We are Johnny Taylor: The role we’ve played in allowing a ‘missionary’ in Uganda to commit a violent hate crime
When it comes to allyship, one of the most dangerous things we can do is distance ourselves from racism and white supremacy. However passionate and well-meaning we may be, we still benefit from and help to prop up systems of oppression. The foundation of the White Savior Industrial Complex is built on those of us who self-identify as “allies,” but believe that we are above, or beyond, racist behaviors and white supremacist thought processes. It is this surety of self, this unswerving commitment to “saving” black and brown people, that allows a white American man to travel overseas, commit a violent hate crime, attack police officers while being placed under arrest, and still be taken into custody alive and in a dignified way.
For those of us who feel called to the mission field, we all too often believe that proximity erases our racism. It is the missionary version of “but I have black friends!” If we’re there to “help” the natives of our chosen country, how could we ever have feelings of hatred or superiority towards them? As a former expat in Uganda and someone very much connected to the missions community, I am here to tell you — every one of us must admit our role in maintaining and perpetuating the colonial mindset, myself included. Mr. Taylor may have used his fists to betray his inner prejudices, but almost all of us have done the same through our words, our descriptions, our social media captions, and the photos we post that steal dignity and privacy from those we claim to serve. We enter these countries under the guise of guests, but conduct ourselves as experts, leaders, directors, and yes, saviors.
We watched this week as John L. Taylor — wearing a hat identifying him as a Vietnam veteran — violently and repeatedly attempted to assault Ugandan employees at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, on Thursday evening, 16th of August 2018. While I was horrified, I cannot say I was surprised by this man’s behavior in a country I once called home. Though Taylor’s actions are extreme, I have watched throughout the years as numerous white missionaries dehumanized and treated the very people they claim to have a heart for as lesser citizens in their own communities.
Mr. Taylor was arrested and charged by Uganda Police on Friday, but it seems he has already been released and is back to posting on social media. Rather than posting a sincere apology for his hate-filled behavior, he blamed it on a medical condition.
“Taylor, during a line of questioning, confessed to having assaulted the hotel staff and claimed to have a medical condition that cause the violent outburst. The suspect will be subjected to a medical examination to ascertain the validity of the claim and the nature of the disease, as well as the intended effect of its medication before proceeding with legal action.”
Perhaps it is this same medical condition that prevented him from addressing his actions on his Facebook, choosing instead to post a status in support of Donald and Ivanka Trump. Given Trump’s refusal to condemn various other egregious acts of racism, it’s not at all difficult to imagine him responding to this particular assault by claiming “there are very fine people on both sides.”
As white people in general, and white Christians in the mission field particularly, when we refuse to call out racism and white supremacy for what it is, we are complicit in propping up the very conditions that make a man like Jimmy Taylor feel emboldened enough to commit a violent hate crime against the very people he claims to care for. I spent years traveling in and out of Uganda believing I operated outside the white savior complex, turning my nose up at the hordes of white people who turned up on the plane in matching t-shirts. The locals were my friends, I was in a long-term relationship with a Ugandan national, the NGO I co-founded employed Ugandans — surely I was above it all? Only in the last year have I been able to sit with myself and dig deeper into my motivations to be in Uganda. Committing to anti-racist work meant shining a harsh light on my actions while living there, and unpacking that has been difficult but necessary. Through the brilliant, blessed work of black feminist writers and academics, like Rachel Cargle and Layla Saad, I have taken the first baby steps into recovering from my own white savior complex. Whether you start with their work, or somewhere else, I encourage you to begin to change the narrative about Africa and other communities in the global south. It starts with us.
Let’s stop hijacking the stories of communities that are not our own. Let’s stop reinforcing stereotypes by preaching about our “good works” on social media and in churches and by writing books that are little more than poverty porn. Let’s stop taking selfies with black babies in tattered clothes. Let’s stop writing about how these families are so happy with so little. Let’s stop forming attachments with these children and then leaving them. Let’s stop paying ourselves 3–5 times more than our national staff, who are working harder than we ever have. Let’s deflect any praise we receive for simply visiting and existing in countries we have and continue to exploit.
For too long, we have focused on everything we believe these communities lack, and assumed that white people — white Christians — can meet their complex needs, when we aren’t even qualified to address these difficulties in our own countries. I know what you’re thinking now. What is the answer, then? Do we just do nothing? Isn’t some good better than none at all? BUT THE CHILDREN?!
No. The answer is not to ‘do nothing’. The answer is to stop acting, stop talking, and START LISTENING. Take direction from the Ugandan and African nationals who are far better equipped to solve the needs of their own communities than we are. The answer is to engage in our own anti-racist work, so that we can challenge the savior mentality in ourselves, and in others. Many organizations and individuals claiming to be working toward justice are simply providing charity with ‘sustainable’ packaging. We have not been interested in working toward equity because that would mean Africa wouldn’t ‘need’ us anymore. And if black and brown people don’t need us anymore, do we even exist?
Jimmy Taylor looked at the man behind the camera during his assault and said, “Film me. Fuck Uganda, I’ve come to love Uganda, I’ve come to help Uganda, but Uganda hates Jesus through this son of a bitch.” Cringeworthy, crude, and despicable, yes. But in many ways, this statement sums up the true nature of white saviorism.
If you’re ready to commit to dismantling this, both within yourself and within others, I encourage you follow an Instagram we’ve set up where we discuss this very topic in depth. No White Saviors is a team comprised of 3 East African nationals and myself. We have all been involved in the development sector at varying capacities, and share a common interest in seeing change happen in development and missions around the globe. The truest work of missions should be making itself unnecessary. We want to talk about how we can make that happen.