trailer to my blog and said, “Can’t wait!”
Two prominent authors, both women of color, responded with polite eye rolls. “If you read Push, please follow it up with Percival Everett’s Erasure,” said one. “Please.”
I was surprised at their slightly admonishing tone. Didn’t I get credit for having read Sapphire? I mean, I posted a trailer for a movie about a black girl with black issues. Surely that showed my exceptional non-racist-ness. But I read Percival Everett’s Erasure, which centers around a stereotypical “urban” novel much like Push, and features the following line of dialogue from a white book reviewer:
“This book meant so much to me when I read it. It opened my eyes to ways of black life and helped me understand the pain of those people.”
Oh my God, I realized, nauseated. That’s me.
“The 19th century saw the rise of a pious, middle-class feminism, devoted to the moral uplift of the poor. By ministering to prostitutes, middle-class women got both respectable jobs and the frisson of proximity to vice.” – Molly Crabapple
A few years later, I’d moved on from the shelter, and was now offering a writing workshop at an organization serving young women who’d been commercially sexually exploited. Some of these girls were as young as 13 – middle-school children who’d been recruited by rapists to be sold to other rapists.
As you might imagine, some of the things these girls wrote about were hair-raising. I’m not going to describe those things, because they are not mine to describe, but I can tell you how they made me feel: Homicidal. Righteous. And very, very feminist.
Girls of every ethnicity are targeted and trafficked by men, so my writing workshop was a diverse and ever-changing group. Here there were black, Latin, Asian, and white girls, all sitting around the same table. It didn’t matter what anybody’s skin color was; everybody had been through the same hellish experience. In that sense, they were all equals.
Except for me. I had no experience being commercially sexually exploited. My two months of homelessness as a teenager did not qualify me to speak with any authority to exploited girls. My understanding of the girls’ slang did not translate into understanding of their experiences. Looking back, I can see that I was condescending, micro-aggressing, and “othering” all over the place – not just to the girls, but to staff members, too – and I had no idea I was doing it.
And feeling sorry for someone is often another way of diminishing them. The exploited young women I worked with didn’t need me to weep for them. They didn’t need lectures on the patriarchy and gender oppression and White Feminism 101. They didn’t need to “tell their story” again and again for the benefit of outsiders; they needed to know that they were more than just survivors, more than just their story. They didn’t need pity. They needed language and writing skills.
I’m lucky that I was allowed to volunteer under these circumstances long enough for reality to seep in: If I was actually going to be of service to these girls, I was going to have to get over my concept of myself as a White Savior.
I started to look around at my overwhelmingly white, middle-class world. With few exceptions, the majority of the black people I dealt with on a regular basis were underprivileged. They were “needy,” they were “at risk,” they were “in crisis” – they were, as Ursula the Sea Witch sang in The Little Mermaid, “poor unfortunate souls.” I didn’t often deal with black people who were middle or upper middle class; I rarely related to people of color as peers or superiors.
So what if I spent a few hours a week in the company of people of color? It only made it easier for me to close my eyes to the whiteness of the rest of my week.
So what if I could speak a few phrases of Patois? Patois was a language specifically developed to be unintelligible to white outsiders. If I truly wanted to respect the people and the culture of the Caribbean, I had to accept that I had no business trying to speak Patois.
Doing the chicken noodle soup dance and rapping along to Nicki Minaj didn’t make me less racist. Giving and receiving dap didn’t make me less racist. Volunteering with kids of color didn’t make me less racist. It just made me differently racist.
“The white savior complex is about assimilation. It’s about feeling superior to another culture. It’s about validating your own personal, individual experience through the lives and experiences of other marginalized peoples. It’s taking their struggle (even if it’s a sometimes imagined or exaggerated struggle) and making it about how much of a good person you are.” – Uncredited quote on Tumblr
Imagine a picture of a young white woman standing in a dusty field in Africa. She is surrounded by little kids with black skin and school uniforms. They are all smiling. Maybe she brought them sports equipment, or school supplies, or medical services. Maybe she helped dig a well. The equipment, the supplies, the services, the well – these are all things that were needed, and she helped provide them. Isn’t that noble?
The term “voluntourism” was new to me, but it’s not a new phenomenon. There’s a long-standing American tradition whereby privileged people travel to impoverished areas so they can “help.” This imbues the privileged person with pride, satisfaction, and what they hope is a lifetime pass on confronting issues of racism or racial inequality.
It also reinforces the pernicious assumption that brown-skinned people need white-skinned people to help them. It facilitates the fetishization and exotification of African people. It may bring people together physically, but it also fortifies the divide between them: One person is the have, the other is the have-not. Those roles are rigid and can’t be recast.
I don’t want to discount the motives of every white volunteer, and I certainly don’t want to cast aspersions on the people working for non-governmental aid organizations who do life-saving work under impossibly dangerous circumstances (though NGOs often come with their own imperialist agendas). I think it’s possible for a white person to be of service to people of color without automatically reinforcing their racist assumptions. I think it’s tricky, but I think it’s possible.
Obviously, it’s not for me to say what’s “good for” Africa or African people. If a young white person really wants to go to Africa to help people – not just to spread Jesus or to pad their resumes – in my opinion, they should probably go. They can support the local economy and the tourism industry. They can open their eyes to the consequences of colonialism, the reality of environmental racism, and the paradox of the impoverished resource-rich nation. They can bring all the equipment and supplies and wells they can carry. A soccer ball is, empirically, a good thing for kids to have.
But volunteers and voluntourists can also avoid using people as props for their egos or Instagram feeds. They can remember that volunteering is easier for the economically privileged, and stop spraining their shoulders while patting themselves on the back. They can do less talking and teaching, and more listening and learning. This, I hope, is the stage I’m at now, a mere ten years after I started this work.
I’m still volunteering – I’m too selfish to give it up – but the circumstances have changed. For the past nine months, I’ve been working with an organization that serves a disadvantaged population, but this time I’m working behind the scenes, in a warehouse, where I have no contact with the clients. Most of the people I work alongside are low-paid employees, most of them people of color.
I’m not above anybody on the food chain there. I have no authority. I’m a worker bee. My peers and my managers are black and Latin – they’re the ones who tell me what to do, how to do it, and when I’m doing it wrong. Inside that warehouse, the power dynamic is not tipped so radically in my favor. When I’m there, I can challenge my assumptions rather than reinforce them.
Nobody at my volunteer job is asking me to rescue them. They’re just asking me to make sure I properly execute my menial tasks.
It’s an improvement, but there’s still a lot of work for me to do. I grew up under the pervasive influence of a culture that taught me that black-skinned people were lesser than me, and the years of brainwashing I accepted without question will take years to overcome. But I’m doing my best to drop the Benevolent White Savior act, and to relate to people as the individuals they are.
The only thing I can save other people from is my own misconceptions. The only person I can save is myself.
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