Recently, a friend submitted the following text to be published on Kandaka:
One of the familiar feelings that British people of colour (especially black people) experience is the feeling of being visibly different: otherised. The recent group trip to Paris that I partook in, to work with refugees, was no exception to this sentiment.
We went away on the same trip but, in hindsight, we had different aims. Some seemed to be on the all-too-common performative white saviour complex, some wanted to observe the crisis for research and some wanted to genuinely make a small but positive impact on the lives of the people they met there.
There are a few things to look out for that will act as a clue as to whether an act of charity is coming from a genuine place or is for show, these may include:
- Microaggressions from white volunteers towards the volunteers of colour. For anyone that doesn’t know, a microaggression is a small act of prejudice, intentional or not, that can be harmful to the person it is directed at. I want to emphasise IF YOUR MICROAGGRESSION IS UNINTENTIONAL IT IS STILL OFFENSIVE.
- A general lack of interest in getting to know the people we are working with or the use of a patronising tone towards these same people. Nearly all of the volunteers I went on this trip with spent the entire time socialising with their fellow students, ignoring the people we had gone on this trip to meet. The lack of engagement with refugees stank of a superiority complex.
- Jokes made at the expense of the very people whose fate you claim to care about. One of the leaders of our group who was supposedly more experienced in working with refugees said “This place is so bad even refugees can’t sleep in it!”, this is, unfortunately, a direct quote.
The problem with white people in the development sector, especially the ones who label themselves as allies and progressives, is that they have become lulled into a false sense of security and seem to believe that they are saving the world without ever asking or knowing a single person of colour or hearing about the everyday issues that they face.
It has become clear to me that having people of colour at the forefront of developmental initiatives is a necessity and not just an ‘added advantage’. Otherwise, there will be a continuation and perpetuation of the racist norms and structures that we are, supposedly, striving to breakdown.
In the age of gap years and wealthy European youth travelling the world as a hobby, the White Saviour Complex mentioned above has manifested itself as what Teju Cole has termed the White Saviour Industrial Complex. “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”, he writes, and “the world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
When I was in secondary school, we were asked to donate money to two girls who were spending their gap year in Ghana looking after children in an orphanage. Somehow, at some point they were left alone with all the kids and in full responsibility of them. I wonder what they were doing there in the first place? Clearly, they must have been raised by society to feel up for the task, using their secondary school education and non-existent life experience to go teach poor Ghanaian kids. This is what I term the ‘Western Mandate’-syndrome: the idea that growing up in a so-called developed country comes with skills that enable you to ‘make a difference’ in an underdeveloped country or in a refugee camp. Every summer, numerous young people travel to Greece or Lebanon in order to simultaneously have a good time, do good and help some refugees. They may not speak any of the languages that would be useful, they may know nothing about the cultures they are supposed to engage with or the conflicts that led to the current situation, but they sill believe that they are helping. This is a structural problem in western society, an unhealthy mix of entitlement, privilege, lack of self-awareness and respect for the ‘Other’ that most of the time results in harming the people who are supposed to be benefiting.
The Western Mandate encourages 18 year olds to travel to Africa and Asia for three weeks and build a school that no one will ever teach in. Worse, 19 year olds that will actually teach in this school even though they have little helpful knowledge. Young people walking in and out of non-white children’s lives, taking pictures and gaining eye-opening experiences which they can incorporate in their middle class lives back home, whilst upholding and strengthening stereotypes about the places they have visited. The Western Mandate allows a nobody from America or Europe to become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have their emotional needs satisfied. This is what the rant above refers to, namely university students who travel to Athens or Paris, take drugs at night and spend their hungover days trying to help refugees. They sleep with attractive brown and black men and get annoyed when they still message them on facebook once they have returned home to their comfortable lives.
Despite the obvious lack of genuine engagement of some, I ask others who might go away to genuinely ‘make a difference’: Why do you have to go so far? What relation do you have to Tanzanians? If you want to help people in need, there will surely be some in your own backyard. To this you might answer that you will not be given responsibility in your own society, because you do not have the required expertise. Here lies the first indicator of the hierarchal prejudices that shape the western mandate: thinking that you have enough knowledge to create impact in a non-western country because you were taught that there, the standards are lower. Assuming that a non-western society deserves less professionalism than a ‘developed’ country is deeply dehumanising and frankly, arrogant.
If your answer is that you want to experience a new culture or country, that is fine. However, stop framing it as you going and bringing something to the place, when you actually have come to take. There is much more to doing good work than being physically present or innocently well-intended. There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them. And most importantly, there is a level of respect that the Western Mandate does not entail, a respect for people’s own agencies, a respect for the work they are doing to improve their own lives and a respect for how you decide to tell their stories. Don’t make yourself the hero of someone else’s struggle.
Cole correctly writes that “what innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.” Basically, it is probably your government who brought this mess you are so courageously trying to solve (even though you don’t know how, how could you). It is probably your lack of engagement with the foreign policies of your country that perpetuate the horrors that people are fleeing from. If you want to help, start at home. If you want to help, educate yourself before you go and educate others. If you want a more detailed explanation of this, read this article.
No one needs white saviours. No one needs westerners showing off their privilege and colonising other peoples’ narratives. What we need is consideration and everyone knowing their place, people who listen actively and learn to challenge their stereotypes, racism and white supremacy lens. From there, we can try to help each other and do our best to improve lives inside and outside the west. And before you come for us: No, the Western Mandate does not only motivate white people, anyone can have the white saviour complex.
Finally, this post gives a direction of how to fight our internalised Western Mandate
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There is no exact formula to bring an end to the white savior complex. It is equal parts challenging the white savior complex itself AND us as Africans ( as well as all BIPOC) rising up and leading our own work, demanding dignity & respect from those who come as visitors or guests into our communities. Many ask what YOU can personally do to help bring an end to the WSC – how do you hold yourself and others accountable? How do we get people to listen? How can we see real change happen? . . . 1. If you are a BIPOC – Share how the WSC has hurt you, your family or community. How does it feel to be treated like an object of pity and watch people who look like you continuously exploited? People need to understand the impact the WSC has on us. 2. If you’re a recovering white savior – Share about how you’ve gotten it wrong. It’s not enough to just admit you’ve messed up – how exactly have you messed up? Unpack why those ideas and actions felt normal to you and why they no longer do. 3. Follow & learn from BIPOC – There are so many educating and providing resources on these topics. 4. Challenge harmful actions and ideologies – Be direct, provide reasons why the behaviors are harmful. Try to ‘flip the script’ and ask about how they might feel to be on the other end of the WSC. 5. Decolonize your life – What are you reading and who wrote it? What are you watching and who directed it? What are you listening to and who is singing it? What does your family, neighborhood, friend circle, work place, school district, church, Mosque, Temple or Synagogue look like? Does everyone around you look like you? Is most of what you’re consuming, in terms of content and art, created by people who resemble you? There are so many ways our world views are shaped and so there are many ways we have to deconstruct and reconstruct how we understand self and others. 6. Share resources & knowledge – Pass on information you find helpful. Actively work to bring this content into universities, churches, nonprofits and anywhere that needs it. 7. SUPPORT BIPOC lead projects and businesses. Put your money where your mouth by supporting us to transform our own communities.
If you’re interested in working with or donating to a small charity run by Sierra Leoneans, in the interest of Sierra Leoneans, get in touch with us to find out more.
Words by Catherine Koroma Whitfield and Amuna Wagner