It’s a trope of modern American culture: privileged white person visits developing country for a few weeks, volunteers in orphanage, teaches schoolchildren English, works in hospital. They come home, upload a profile picture of them surrounded by underprivileged kids whose smiles are disproportionately large for the amount of adversity they face in their everyday lives. No running water? Girls aren’t educated at the same rates as boys? Government is in a constant state of unrest? It’s okay—the affluent white person can help.
This trope has a name, and it’s the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” The term was coined by Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole in a 2012 piece published in The Atlantic. Cole originally introduced the term in a series of seven tweets voicing his concern for “the fastest growth industry in the U.S.,” which he sees as the rise of privileged whites venturing to developing countries in order to aid their “needy” inhabitants. While Cole is correct in that the White Savior’s approach can be patronizing, privilege-validating, and paternalistic, being privileged does not preclude one from being able to effectively make a difference or provide service—it just must be done in a proper way.
The following two tweets capture Cole’s sentiment best: “The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm” (Tweet #3). “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” (Tweet #5). Cole’s article expands on these tweets to call attention to the problematic nature of the White Savior Industrial Complex.
In his piece, Cole argues that privileged whites see a need (such as hunger or lack of clean water or limited access to education) and try to fill that need (by bringing food or filtering systems or teaching in a school for a week) without trying to figure out why that need exists (due to corrupt government, for example). They feel a need to “save those who can’t save themselves,” resulting in what has become not just a volunteer movement but a massive industry. There are countless groups and organizations that execute missions and volunteer trips to developing countries. Ironically, participating in programs like these can cost each volunteer thousands of dollars.
While Cole acknowledges that the desire to help is a natural and even admirable inclination, he insists that the approach of the White Savior is problematic. The issue, he says, is that a short volunteer trip does not do anything to mitigate the serious and deep-seated issues that are the very reason the need for help exists. These “serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order” cannot be overlooked when trying to help the people of such afflicted countries. Also important, he says, is to recognize the agency of the people actually living in these places, rather than viewing them as helpless pawns in need of Western salvation.
It’s hard to disagree with Cole’s sentiment: The White Savior Industry is inauthentic and privilege-validating. The White Savior’s work may indeed be a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound, but Cole’s dismissal disregards the fact that these needs, such as hunger or lack of proper school facilities, are urgent and more feasibly corrigible than moralizing a profoundly corrupt government system, which Cole encourages Americans to do through voting and adjusting foreign policy.
Cole’s charge is apt and necessary, but does not serve as a complete substitute for certain types of aid that the White Savior may be engaging in. Of course, the problem arises when the privileged outsiders take away the agency of the very people they are trying to help or when they attempt to help in a way that is actually unfitting for or detrimental to the communities in need.
What interests me more about Cole’s argument is his statement that the White Savior Industry is about validating privilege. I do wonder about the intentions behind such trips, but then I ask myself—does intention matter? Does the work have to be selfless in order to count? The work is getting done regardless of whether someone is motivated by selfish or selfless reasons. There’s no definitive answer to this question, though I tend to think that action, even if self-serving, is better than no action at all. Taking a utilitarian perspective on this issue feels appropriate: it’s better to do some form of work than none at all, but if one is spending thousands of dollars to teach kids English for a couple weeks, perhaps that money would be better spent providing food or clean water to those in need.
The concept of the White Savior is not only rampant but romanticized, especially in pop culture. A photo taken by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz published in the May 2014 issue of Vogue features Victoria Beckham in a pristine white blouse and army green cargo pants surrounded by black South African children. The photo, which is part of a photo diary series, is a documentation of her work with Born Free, an organization trying to end mother-to-child transmission of HIV. There’s a certain glamour to the shot, despite the poverty and adversity depicted.
In the documentary Half the Sky, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof jets off to Kenya, Somaliland, and India (among other countries) with famous female celebrities such as Olivia Wilde and Meg Ryan in order to meet with girls and women afflicted by various inequalities and injustices primarily regarding education and sex trafficking. The celebrity presence indisputably adds a level of glitz and charm to the production, whose mission is to raise awareness here in America of these women’s issues abroad.
We also see it in movies such as Freedom Writers and The Blind Side (both based on true stories), the former of which features a white teacher in a disadvantaged all-black neighborhood and the latter of which tells the story of a wealthy white woman who adopts a talented but underprivileged black teenager and affords him with the opportunities he needs to make it to the NFL. We even see a version of it perpetuated by Princeton itself with the Bridge Year program, which sends 35 students each year to do service work abroad.
Maddy Pauchet, a junior who participated in Bridge Year India, explained that several service programs are re-evaluating their approach to distance themselves from the “voluntourism” style to what they deem “service-learning.” This she explained, means that “you go to learn what you’re fighting for, to learn what service is effective and what isn’t, to get exposure to cultures that are misrepresented in the media. That helps mold you into an active, informed, energized world-citizen who’s down for policy changes. That’s kind of what Bridge Year does. The idea is that you’re working on yourself, and that by focusing inward, you will later be able to participate better in communities and make more sustainable changes than painting a mural on a crumbling school wall. Changing the language here changes the framework, and these trips become long-term investments in a person’s ability to make a change.”
This approach essentially encourages the self-serving intentions of doing service abroad, with the attitude that going for one’s own benefit will actually help more in the long term.
While “service-learning” is a fairly commendable approach, Princeton’s Bridge Year program still somewhat perpetuates the glamorization of the White Savior Industrial Complex, which is a problem, often more so than the actual efforts made. The hundreds of thousands of dollars that finance the program, the fact that it’s attached to an Ivy League name, and even President Eisgruber’s efforts to make Princeton known as the “service Ivy”—it’s not wrong per se, but we must evaluate whether these are the most effective avenues for the changes we are trying to accomplish.
Publishing a photo in Vogue of a glitzy celebrity surrounded by underprivileged African children seems grossly inappropriate, but the work Victoria Beckham is doing is still laudable. It’s flawed of Cole to discourage aid from more privileged people, but those who do should be wary of sensationalizing the experience—maybe refrain from the profile picture change (and certainly from the Vogue feature).