I’m sure you’ve all heard of the term white saviourism, but not all of you may be familiar with what it actually looks like in practice. Originating from colonial thought – Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” is where this whole thing started. Let’s go back in history, to a time where the UK and most of Europe ruled the world. They actively traveled continent to continent, taking what they could for themselves and subjugating the native populations that lived there. The driving force behind these colonial and imperial impulses was the emergence of contemporary pseudo-scientific research and findings, that anyone non-white was degenerate, subhuman – or indeed “other”. This, in turn, propelled the white saviourism narrative around the “White Man’s Burden”. As the most ‘civilised’ and ‘racially superior’, colonial Europeans genuinely believed that it was their responsibility, or burden to ‘civilise’ other races. Non-Europeans, and more importantly, non-white people were seen as natives; which in turn meant the opposite of ‘civil’ – barbaric, animalistic, savage (and the countless other names or ways we’ve been described over the years). This is where the white saviour concept began, but true to style; anything that exists in proximity to whiteness continues to prevail… even in 2019.
This is where it began, but what does it look through a 21st-century lens – given that we’ve apparently stepped away from our colonial past? Humans of colour will be able to explain specifically what white saviourism looks like… as for us, it’s always been assigned to the narrative of whiteness. It is travelling to a non-white country (which you will probably label as ‘third-world’) and offering to volunteer when you have no trade or skills to offer. Where you genuinely believe that you will be an asset… but you bring literally nothing to the table. No working knowledge or understanding of complex situational issues – but you are western, white, and therefore must be qualified to help. Would it not be more fitting, for that role to be given to someone who actually understands what they’re up against – someone from the country themselves? Let’s take it a step further and talk about these volunteer trips being used as opportunities to photograph or be photographed with the indigenous population. Firstly, if you are plastering these excursions all over social media – you are thinking about NOTHING but yourself and how you are perceived. Secondly, these are generally accompanied by RIDICULOUS captions or thoughts about how deprived the natives are, and how great you are. Thirdly, you are actively feeding into the white saviourism narrative that has been alive and kicking since the dawn of colonialism. AND, then when confronted, you have the indignity to feign ignorance, or push an agenda of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’. “We are all the same culture, we are all the same race” you will scream until you are blue in the face – but unless it is your culture or your race which is being clearly exploited, I suggest you close your mouth and open your ears. You are not in a position to speak of anyone else’s oppression unless it is of the oppression you are willingly putting onto others.
White Saviourism has become a new talking point – thanks to the emergence of activism and advocacy in the last couple of years. Notably, the activist group No White Saviors (NWS) has been doing an incredible amount of work in this space (if you are not following them, you are missing out – if you are white, you actively need to be following them). Their work spans multiple levels, from actively calling out problematic displays of white saviourism, to leading legal campaigns to ensure that justice is served. Take, for instance, the controversy around Stacey Dooley and her trip to Africa with Comic Relief at the beginning of the year, where she was photographed with a young black child, captioning it “OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED”. The activist group’s stance on this photograph is clear – it was taken explicitly without obtaining consent, and the child is not even known to Stacey. Why do western white celebrities think that this behaviour is acceptable? That children of colour can be used as props for publicity or to further this civilising agenda – would Stacey travel around the UK and claim the same of white European children? No, she would not.
The picture paints a wider context of what white saviourism is at its core. Think about what Comic Relief actually is – a Western charity model that does not help Africa at all. (Dambisa Moyo’s text Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa explains this clearly for anyone who is interested). It continues where imperial thought began – perpetuating a narrative that black and brown countries and our people cannot be saved by themselves; but rather must be saved by the very same people who oppressed us, to begin with. It’s the assumption that you can use us, and our children as props for an agenda that only serves you. What does that photograph do for the child in Stacey’s arms? Oh yeah, nothing. Nothing at all.
Responses to white saviourism are stunted at best. This is easily highlighted by the response to the activist group (NWS), which receives countless direct messages stating that they are a “hate group” that is “attacking” white people. Most activists of colour face a similar situation when it comes to confronting whiteness, or anything we associate with it (saviourism, guilt, the weaponisation of tears). All NWS is doing, is simply stating and displaying that white people cannot be the saviours of every story. Especially within countries, they have no real knowledge of; and a lack of acknowledgment or recognition to the influences of colourism, colonialism or Europe’s unsavoury imperial past. There are more serious implications to this complex – like Renee Bach, a white American missionary who was performing ILLEGAL surgical procedures on thousands of Ugandan children. It is worth noting that she has no medical experience at all. She wouldn’t be able to act this way, in America – but in Uganda, this is perfectly acceptable? The only thing that enables her to be able to behave this way, is the fact that she is white. Even with mounting evidence, she is still yet to be brought to justice for her actions. No White Saviors is still actively attempting to rectify this and fund the legal battle (and you can support them via the link at the bottom of this article!)
