Life with Jesus / race / Social Justice

On the Death of White Saviorism

Alex and I got married when we were 20. We were two young farts who chose to get married at 2pm on a sweltering August day in Dallas in a historical home that had two window A/C units, no chairs, and very little cross ventilation.

To say that our guest remember only one thing about our wedding- the temperature- is not going too far. After the ceremony and short ceremony wherein we tried to get people to dance (at 2pm in a hot house at a wedding with no alcohol), we were whisked away by a limo complete with a picnic basket packed by my chef uncle.

We spent two nights at a hotel in Dallas before heading out to our honeymoon. Before we flew out, we were pondering what to do about this picnic basket that was still laden with goodies. I suggested that we go give it to homeless people near downtown. So we loaded up the car and set off in search of hungry people.

We ended up finding a group of them and hopped out of the car. Alex took the basket and started handing it out to people. I stood back and used my digital camera (remember those?) to take pictures. One woman on the outskirts of the group looked straight at me and started screaming, “WHY ARE YOU TAKING PICTURES, HUH? WHY YOU GOTTA TAKE PICTURES OF PEOPLE FIGHTING OVER YOUR FOOD SCRAPS?”

My face still burns with shame because, of course, she was dead-on. Why else would I need photographic proof of our benevolence except to share it and get the, “Oh, you’re such a good person- giving your leftover food to those poor people on your honeymoon”? I can’t remember exactly what happened after. I think I apologized and quickly deleted the pictures.

That experience was traumatizing for me, but in a good way. That lady called me out and questioned my motives and I couldn’t give her an answer that was satisfactory for either of us. She helped me grow up a little bit.

White saviorism is a thing, ya’ll, and it needs to die.

If you’re unfamiliar with that term, just google it and you’ll find ample material to educate yourself. Here’s a snippet from this very well-expressed article on white saviorism.

The term “white savorism,” refers to an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. Throughout the white savior’s journey they themselves are centered: they are often portrayed as messianic and tend to learn something about themselves in the process of rescuing others.This trope in commonly seen in movies and literature in Western society, and is reinforced by our own educational system, media, movements, religious and nonprofit sector in America as well as our foreign policy views toward the rest of the world.

It is literally everywhere. I’ve worked in non-profit/education for almost 10 years now. Nationally, 80% of the people who work in the non-profit sector are white.  The problem with this, of course, is that there’s very few people to point out white saviorism inside organizations. I witnessed it all the time. Our students used as props in brochures, their “poverty porn” immigrant stories trotted around to (mostly) white donors who would give to help “those poor people”.  Staff and volunteers who are there for the wrong reason, somehow using our students as a pat-on-the-back or for do-gooder feelings.  One volunteer read a student’s story about using a coyote to get across the border, threw a hissy fit, and quit teaching for us mid-semester because we wouldn’t take it down. If that volunteer couldn’t handle her own students’ truth, then it leaves me to wonder why she was volunteering in the first place? What was she getting out of it?  Ultimately, I left my non-profit job for several reasons, but a major one was that leadership was unwilling to see some pretty huge blind spots when it came to make decisions on what was best for our students and not our “good” white volunteers or donors.

If we aren’t being led by the people we’re serving, then we’re doing it wrong. We’re doing it wrong!

I’m in a field (adult education) where white saviorism is super easy for me to fall into. I’m a white woman teaching marginalized people how to speak English. How compassionate and kind and giving. I’m basically a freckled Mother Teresa who knows her way around a projector.  It’s just like Freedom Writers (which joins “The Blind Side”, “The Help”, and “Same Kind of Different as Me” as problematic films which center ‘good’ white people).

WRONG.

Does the prevalence of white saviorism mean that I have to quit my job? Does it mean that white people can never have anything to offer people of color?

No, but it does take some work. I have to examine my motives often and when I share about my job or my students, I try to be especially pensive about why and how I’m sharing. Instead of me benevolently bestowing knowledge on my poor students, I see them as agents of their own destiny who are free to use my skills to reach whatever goals they might have. See, my students don’t come to class so they can bask in my goodness. They come because they have hopes and dreams and learning English is one of those. I’m a conduit, a tool, that they use in the long process of achieving their goals. I’m not saving them. They’re saving themselves.

White saviorism is especially pernicious, I think, because the people that need to recognize it in themselves are going to be the ones that are most blind to it.  I mean, I thought Freedom Writers and The Help were fantastic movies! I identified with the main characters, thought what they were doing was worthy, and so on and so forth. It wasn’t until I read critiques that offered a different perspective that I saw what they saw.

So, how do we, as white people, combat this? How do we see white saviorism in ourselves and the culture at large and not feed into it?

I have a few suggestions.

  1. Have marginalized people as friends. More importantly, listen to them and follow their lead.

There’s a non-profit in Dallas that started a farm in a low-income, mostly POC neighborhood in Dallas. I’ve followed them on facebook; I’ve stopped by to see the farm. I thought it was cool. Then, recently, my friend Clarice, who is a Black woman who runs community gardens in South Dallas, shared her thoughts in relation to an article that was written about the white guy founder of this farm in South Dallas.  Even if you don’t read the article, go look at the picture and tag line that they used.

