Holding up the Mirror: Recognizing and Dismantling the “White Savior Complex”
It’s hard to believe that I am over two months in to my time in Budondo and my work with the BIC. Things have been moving quickly and I am still trying to keep up with all of the cultural, intellectual, physical, and emotional dynamics of this experience. Over the past month we have had visitors from Mama Hope and other Uganda-based organizations, have received a $1,000 grant, have fostered a partnership with French Montana and Adam Levine to help fund the expansion of Suubi Hospital, and have strengthened our main income-generating project, the Motorbike Loan Scheme, with the purchase of four new motorbikes. Further, after working with the leaders of the BIC to figure out how to most effectively spend the remainder of my fundraising money, we’ve agreed to bolster our Sustainability Program and purchase five more motorbikes for the Motorbike Loan Scheme. Spending on income-generating projects continues to bring money to the BIC over time, moving toward an eventual independence from Mama Hope Global Advocate funding and ensuring self-sufficiency.
Layering all of these dynamics is my recent connection with a Uganda-based group, No White Saviors. This group calls out development organizations that perpetuate the White Savior Complex, the self-serving assumption among white people from developed nations that they should be saving poor people in Africa. The White Savior Complex in practice looks like this: foreign volunteers doing work that can be done by local people and local leadership, voluntourists exploiting local people by treating them as entertainment and taking photos of them in their day to day life (often without permission), international adoptions through illegitimate means (systems are often broken and adopted children aren’t necessarily orphans), the general idea that white foreigners should be adopting children in Africa as a means of saving them* (this is an issue on a systematic level), voluntourists exploiting the lives, stories, faces, and culture of African people through social media (often in the form of selfies with African children — imagine if random tourists posted selfies with your kid?), and storytelling that exoticizes the community they are working in (talking about how “poor but happy people are” — an oversimplification of human emotion).
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which White Saviorism manifests throughout East Africa. As a white woman with a range of experiences in international development, I too have operated under White Savior assumptions and have made mistakes in the countries I’ve lived and worked in. I’ve captured what I thought were cool, cultural photos of people in their daily life without permission. I have grown impatient with the work pace of certain cultures, internally and wrongly assuming the U.S. work ethic is the most efficient. I have oversimplified people and cultures by portraying the “poor but happy” narrative. I have over-exalted customs and traits of other cultures in a way that exoticizes them. In the times that I am not in the mood for confrontation, I still shrug off comments, remarks, and perspectives that have White Savior undertones (that, my friends, is privilege). Learning my way out of deeply internalized White Saviorism, and committing myself to always dismantling these notions, is an ongoing process.
Learning more about the power dynamics that exist within this line of work have made me question my own desire to work in development — why have I chosen to work with underserved populations abroad but not in the U.S.? Has my love for travel influenced my desire to work in an industry that fosters travel, and is that problematic? Even in my current role as a Global Advocate with the BIC, even in supporting local leadership, and even while actively challenging White Saviorism, I still question my role and very presence as a white development worker in Uganda.
I can trace back to the moment that I decided I wanted to work in international development and can now recognize the white savior undertones in that decision. I was moved by the Invisible Children documentary that we watched in my freshman International Affairs 101 course. The American documentarian, Jason Russell, follows the lives of child soldiers in Uganda and highlights abuses committed by rebel leader Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The film spirals into a mass call (on a mostly American audience) to stop Kony, with Russell urging his viewers to “stop at nothing” until Kony is brought to justice. While the documentary does raise awareness about human rights abuses and conflict in Uganda, it severely perpetuates the idea that Americans can and should “save” African people. This notion oversimplifies a multi-dimensional problem and affirms the White Savior Complex, suggesting that we (Americans) can and should be ending a civil war in Uganda. Even more problematic, this indicates that Ugandans lack the capacity to solve their own problems.