The saviour complex is inherently built into whiteness and is interesting for a variety of reasons. It’s rooted in colonialism; but ignores the fact that anything of resource, worth or value within other nations was taken by the very people who had come to “save” them. It humanises the process – makes it seem like it is a helping or civilising mission, instead of calling it what it really is; conquest and erasure. We are in a self-proclaimed “post-colonial” era; but has that much progress actually been made? There are countless dedications being made in relation to the race agenda, but how much actual work is being done in the name of Diversity and Inclusion that attempts to ease the global suffering of humans of colour? It is not enough to just promote diversity – there must be an understanding of the structural barriers that stop us from joining the conversation in the first place.
We see white saviourism, alive and kicking back in the UK as well. There are countless organisations, and non-profits that exist with the aim to uplift ‘marginalised’ and ‘oppressed’ groups – but their leadership and board of directors couldn’t be further removed from the very demographics that they claim to serve. The charity sector itself, as a whole, from the very beginning, has been built on white saviourism. Just look at Oxfam and Save the Children. How many more episodes of propaganda will we need to see that further this narrative? How many more videos of starving and deprived black and brown children will we need to see, before we understand this? Do we ever see videos surfacing which reflect white people in the same way? Not only that, within the charity sector in the UK there are inherent problems when it comes to black and brown representation across senior and leadership positions. This has been acknowledged as a problem but yet we see no real solutions (remember the #CharitySoWhite hashtag? https://www.charitydigitalnews.co.uk/2019/08/21/charitysowhite-exposes-the-real-and-shocking-stories-of-racial-inequality-in-the-charity-sector/) Given that the UK was a frontrunner in the imperial race, can we really be shocked as to why we may be underrepresented in a field that was not created to include us – unless we are on the receiving end of the charity?
Here is my last thought to you all – how can you truly be inclusive, and actively help a certain demographic when they are not present within the higher levels of your organisation? How are you really supposed to help anyone that has a different lived experience, or frame of reference as yourself? Unconscious bias, is just that – unconscious; and if we exist in a world that operates within a racial hierarchy, how can you expect to not encompass any of that within your thinking or way of looking at the world? We are more likely to uplift or to promote those who look like us, or who we identify with. Bearing that in mind, how do you seek to rectify this problem without an apt representation of different groups? Please, tell me again – how does your upper class, white privilege enable you to deal with problems that don’t exist in your world?
This is why advocacy groups, are so important when it comes to capturing the experiences of humans of colour. We are the ones who need to drive our own narratives and ensure that our voices are heard when we are given the opportunity to speak out. Within the space of reproductive and mental health, Cysters has done incredible work over the last four years; but there is still a hesitancy when it comes to inviting us to the table; when it comes to promoting us as representatives of these conditions – there is no space that is safe from white saviourism whilst a clear global colourist hierarchy remains in power.
You may have marketed yourselves to the entire world as saviours, but something just doesn’t quite add up. You only need to look at the white working-class population in this country – how they are treated by the ruling class, and how they are revolutionised by that very same class to fight against diversity. Or more notably brown and black immigration. The xenophobic campaign utilised by the ‘leave’ side during the Brexit referendum is a great example of this. We see you. Pitting people against each other, so they don’t look upward at you. We see you. Only caring about the white working-class in comparison to working-class humans of colour. We see you.
It begs us and more importantly me, to ask the question – why do you believe that you are capable of helping us when you’re not even able to help those who look like you, but lack means? Thanks, but no thanks – we aren’t interested in your saviour complex, we aren’t interested in your pity party and we certainly aren’t interested in hearing about how you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. Especially when your life has been so entrenched in privilege. You can save your elitist thinking, rhetoric, and ignorance for your boardroom (as you will).
Remove yourself from your self-created, and quite frankly, UNEARNED pedestal. Or, we will do it for you.
To learn more about how you can get involved, and support the work of No White Saviors here
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Cysters needs you too. We are always looking for black and brown voices to speak about the cultural experiences of reproductive and mental health. This is a network that is about uplifting all our voices – I have reclaimed my voice and power through this platform. If you’re interested in writing for us, please get in touch. If you’re interested in helping us out in any other way (to donate funds, time or skills, or you want to work or partner with us) we’d love to have you on board. Please do fill out the contact form and we will get back to you.