A response to: "White saviour complex/syndrome/trope"
I felt exercised to write this blog as a response to a blog by Mr Pran Patel that I read this morning. I want to say from the outset that I want to listen and engage with anyone's points of view, but felt on this occasion I wanted to contribute to the debate. And it is a debate, I might not be right. So here we go…
The title of the blog is “white saviour complex/syndrome/trope”. You can read it here.
Part 1 of the blog addresses “white saviour through charity work”.
It begins by presenting four images of global cities; Mumbai, Dar Es Salaam, London and New York. The writer says he would be “surprised if these images are the ones you would normally associate with South-East Asia or East Africa”. Really? You don’t think people could imagine that cities in East Africa and India could have some architectural similarities to Western cities?
Beneath the architecture and appearance in a photograph, Mumbai and Dar El Salaam, even within the city limits, experience levels of poverty that I’m afraid you simply wouldn’t see “en masse” in any western European city. The Mumbai Slums (pictured below) house people in conditions that we simply couldn’t imagine. 41.3% of people there live in Slums, that’s an estimated 9 million people living in the slums (2019 estimate).
(Mumbai Slum Housing)
If Mr Patel believes that the fact the UK has food banks with someone’s spare Marks and Spencer ready meals on the shelves could be comparable to this, I see this as a slight on the very people he’s trying to say we should have more respect for.
If I’d have told my new friends in Tanzania in 2006 that poverty in the UK is comparable to that in Tanzania, they would have laughed, and then if I’d taken them on a flight to any UK city, including London, they’d have probably punched me in the face. Apparently, we’ve been “trained” to think they are in a worse off state. I disagree - the global GDP stacked alongside any index you want to use will clearly show, factually, using cold hard data with no discrimination, that our western countries can’t even be put in the same league, never mind context, as most third world countries. Hence the phrase – third world. I can say after living in Tanzania for 6 months that the poverty was like nothing you would see in the any European country. People living in tiny mud huts, children wandering around all day with no school to go to, hardly any clothes to wear, no shoes on their feet, no money to buy any food. Orphans with nowhere to go, street kids everywhere with absolutely nothing, no home, no shelter, no food or drink, no education and most significant of all, no one to intervene on their behalf. Hospitals with no facilities for even the most basic of treatments – mattresses on floors, never mind beds. No mosquito nets in the hospitals. At times no running water, and certainly none you could drink. Regular electricity cuts or none at all. I saw things in Tanzania that I’m yet to encounter across my long stays in Spain and Slovenia and my extensive travels in France and Czech Republic.
To say people who want to help and give aid have some deeply in-built pseudo racist natural disposition of disrespect towards people of different races is simply mad in my opinion. That’s not to say that one in every however many people might see everything through racial lines because they are simply racist. However, most people that I have met in my life, of any colour or creed, just don’t see things that way – however much some want to claim it’s in every white persons conscious or unconscious mind.
To use the bloggers own arguments, it would surely have been “racist” for me to have ignored their suffering because of their skin colour? (the argument going that if they are white, I would happily have helped them?).
I don’t think labelling people with “white saviour” is helpful – judging people on the colour of their skin. Within this world view, I’m guessing a black person on their gap year who decided to go and help those less fortunate than themselves would also be suffering from some kind of saviour complex, but presumably not a white one?
Mr Patel once tweeted “#shock” when I defended the reputation of Winston Churchill (presumably implying I would do so because he’s a white imperialist, like me). I’ve seen others be told that they promote white supremacy when they defend the right of education event organisers to select speakers based on their merits and nothing else. And now, people like me are, knowingly or unknowingly, “white saviours” who did our acts of charity out of some kind of moral and racial superiority and not because we just see humans as humans, regardless of their skin colour.
“If you have photographs of you ‘helping’ people of colour and are circulating them across social media, you are propagating the myth that people of colour (especially in Africa) need white people (intervention) to save them, this means you are part of the problem.” He says. I think this is a sweeping generalisation and a damaging one at that. People who choose to share images of their charity work with friends and family aren’t part of any problem that I know of. They are part of the solution. Their motivations for sharing the images could be any, but probably aren’t defined by their skin colour.
At one point in the blog, Patel asks who would have benefited from someone “helping to build a school”. Just about every child I met in Tanzania would have benefited from anyone willing to build them a new school.
I write this because I want to engage in further debate on this subject, and I’m happy to, but I fear this writing may be dismissed as coming from a position of “whiteness”. I won’t apologise for the colour of skin I was born with. I would also ask people to consider before they use the term “privilege” with it to ask me privately about my family history and background.
Thanks for reading, I hope its offered some food for thought.