Activism, advocacy, and awareness are important, and I will give Invisible Children credit for encouraging all those things. The issue, I think, lies in the tone of the documentary. The call to action on (mostly) young white Americans to take to the streets and “cover the night” — an awareness campaign to post Kony’s photo in cities across the U.S. — is extremely militant. When Russell calls his audience to action, there is a backdrop of dramatic and inspirational music with hundreds of young people taking to the streets, dressed in all black with bandanas wrapped around their faces. The dramatics denotes the feeling that we are going to war on a rebel group across the world. The call to action puts us in the position of “savior”. Whether or not we realize it, this position lends itself to an internalized assumption of superiority over the people who “need help”, oversimplifies a complex conflict, and becomes a self-serving response to the emotions of white people in America (doing something to feel better about feeling bad).
Though I didn’t realize it then, my motivations to pursue the field of international development were deeply rooted in a desire, or complex, to be a white savior. In the decade since my freshman year of college, high on emotions of wanting to “help people” and deciding that I want to pursue development work, I have committed myself to the ongoing work of learning and listening. This work includes objectively questioning my feelings and frustrations while traveling, recognizing my power and position within the societies I am working/living in, and assessing the impact of my presence and work despite how good my intentions are. Since the election of Trump, I have also committed myself to a deep engagement with the many educators that exist on social media (particularly Instagram) who dedicate so much time and energy to teaching the public about complex issues like racism, sexism, ablism, white saviorism, etc. These accounts have held a constructive mirror up to my position and impact of power in development work and have been monumental to my personal and professional learning process.
Learning my way out of things like the White Savior Complex means listening and being uncomfortable. It means having a gut reaction of “that’s not fair” and letting it go to listen and understand. It means dealing with the critical mirror being held up. In becoming more aware of the ways in which I have internalized privilege, power, and — specific to my career path — saviorism, I am able to improve my interactions in ways that are healthy and empowering to the communities I am working in.
So where does this leave us? For starters, we need to start using terminology that doesn’t reinforce power structures. For the purpose of this blog, I have been using the term “development” for lack of a better term— but this is flawed. Binary terminology like “developed” vs. “developing”, First and Third World, Global North and Global South are divisive and imply positions of power. They are also not entirely accurate. I am not sure what the most appropriate words are, but as a field we need to move toward more accurate and mutually reinforcing terminology.
Next, we need to be hyper aware of colonialism and the power balance that historically exists between us and the communities we’re working in. We need to practice partnership and servant leadership. We need to actively ensure that local communities remain at the forefront of their organizations and projects. There must be a model of sustainability and regeneration of the projects being supported. We need to be sure that our work doesn’t create dependency — whatever work we contribute to should be able to operate in our absence.
As development workers, it is imperative that we assess if our entry into a community is necessary. What skills are we bringing that don’t already exist? Don’t volunteer to build a school when there are local construction workers that can do the job. An improved approach is to connect a community with resources and strategies that allow them to hire local labor. If you — and most importantly your partner organization — find that your skills and presence are beneficial to the organization, be sure to enter with an exit strategy. How will this work continue without being dependent on you?
I am confident in the ways in which I’ve supported the BIC — keeping local leadership and decision-making at the forefront, connecting the BIC to financial resources through grassroots fundraising and trusting them to spend it as they see fit for their organization and community, and sharing skills and knowledge through a respectful and dignified partnership. But as a white American woman working in development, I must always be critical of my role here. Even as I try to fight the systems of White Saviorism and harmful development practices, I can just as easily slip into the comforts of power structures and privilege that have been built for me. This is not unlike the role I play as a white woman in the U.S. — recognizing that, even as I try to fight against racist systematic structures, I can just as easily uphold those structures in benefitting from them. The key, in both instances, is recognizing that we are never separate from the systems of oppression that we benefit from and that we always need to stay in check.
*Questioning international adoption is a sensitive issue for many people. I am not here to suggest whether one should or shouldn’t pursue international adoption. I am, however, shining light on the systematic issues that belie foreign adoption —this includes the urge to “save” children from their own country or culture as well as the frequently illegal means by which children end up in foster care systems.