Almost two years ago I did my internship in the so-called development sector. I joined the communications team for a Dutch organization that carried out their work in various different countries in Africa and South Asia. I loved my job and I was very excited to share people’s stories and advocate for change. This organization was more progressive than many others in the same sector. For instance, they had a very strict policy about photographing people in a dignified and empowering way. I was so relieved that our photography repository wasn’t filled with little malnourished and underdressed black children. We told stories, feminist stories, that present people in an empowered and commendable way.
Yet, as time went by and I started to understand the inner workings of the organization, I started to become more critical of the organization. Asking myself why are we developing manuals, workshops and learning materials for people in Uganda? Why are we setting people in Indonesia up to the Western standard of gender liberation? I caviled at my colleagues who had worked their entire lives advancing and profiting from capitalism and suddenly got a mid-life crisis and decided they wanted to “give back”. And there were even moments where, if it wasn’t for my crippling social anxiety, I would have shouted to everyone at the office “hey, I am a woman of color from a colonial territory, LISTEN TO ME”. I had all sorts of “good” ideas. Like making a video that puts Western people in the situations the people we worked for were in to encourage donations - like living a day without running water or access to a toilet. Another “golden” one was radically publishing a story about an unsafe abortion against the wishes of some of our donors, cause “fuck the patriarchy”, right? With no regards for the emotional and physical safety of the woman in the story.
What I failed to realize in my self righteous criticism of the “development” sector and my colleagues’ white saviorism, was that I too was being a “white” savior. Yes, a black activist woman who lived her entire life on a colonial territory (not in Africa or Asia), but still a white savior. The way that white people often see us as this homogenous group of people, can be contagious. My experiences, while also negatively impacted by Western imperialism, weren’t the same or even comparable to that of a woman in Kenya or India. Yet, there I was pitching ideas to make the struggle relatable for the endorsement of white, western, privileged people. People who need to be convinced not to spend those 100 euros at the H&M but to donate them to charity instead, so they can feel less guilty about “treating themselves” at the Zara the next month. I was weaponizing poverty and the results of western capitalism and imperialism to advocate for my white-feminism. I said that I was all for people making their own choices, as long as they were choices that coincided with my Western indoctrination of liberation.
Today is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. And as activists and allies, it is logical that we feel drawn to the development sector or to advocate for better CSR in the companies we will work for. And just like I did, we might often find ourselves feeling like we know best, and sometimes we do know better than the “giving back to society” people in our organizations. But other times, we are just being white saviors.
Fighting against mass poverty can feel like a big web of what NOT to do. Just try googling it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s just a bunch of articles about how you’re doing it wrong - which you are (we all are). It can feel like taking a multiple choice test and all the options are wrong. As infuriating and discouraging as that may be, it isn't illogical. It is a system that shouldn’t even exist to begin with. It is a system that results from human greed, supremacy and desire for power; all things still very much alive and well. While I still don’t have the answer, probably never will, I do want to share with you a couple of things I’ve learned to fight against my ever-present (black) white savior complex.
You know nothing, Jon Snow
You don't know anything and you will never know anything. Yes, I meant to type “anything” not “everything”. I took a philosophy course about two years ago, in an effort to get out of my comfort zone. And I was definitely out of my comfort zone! When my professor said “everything is relative, so even the theory of everything being relative is relative. So is everything really relative?” my brain exploded. But it taught me one thing: what we as a society deem as our truth and our reality constantly changes with every piece of new knowledge that we have. But since we will never know everything that there is to know, we will never have full knowledge - and therefore never have access to the full truth. While that thought gave me a lot of anxiety at first, it helped me realize that the goal of learning and raising my own awareness wasn’t to become the ultimate “woke” person, but rather to create space for new realities where people feel more and more included. Once you’ve come to terms with that (relative) truth, you’ll be more open to continuous learning.
Something’s got to give
The reason I was so critical of the “development” sector was because it shouldn't exist. Yes, I had to come to terms with the knowledge that my source of employment shouldn't exist. This industry that was created to tend to white guilt but also to white supremacy, to be set in Western countries, employing Western people, funded by a tiny fraction of the PR budget of the imperialism and capitalism profit margin of Western countries and rich people avoiding taxes, with Western people making decisions about Southern livelihood; should not exist. We can try convincing ourselves that we are needed with arguments about how money is misused because of corruption and financial illiteracy, but we would just be promoting the white/Western supremacist narrative. We can tell ourselves that the main fraction of donations and funding stays here, in the West, to pay for our paychecks, office space, technology, frequent travels to the South, office parties, etc. because it is imperative for our work towards eradicating our “poverty”, but deep inside we know that doesn’t make any sense.
We can try to make the industry more inclusive by making it “intersectional”, “more diverse” or “by shifting the power”, but in the end: something’s got to give. Southern liberation can't coexist with white/Western supremacy and the development sector is the epitome of white saviorism . And as long as I am enabling and abiding the ideology that I and my industry are entitled to making decisions to fight mass poverty in countries in Africa and South Asia, the more I am complicit in perpetuating unsustainable change. Yet, this is all I can do with the limited resources I possess. So what’s next?
I will always be a white savior
And unless you remove yourself from the equation, you will too. And you might find yourself frequently wondering how am I supposed to be involved if I’m removing myself from the equation? Am I a bad person for donating to NGOs? How do I advocate against mass poverty? Can I even advocate against mass poverty? I can’t say that I have the answer or that I am ready to remove myself from the equation just yet. All I can do right now, in my reality, with my truths is remind myself that I don’t get to make decisions about people’s livelihood and come to terms with the fact that I need to advocate for the eradication of my job.
In the same way, I invite you fellow activists, advocates and allies to reflect on the spaces you possess and ask yourself if it is you who should be occupying that space. Hopefully the answer will make you uncomfortable. Uncomfortable to realize how you’ve been indoctrinated to believe and unintentionally promote white/ Western supremacy through your white saviorism.