Your Good Intentions are Not Above Scrutiny or Critique

“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” – Teju Cole

Dear Do-Gooder,

Thank you for sending your soap slivers and yoga mats to Haiti. Thank you for sending your cast-off clothes to ‘Africa.’ Thank you for sending your bright-eyed, privileged and clueless high schoolers and undergraduates to teach girls and women in the “slums of the Third World” ‘life skills.’ Thank you for sending your used underwear and bras to ‘prevent rape’ in the Congo. No doubt, your soap slivers saved a restavek from a childhood of hard labor and limited access to education, and that yoga mat afforded an earthquake-displaced Haitian person a modicum of comfort after two years in a makeshift shelter. And another African child found dignity in the cast-off clothes that flooded their local markets. And the denizens of the “Third World slums” thank the voluntourists who teach them what they already know while taking photographs with ‘street children’ for their Facebook and Instagram albums.

Yes, that was sarcasm. My real point is that giving back and doing good is not simply a matter of good intentions. Intent is not affect. Well-meaning people have done a great deal of damage- especially when backed by Western notions of universalism, an unassailable benevolence, and the cape of the White Savior Complex. Your good intentions are not above reproach, and your work, less so. If you really want to give back and do good, you’d start at home. There is need in your backyard. There is inequality in your community. You don’t need to fly overseas to find need. But, if you’re less interested in serving and more interested in “helping” or “giving to” or “giving voice to” The Other, there is an entire industry that will cater to your wants without putting you out of your comfort zone. You can stay in hotels where the affluent ‘locals’ and higher-ranked aid workers live, and descend upon the ‘needy’ with your cameras and limited training and skills. If that’s what you want, you don’t have to look far to find it, because it is the status quo.

The true test is this: if there were no cameras and no one was there to pat you on the back for ‘doing good’ (in spite of the actual results), would you do it? Are you here to do the work or are you here for the cookies and kudos? Do you want to be part of the solution, or do you just want to be able to say “I was there”? “At least I’m doing something” is not necessary, let alone sufficient. The work is hard. The work is repetitive. The work isn’t necessarily about solutions, because there is profit in band-aid solutions.

We don’t need more “taskforces” “panels” or “boards” to offer ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ of the ‘Third World’ from the comfort of privileged spaces. We don’t need more Western voluntourists with their missionary zeal and cultural imperialism. We don’t need more Native Informants in the Diaspora in the metropolis speaking for their counterparts in the Global South. What we do need are more people willing to set aside their egos and support those who are already doing the work at the community level without deigning to speak for or “give voice” to them. We need to amplify their voices without filtering or distorting their words to suit our aims.

Now, if I offer a critique, I also offer solutions or avenues for improvement. If you want to start at home, I recommend VolunteerMatch, which allows you to find local opportunities for volunteering. If you really want to give money and support invest in local, community-led initiatives- particularly on the continent of Africa, I recommend Africans in the Diaspora (AiD), which enables people all over the world to invest in organizations who are already doing the work on the ground.

Recommended Reading:

Teju Cole’s The White Savior Industrial Complex 

2 Comments

  1. I wonder if you’ve ever written something that addresses how the white savior complex intersects with trauma theory? Is it a mistake to apply the same idea to the notion of ‘voicing for’ a traumatized subject?

    1. Hi Rachel!

      No, I haven’t, but I am sure that others have. It’s a very timely topic! I’d definitely say that it is a mistake- or at the very least- a fraught act to “voice” for traumatic subjects.

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