It’s the holiday season! For many of us, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the vibes of joy and giving. It’s a time that we associate with generosity.
Financial and charitable organizations list Thanksgiving to December 31st as the time that organizations receive the most financial gifts. And providing funds to help good work continue is a noble thing. A necessary thing.
The line that we have to navigate around this time is putting the needs of those we aim to help over our own needs of personal fulfillment. It makes us feel good to help others. It fills that cup of being a “good samaritan”. And especially for those of us who are parents, we want to raise our children to ultimately be good people. One way to do that is to be a role model in charitable giving of our money and time.
And in that time, that Saturday that we serve in a soup kitchen, that early morning where we walk around passing out blankets, that time spent helping low-income and poverty-stricken folks shop for free or low-budget Christmas gifts for their kids, it can be tempting to snap a quick photo (or several) of ourselves helping out the “less fortunate.”
A caption where we humble-brag about giving of our time and energy to those who are truly in need seems harmless, but in actuality it centers us in the narrative. It puts us as the helper at the crux of the story rather than dignifying the person we’re helping with a platform to speak their truth. It puts us smack dab in the center of a square photo, surrounded by those who are needy and potentially have not consented to be photographed, as the “likes” pile on. This is a phenomenon that I have to admit I’ve just recently learned about, and it’s called being a “white savior.”
What is that and how can it be a bad thing to be some sort of savior? A white savior is a white person who acts to help non-white people, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving. It’s all a little bit of a put-off, no? We’re just trying to help, so surely people should be grateful for our time and energy!
But what seems like the right and most-helpful thing to do in our minds may in reality not be what people truly need. It’s easy to get an idea of what helping should look like, and diving into providing the aid that you want to provide. There are great people doing great work in the world, and those people have been living in situations or working on causes for years. They have learned, they have listened, and they have discovered the ways in which people in that sector can be truly helped. When we dive in, ready to volunteer with our own mindset about what that should look like and with an attitude of being so helpful to these poor people, we miss the mark. In many cases, the work that is being done by us can be even more damaging.
I learn best by seeing real-life examples, so this was made even more clear to me after doing some research about examples of this phenomenon in our media. White-saviors are something that are portrayed by our entertainment machine so often that they’re ingrained in our DNA as heart-warming, beautiful, and what we should all aim for. Here are some examples from a few popular, award-winning films:
- Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers
- Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave
- Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side
These are situations in cinema where children or people of color could not move forward in life without a white person swooping in to save the day. (More on this phenomenon in film over at Teen Vogue.) This is problematic because in this centering of whiteness and white characters, the people of color end up becoming props, which only perpetuates ideas of otherness and unimportance, which then establishes a status quo of racism. (Please go read the rest of author Fariha Róisín’s piece on Hollywood’s white savior complex and colonialism. It’s an eye opening piece that challenged my thinking on this topic.)
People who ask us not to be white saviors are not saying “don’t help”, they’re asking us to go in with a mindset to learn and an attitude of humility and respect for the people who we are helping. To echo what we’ve said before here, it’s easy to look at a person holding up a sign asking for help on the side of the road with some sort of high and mighty pity, but in reality, there but for the grace of God go I. And we need to remember that we’re never very far from the possibility of needing immense help ourselves.
There’s a quote that’s been attributed to many different figures throughout history that’s always struck me as powerful, and it goes something like this:
“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
I draw a comparison between that quote and what we’re talking about here today in that when we remove the personhood from someone, when we group that person in with a bunch of people and paint with a broad brush, we remove their humanity. We don’t see them as Maria who fled an abusive relationship with nothing but her children and the clothes on her back so that they could survive. We see her as “homeless and in need of help.” She may very well be those things, but volunteers heading to a homeless shelter and putting ourselves at the center of a story, i.e. by posting to Instagram that you’re here to help the homeless in your limited time off from work, takes away from the real needs of people by way of accruing likes while allowing people to think they’ve somehow been involved by simply encouraging you and telling you “you’re such a good person!”
