I have been wrestling with how to write about this for months. Starts and stops, lots of unfinished first sentences and barely coherent lists. Then I read this essay after the Rick Warren and race conversation flared up last week. When White People Don’t Know They Are Being White by Jody Louise on Between Worlds. She is humble yet forthright in the piece, a balance which is incredibly challenging to achieve around such a sensitive and potentially volatile topic. She spurred me on, inspired me, and clearly, informed the title of this post.
I’m giving you loads of links here that will lead to other links and I encourage you to take the time to read this stuff. I have been and don’t think I’ll ever be the same. It is hard, challenging, might make you angry. That’s okay, wrestle with it. Join me as I wrestle with it.
I am not surprised by, but continue to be disappointed in, the western attitude toward the developing world. It is an attitude I see often, though not exclusively, among Christians. It is an attitude of superiority, a god-complex. An attitude that communicates an underlying assumption, intentionally or not, that the rich westerner is the one with power and authority and agency. As this is communicated, of course the opposite is communicated as well. The local person is weak, a victim, and helpless. The rich westerner must charge in to fix things, build things, challenge the status quo.
These kinds of stories…give a paternalistic picture of urban communities as mere recipients. They do not show the heroic community leaders that are in every urban neighborhood, people working hard with little resources and little recognition… Cure for the White Savior Complex by Shawn Casselberry
For a horrifying example read this article (or don’t and just be satisfied with the title) in Glamour and then the comment section: Meet Mindy Budgor, the World’s First Female Maasai Warrior. Some people call this the white savior complex and there is most definitely an aspect of race involved, the conversations overlap at many points, but it is more than a skin color issue.
One point that must be made is that I am a rich westerner from a Christian background living in the developing world. My husband is a professor at the University of Djibouti. I am trying to figure this all out, trying to do it well, with integrity and authenticity. I am, like all of us, a work in progress.
So, when does the rich westerner not know they (we) are being a rich westerner?
When the rich westerner doesn’t need to actually get involved with those in the developing world because they can simply buy a cool t-shirt. I was hungry and you bought a cool t-shirt is all about the westerner and is not how Jesus talked about giving to the needy, without the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. Matthew 6:1-3
When the rich westerner filters a cross-cultural experience through their own lens of comfort, possessions, affluence, community, and spirituality. This gives a distorted view that puts themselves and their values at the center. The other is seen as exotic, shocking, unusually positive or unusually negative. There is only room for the extreme, no space left over for commonality or understanding.
“Before we declare a woman’s life, foreign from ours in almost every physical detail, ‘poor,’ we need to seek to deeply understand that woman, her background, her place in the community, her desires, her talents. And we may discover that she isn’t poor at all but is a thriving, active, content participant in a societal system that works, different as it may be to our western eyes.” Who is Poor? Who Decides?
When the rich westerner views or presents the local as an object lesson not a relationship. The poor ‘African’ child with hungry eyes and a ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to give generously. The poor woman with the hungry eyes and the ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to find joy in a bowl of rice. This turns the distinctive person into a representative person and strips them of their uniqueness. It is a dangerous act of simplification (J.R. Goudeau). We can all learn from each other, we need to. I am constantly learning from the people around me (and vice versa, I hope) but let us put these lessons into the context of relationships and not form objects out of them.
When the rich westerner sees and shares what they expect to see. They want to see or take or share photos of children in torn dresses and ramshackle housing slums but not the fancy Kempinski Hotel, not the skyscrapers downtown, not the developed shopping malls and haut cuisine restaurants. Poverty and violence and disease and hunger fit the narrative the west prefers, expects. It is easier to continue that than to swim against it.
“These sights carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing that happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and these horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
When the rich westerner comes away after spending a week or a month in a country and claims cultural competency, is now an expert because they have eaten that food! Danced in that festival! Worn a headscarf! These things are merely the tip of the cultural iceberg. It is often said that the longer an expatriate lives in a place the less competent they feel to write about it, I can attest to the truth of this. The longer I am here the more I know how much I do not know, the more I need locals to correct me, clarify, the more (and deeper) questions I ask.
Jody Louise’s post introduces the term cultural humility and it is a good one. Katherine Boo talks about the earned fact and while not everyone will have the time to spend three years researching a single slum community, everyone does have the capability of asking questions. Of being a learner. Of not taking a leadership position but serving beneath a local person.
When the rich westerner believes they are here to save people. We are here to help, to come alongside, to try and do some good, to learn, to be in community. God alone performs the saving work.
When rich western Christians impose their theology on a local fellowship. Many books (written by rich western Christians) on discipleship and Bible study materials assume that everyone faces the same needs and can meet those needs in the same way. I once heard an American say, “Let’s just translate the catechism for this people group. We’ve already figured out all the theology they’ll need.”
When the rich westerner talks about Africa but not Nigeria. Africa but not Uganda. Africa but not Lesotho. Michael W. Smith sings a song: A New Hallelujah. “From Africa to Australia, from Brazil to China, from New York down to Houston.” The United States gets to be named by city, most of the rest of the world by country name, and Africa is one solid chunk of continent. We need to learn our details, our facts, we need to name places accurately. Naming implies seeing, honoring, respecting.
When the rich westerner presents a single story, a story often about hunger, disease, filth, violence. About all the broken and lacking things. A popular blog series (by an author I much admire, respect, and who often cuts to my very soul) talks about the generic Africa and repeatedly mentions hunger, repeatedly shows photos of children in torn clothes, mentions their lack of forks and spoons, talks about the bleeding of Africa in her red dirt. This is not Africa. This is Uganda. This is not even Uganda, this is a particular village where it might be a cultural practice to not use forks and spoons. I have eaten with wealthy Djiboutians who used their hands. Rich westerners need to be very careful in how they interpret and present what they see. I am not of the “don’t tell these stories” position. I believe stories must be told and I will tell them, but we need to be careful about assumptions.
When the rich westerner presents the other as victims by focusing only on issues like rape, trafficking, poverty while ignoring local initiatives, leaders, community strengths, progress, and the reality that these people have lived here for decades, centuries, without a westerner intervening on their behalf.
When the rich westerner presents the other as holy in their suffering by focusing only on their generosity, smiles, and non-verbal communication while ignoring issues like greed, selfishness, gossip, and cruelty. Katherine Boo refers to this as the “western conceit that poverty is ennobling.” This kind of one-dimensional presentation makes cardboard characters out of real, complex people.
Rich westerner, and please know I am talking to myself as much as anyone else, we must be aware of our position, our privilege, the way history and current social structures affect us, our view of the world, and our interaction with the world.
“The system is set up for us, and gives us power without us even having to ask for it… When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done.” Jody Louise
I have been that bull in the china shop. I have behaved with superiority and arrogance, have made things worse by stepping in to help, have plowed past the opinions and voices of local people in my exuberance.
Lest I leave you feeling paralyzed (which I often feel), I am not saying do nothing, say nothing. Next week I will share just one example, of many, of how I have failed and will write about the difference between good intention and good practice. The following week I’ll share an example of positive progress, ways to move forward.
What would you add to this conversation – rebukes to any wrong-thinking I’ve presented here or thoughts on moving in a positive direction?
*image credit Olga Lednichenko via Flickr