White People Helping

I read an article from Facebook about yet another white person who is out “saving the savages.” That might be a little harsh, but there does seem to be this savior complex with white people. We want to fix the world and be do-gooders but the attempts to help often turn out misguided and more than a little racist.

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This “white person comes to save the non-white people from their own systems” is a very common narrative. We see it all the time in movies and books.

But these white people really do want to help! Why am I being so hard on them? Isn’t it good that people are trying to make the world a better place?

Here’s what I think happens…

Imagine you are a white person and you’re going to volunteer at a soup kitchen because you want to feel good about yourself and how charitable you are. But when you get there, you expect that you’ll be the person supervising, organizing, or deciding on the menu. You can’t understand why they would waste your talents having you chop potatoes and taking orders from other people.

I think on a larger scale that is happening. When we want to help others, we first have to listen to them (Click to Tweet)You can’t decide what’s best for other people. If there is an issue that you feel is unfair and you’re passionate about it, then talk to the people who are in the situation. Ask them how you can help and work for them. They’re the bosses. That’s what being an ally is about.

You can be a white person and still help with racial or cultural issues, but you have to do it by putting yourself at the service of the people who are living the situation and who understand it. It’s your job to scrub the toilets if that’s what you’re asked to do, not write the business plan.


From the comments on the article

Today is scripture study over at the Premium White Hindu blog. We’re starting on the first three verses of the Bhagavad Gita.

About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • JustaGuy

    outstanding sister ji…thank you for posting this :)

  • justinwhitaker

    Great post, Ambaa. I’ve seen much of this myself and have mostly stepped back from ‘fist-shaking’ activists around me. One story that has stayed with me from 10 or so years ago was about a PeaceCorps (or similar org) that decided to dig a well for a village in Africa so that the women wouldn’t have to go so far to get water each day.

    It turned out that the journey down to the river for water had been the opportunity that women had to really talk and get to know one another away from their husbands and outside of their homes, and to pass on communal wisdom.

    So when the well was dug, that journey and wisdom-sharing opportunity was taken away and the lives of women in the village deteriorated greatly.

    It may actually be an apocryphal story, I’m not sure. But the lesson is important. When we mess with other people, based on our own limited presuppositions, the results are bound to be bad. As you said, if we want to help, we need to listen.

    Cheers, jw

    • Ambaa

      That’s a great story!

  • RtJJ77

    I’m not sure what this post has to do with “white people” anymore than “people.” Self-aggrandizement is not unique to any particular race, nor is being out of touch. And no, it is neither your “job” to write a business plan or scrub toilets, rather it is your option to offer the skills and capabilities you have and see how they can be of use. Finally, often times the person “living” the situation is incapable of “writing the business plan.” You cite the issue of homelessness. Many (though not all) of the people living this unfortunate situation lack an education, have serious mental or physical disadvantages, or a substance problem. Simply put, they are not capable of “writing the business plan.” You take the admiral and valid idea that one must listen and understand before they can effectively help, inject race into it, and demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how effective social service programs are structured. In social service, neither the client nor the organization is “the boss”–they are working together. The woman in the article has nothing to do with social service, and its unfortunate that one would stereotype the many “white people” (and others) who do NOT get press coverage, who are working hard every day to serve their fellow humans–including writing business plans.

    • Ambaa

      I’m actually speaking specifically about racial and cultural issues here.

      The soup kitchen was a metaphor to help show what I mean. I don’t know of anyone who would go into a soup kitchen and say, “We’re serving this tonight” without first talking to the organizers!

      In the same way, when we go to other cultures to help, we have to be aware of our biases and really listen to what those people are asking for.

      I see it most often with well-meaning white people and that’s certainly a trope in movies and other media (What would the Na-avi in Avatar do without their white savior?)

      I’m sorry I did a poor job conveying my meaning.