The following is a geniusly-crafted article by Teju Cole about the “White Savior Complex,” particularly in reference to the Kony 2012 video:
What is the White Savior Complex? As I read this article I try to understand it as a white, privileged person myself who has always had an insatiable urge to help people. And I cringe in my seat, hoping I am not guilty of it.
I guess in the end it’s the sense that we can solve the problems of people we consider to be “other” than ourselves, and whom we assume aren’t capable of helping themselves. We may have a good heart, but what makes our good intentions a “complex” is our ignorance about the more deeply-embedded source of the problem, a sense of pity for “the other”, and a failure on our part to ask them their perspective on their problems, if they want help, and how they would like to receive it. Because I think their answer to the last question would be a lot different than we would expect.
We look at a pace like Africa and we see hungry mouths. We think the solution is to send food. In the “savior complex” we take a cursory look at a very complex problem and prematurely determine the solution. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of that place have been struggling with that problem for the duration of their lives and understand it deeply. They know what is realistic and if all it took to solve their problems was a week-long project of installing water wells, they would have done so long ago.
I think the White Savior Complex also has also to do with focusing on what other people are doing wrong rather than correcting what we are doing wrong ourselves that feeds that problem. I think a lot of the appeal of helping others is that we will feel good about ourselves afterwards. That is the effect of work that is easy to give and not necessarily that practical to the recipient population. But the work that actually “makes a difference” is probably work on ourselves as a privileged society who has a large impact on other societies.
I do have one bone to pick though and I’d love your all’s feedback:
I have a friend who, when talking about this, expressed aversion to the word “help.” She thought it sounded condescending and she was adamant that we shouldn’t approach populations with the attitude of helping. Instead we should let them be self-sufficient. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized that we are all one. To think of ourselves as isolated races or ethnicities is so divisive. The problems that many Native Americans struggle with for example, aren’t “Indian Problems”… they are everybody’s problems. If a native brother or sister is sick, then we are all sick, and we should all feel a personal responsibility to heal ourselves as a larger organism. So it bothers me that Cole used the term White Savior Complex. Why does race need to enter the dialogue? It seems to be assuming a lesser existence of everyone in play.
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