Surviving the Savior Complex

Teju Cole published a very well-written piece in The Atlantic yesterday titled “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” I would highly recommend the essay to anyone, and in particular anyone involved in or interested in activism. Cole talks specifically about the recent Kony and Invisible Children phenomenon, but his essay is also a broader critique of recent American methods of activism and journalistic language that both cater more to protecting the comfort of the privileged few than to effecting any real change. Cole says it better than I can, and there are many good lines to illustrate this point, but here is one choice quotation:

People of color, women, and gays — who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles.

Anything but well-mannered language would risk making people, such as privileged white, heterosexual men, uncomfortable, and it is no coincidence that these people still control these centers of influence. “Neutered language,” as Cole labels it, is preferable because it is easier to swallow than the kind of language he used in his tweet above. And then theres Kony 2012. The Kony video resorts to sensationalism instead of such soft language, but still caters to the needs of the White Industrial Savior Complex over the people it purports itself to be helping. The video gained popularity because it allowed many (white) Americans to feel better about themselves by spreading its message. The narrative positions Ugandans as hapless victims of a single villain in need of a savior; it makes it seem easy for privileged white American to jump in and fulfill this role. This renders the Ugandans as passive and completely powerless to change their own circumstances.

It may seem a broad jump to make, but Cole’s essay made me think about why we at SACOMSS include “pro-survivor” as part of our mandate. Survivor is not a perfect word for everyone who has experienced sexual assault, nor is it a label anyone should be forced to take on. We use survivor however to supplant the word “victim,” the more common term given to people who’ve experienced sexual assault.

When someone is ascribed the label of victim they are rendered passive and thus unable to fight. To self-identify as a victim is another story, and anyone’s decision to do so should be honored. To label someone a victim however also opens up the door for another person to act as savior, whether or not the “victim” wanted this in the first place. The savior is allowed to be active, and the victim becomes passive. The act of helping then becomes more about the person doing the help rather than the person receiving it. One person is helpless, the other powerful. Rather providing aid, confining someone to the status of victim can reproduce the same structure that allowed harm to be done to this person in the first place; the structure wherein the privileged few possess all power and control, and others none.

This does not mean helping others always come out of a selfish need, or that anyone’s desire to help is always misplaced. Truly helping though requires, as Cole says, some humility and respect.

It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.

Some of Cole’s words may very well make certain people uncomfortable. His series of tweets from a few days ago (of which one is pictured at the top) certainly did. Unlike the Kony video, his words may have forced people to come face to face with their privilege; possessing privilege also means being blind to it, and thus looking at it can be an uncomfortable experience. It is a necessary step to take though when fighting for any cause, and is part of why activism is such hard work.

The White Savior Industrial Complex [The Atlantic] via Racialicious

Edited to add: For more on privilege, read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” (via Dear Black Woman)

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