You probably are a good person, but this isn’t about you. If you really want to help, figure out how to center the stories of the people affected (in a safe way of course.) Figure out how to forge relationships and connect with people. Find out what brought them where they are today, and what could be done to prevent that from happening to others. Understand that “helping people” doesn’t mean you require some sort of award or medal. And, importantly, don’t eclipse the work and efforts of those who have been out there for long before you arrived, those that know from experience what they’re talking about.
I’ll be honest: this is a hard pill for me to swallow. My personality type thrives on praise. I still report back to my parents in the hopes that they’ll be proud of my endeavors. But I’m not helping those less fortunate by posting a photo of myself serving a meal; I’m helping my own ego. I’m showing everyone that I’m a good person and I’m out here doing a good thing.
What’s a better way to spread the word? Literally spread the word. Let people know how they can help out. People are frequently only one challenge with detailed instructions away from getting involved in something themselves; maybe all they need is someone to encourage them to take the next step. Maybe what they need is a reminder that with just a couple small differences in our lives, we could be like Maria or any other people seeking aid and shelter. What stories can you (safely) center to bring attention to the right causes or issues?
Engage in how we might profit off of and perpetuate racism. Be open to the fact that the system benefits some people more than others, and look at how that can be changed.
Use whatever position you have in life to raise up those who don’t have as loud a voice in the conversation as you do.
Are you a CEO of a bank? What does your staff look like? Is it a diverse group that brings many perspectives to the table or is it a largely white and male cast of characters? When people of color from all backgrounds don’t have a seat at the table, their needs are not being appropriately discussed or addressed.
Are you in a position of power in local government? Who is missing from the discussion around you? Is there diversity amongst your colleagues and staff? Representation matters; studies and anecdotal data show this. One thing that helps low income communities is having people who look like them and come from the same circumstances as them in positions of power, because they get it. They know exactly how to help.
Are you a stay at home mom? Do some research on good quality diverse educational materials for your children. And what do I mean by educational materials? Books! Books are a great way to bring diversity and differing perspectives into your children’s lives, and it’s such a simple way to do so. Books take readers on an adventure, so let their minds wander into different lives and see different ways of doing things. As an added bonus, bringing normalcy to “different” is a good way to prevent bullying. Children tend to act aggressively when they don’t understand things, and this can bring lasting scars to the victims. Do your part by educating your children on the beauty of accepting and loving all people that are different than each of us.
Are you a teacher? What stories are your students learning in your classrooms? History is written by the victors, so are we getting the perspective of those who did not come out on top? Are we teaching American History from the perspective of the Natives who were here first? Are we teaching about more African history than just the origins of slavery? Are we teaching about the conflicts that the US government has stoked in Central and South America, leading to the destabilization of countries and current ongoing crises that send their refugees to our borders, where we treat them as less than animals and punish them for being products of a problem we caused?
What kind of platform do you have in your life, and how can you use it to bring a less-heard voice up to your level?
This holiday season, give generously. Sacrificially. And quietly. Spend time learning and loving. Spend your life working to elevate those who should be elevated. Love on people by giving them time and giving them your humility.
Here is a diverse list of children’s books for all ages, from Charnaie over at Here Wee Read. Gift copies of books that show diversity and allow everyone to see themselves in a character to children, schools, libraries, so that all children feel accepted and feel confident in showing love to others, even those whom they see as different.
Why Hollywood's White Savior Obsession is an Extension of Colonialism
How to Avoid Becoming a White Savior
How not to Become a White Savior
How to Avoid Being Part of the White Savior Industrial Complex
A Guide on How Not to Act like a 'white savior' While Volunteering in Africa
Here's What a White Savior is, and Why it's the Opposite of Helpful
Wee Read Diverse Books
Why Year-End is the Most Generous Time of Year