Clarice

Clearly, she wasn’t alone. Several other friends chimed in and said that they found this particular non-profit problematic. I found it all very interesting and I had to go back and try to see this non-profit through different eyes. My white do-gooder eyes saw no problem, while directly impacted people saw clearly that something was wrong.

Listening to marginalized takes practice. Sometimes, it can hurt your feelings or make you uncomfortable. Often, you’ll find yourself feeling very defensive and exposed.  But if you can learn to sit with those feelings, move past them, then that’s a good step towards avoiding white saviorism because you’re letting someone else do the leading.

If you don’t have any marginalized friends (yet), then follow public figures and really listen to what they’re saying.

2. Examine your motives.

Oy. As someone who takes life by the reins and doesn’t slow down to do much reflection, this one has been hard for me.  When I initially started to see racism, I so desperately wanted to distance myself from “bad” white people that I did racial justice work but for the wrong reasons. I used the POC that I was “helping” as props to make sure that everyone knew I was one of the “good” ones. Thankfully, lots of reflection and some stern words from friends have helped me understand that I have nothing to prove. I care about racial equity because it matters and because marginalized people matter, not because of what they can offer to my self image.

It probably comes as no surprise that white saviorism runs rampant in white churches and adoption circles. Think about mission trips and how they’re described. How are the people that you’re “helping” spoken about? How are they portrayed? I have lots of feelings about short term mission trips (far too many to discuss here) but can we at least acknowledge that we need to examine our motives on why we’re going, why we’re posting about it, why we’re taking pictures to share all over facebook?

I’ll just leave this here:

26730700_1858235810877778_57536995099116320_n

3. Find organizations that are led by the people being helped. Are there non-profits that were started by people from that neighborhood/country?

It’s hard for me to take a “diverse” church seriously if there are no people of color on staff. How can you minister to a diverse congregation if all of the decision making is made by people who share the same cultural framework?

Same goes with non-profits. Of course, I’m not saying that a non-profit that’s led by a white person will ALWAYS be problematic but I think it makes sense that the people closest to the issue that needs to be solved might be the ones that know how to fix it best.

FYI- if you want to fund a solution to the food deserts in South Dallas, perhaps you should check out Clarice’s GoFundMe page. 🙂

4. Be teachable.

Here’s the thing. I know that social media makes racial conversations look inflammatory. Like, if one white person says one thing that’s even mildly problematic, then they will get death threats and their entire life is ruined. So, white people reading this blog think, “Well, I guess I can never do or say anything around POC because I’m afraid that I’ll be acting like a white savior and never know it.”

The only thing we can do is try, right? So, we try stuff. We take stands. We march. We try to confront racism when we see it. We’re not always going to get it right. We just won’t. We’re going to have blind spots. We might get corrected. We’re going to realize that we got it wrong. And when that happens, there’s no need to freak out or go on the defensive. There’s not reason to flog ourselves publicly for being such a racist, horrible person.

We adjust and we move on. Internalize whatever we learned from that experience and move on. Keep trying.

White saviorism has been around for long enough. It’s time for it to die.

6 thoughts on “On the Death of White Saviorism

  1. But I’m so smug and self righteous about helping the less fortunate, the poor unfortunates, the povery stricken…. Thinking about this.

  2. I can relate to the thought of being known as one of the “good” ones. But I find that when that is my motivation, I spread myself too thin and get burnt out easily. I have felt guilty because I’m not marching on the front lines of race relations or civil rights demonstrations. But I realized it’s because my passionate causes are different (the pregnancy loss conversation, mental health – particularly related to pregnancy loss, and animal rehabilitation), but sometimes they can intersect (especially the first two).
    But I do try to support others where I can and when I can. I think to have the limited energy that I do, due to my pregnancy and anxiety, has really made me face my true motivations for doing things. But you are right, white saviorism is so ingrained in our culture and society that it’s hard to see it every time. Great post!

    • Super true. I *totally* understand feeling spread too thin. I’m a fixer by nature and so I want to have an easy solution to everything. But you can confront racism in the areas that you’re passionate about. I don’t know much about it, but I know that Black women die far more often in childbirth than people of other races. Did you hear about Serena William’s recent birth story? It’s crazy. The more and more I do this work, I realize that most of us can do lots where we already are. How can you affect your sphere of influence and challenge people to think about this issues through the lens of marginalized people?

      • Well, I remember reading about an organization that was set up by a woman to help black women with pregnancy loss in Georgia, but I haven’t heard of anything like that here in Dallas. That’s where I heard about those statistics as well. Right now, all of my involvement is on hold until I have this baby, to be honest. Because of my anxiety and PTSD, I’m in a holding pattern. Probably won’t be reading any childbirth stories until after.

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