White savior complexes, hurt feelings and the undue pressure put on writers of color

Teju Cole has a deeply nuanced and informative piece at the Atlantic Monthly about a phenomenon that now finally has a name: the White Savior Industrial Complex. According to Cole, the specific type of activism where white and/or other privileged people enter communities, countries and cultural contexts that are not their own, is still a site rife with misunderstanding, assumptions, faulty generalizations and ultimately, misguided “do-gooding.” His piece was in response to Kony 2012 and in defense of a series of poignant tweets, including:

@tejucole 5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

I suppose you could see how these tweets were controversial–except that they are totally correct. So, really the only people that are going to be offended by them are people whose very work relies on them always thinking everything they do is good, and to help people, and worst of all, irrespective of their race. Cole was forced to spend much of the article defending the minutiae of the tweets that were retweeted, defended and debated endlessly, but ultimately ruffled some feathers. The kind of feathers that rely on the White Savior Industrial Complex.

After laying out the very real considerations that people of color are tasked with if they ever want to critique anything ever, he responds to Nicholas Kristof’s potentially hurt feelings for being grouped in with the “white savior,”

It’s only in the context of this neutered language that my rather tame tweets can be seen as extreme. The interviewer on the radio show I listened to asked Kristof if he had heard of me. “Of course,” he said. She asked him what he made of my criticisms. His answer was considered and genial, but what he said worried me more than an angry outburst would have:

“There has been a real discomfort and backlash among middle-class educated Africans, Ugandans in particular in this case, but people more broadly, about having Africa as they see it defined by a warlord who does particularly brutal things, and about the perception that Americans are going to ride in on a white horse and resolve it. To me though, it seems even more uncomfortable to think that we as white Americans should not intervene in a humanitarian disaster because the victims are of a different skin color.”

Cole, rightly notes, this is a problematic response on behalf of Kristof. I would add that it is also childish and something I would expect someone in elementary school to say, not a famous columnist for the New York Times. Are you going to tell me next that you don’t “see” race like Stephen Colbert or that you are so happy that there are so many different kinds of people in the world and you see them all as your kin?

Kristof’s response asserts a certain type of holier-than-thou supremacy where he mitigates any possibility that there is a problematic relationship between a white person and a person of color–even that there is a history of problematic relationships between white people and people of color when it comes to social welfare. Instead, it is flattened to banal ideas of racial harmony and helping others.

As a result of Kristof’s continually fragile persona, relying so much on his white savior complex, Cole is forced to “tread lightly.”

I want to tread carefully here: I do not accuse Kristof of racism nor do I believe he is in any way racist. I have no doubt that he has a good heart. Listening to him on the radio, I began to think we could iron the whole thing out over a couple of beers. But that, precisely, is what worries me. That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.

I am sure, calling Kristof a racist wouldn’t have gotten this piece published at the Atlantic, nor would it have gotten such tremendous circulation. And calling him a racist would defeat the larger point which is that this is not really about whether Kristof is or isn’t a racist. Kristof benefits from a very specific type of global racism and has a long history of saying problematic things about people of color. Sadly, unintentional or intentional is not really relevant when it comes to “helping people” since the unintentional harm is sometimes the worst. Specifically, Kristof relies on the historical narrative that (dare I say) Gayatri Spivak long ago named the “white man saves brown woman from brown man” a holdover from colonial times and a legacy that continues to have very real consequences in our foreign policy and overseas NGO work, especially the stuff motivated by women’s rights.

Yes, people like Kristof and Oprah, bring critical attention to some of the worlds’ most deeply disgusting and heart-wrenching problems–but they do it at a cost. They directly benefit from the power relations that perpetuate those problems and the solutions attached to them. A knee-jerk reaction to this critique may be, “at least they are doing something,” and “wow, I guess we can’t really do anything” but this is ultimately lazy thinking. It’s not that their hearts are not in the right places, it’s that their analysis isn’t–as long as the West has the kind of economic, cultural and militaristic stronghold over places like the countries of Africa–our change efforts do not target the root or causes of oppression. Our main goal should be lobbying the government on our own soil–not short-term solutions that make us feel like we “done good.”

Transnational feminists have long critiqued Western intervention tactics whether around social and women’s issues (“The Search for the Afghan Girl”) or economic (IMF funded structural adjustment programs). For example, as I have written before–calling out the deplorable conditions of women and girls in Afghanistan was the exact rhetoric used by the Bush administration to engage in military intervention in Afghanistan. This is one of the many examples where well-intentioned awareness raising and the hope of changing conditions led to some kind of state-sanctioned, military endorsed violence upon a community you are trying to “uplift.” And maybe this is where we differ–but long-term military campaigns don’t really do the people of those countries much good.

Cole makes all these points really well. I am more concerned with his larger point–which is the limited avenues we as people of color have to call out racism and racists. He himself has to explain how he comes from a place of privilege–an unfair pressure put on writers of color so they are not laughed out of white circles of thought. And it’s a trap, a trap he himself knowingly falls in to, a trap that I am continually catching myself from falling in–that awkward moment we have to backtrack and apologize for rightfully calling out racism.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t say this since I did take an fly in an airplane earlier this week and have a computer, iphone and ipad–but I’m going to say it anyway: sometimes, when you are trying to help my “people,” you’re being a fucking racist.

So, let me not mince my words: I’m not critiquing the need for self-reflection and recognizing where you fall within lines of privilege–where you are speaking from or as academics call it your “standpoint epistemology.” But it should be a standard everyone is held to, not just people of color because they dared to point out, well, the truth.

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