Tag Archives: white savior industrial complex

Privilege

There seems to be a lot of criticism when it comes to people like me and my “privileged” life. I know that some critics have accused college-aged kids who travel to the developing world of doing it solely so they can justify their privileged lives. The consensus seems to be that since I am a middle-class, well-educated white American, clearly traveling to the developing world is some need I have to validate myself and satisfy my “emotional needs.”

Which, in a sense, is actually quite true. At least in some cases. I know I’ve definitely seen certain people who live lavish and self-indulgent lifestyles and then somehow justify it because they’ve been to the developing world. Which is complete bullshit to me.

On the other hand, there are individuals who just so happen to have talents and abilities that they have chosen to use for the benefit of others. People who devote their life and a half to making the world a better place and fighting evil. These people just so happen to be “privileged” however, and can therefore not understand the people they choose to help, at least according to certain, to quote Kristof, “armchair cynics.”

Thing is, I don’t think privilege is something to be ashamed about. Sure I was born into a family that was able to provide me with the opportunity for three meals a day, a roof over my head, and good education. But there are many, many other types of privileges out there, and I think focus on simple monetary privileges is both narrow-minded and intellectually conceited.

Some other privileges include intellectual privilege, where one seems to be born with inherent problem-solving and reasoning skills (I know of several individuals close to me who have said privilege, and who I am usually jealous of), or athletic privilege, which gives us athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong. I can also say that what I saw in Uganda was a different kind of privilege, one of community. I remember seeing these people who were born with an inherent sense of community, where cripples and HIV-infected children would enjoy the same respect as the village elder. I remember that me and my outsider ways was even a little jealous of that kind of privilege, the kind of privilege I’ve never had in my life.

But here’s the thing about privilege: IT. IS. NOTHING. TO. BE. ASHAMED. OF. If one is told to be ashamed of the fact that they have the opportunity for health-care and education, that’s the same as telling a Ugandan from Abia that he/she should be ashamed of the opportunity they have to take part in and work for the betterment of the community. Should someone be ashamed that they have certain “privileges” that others don’t have? Should I be ashamed that I have access to running water and electricity, the kind that others wish they had? Should those who have privileges different than mine be ashamed of it?

My father and I discussed privilege once. And for him, he thought that “privilege” was reserved for social and economic status akin to families like the Kennedy’s. For us, he said our family wasn’t “privileged,” but instead, “fortunate.” He described our family as being fortunate of the fact that our ancestors decided to leave Ireland for better opportunities. He said that I was fortunate that I had education, health-care, a unique perspective due to being an outsider, and many other things, and that that was different than being “privileged.”

Which is an idea I can get on board with. I don’t consider myself privileged. I consider myself fortunate. I think others are more fortunate than I, and I think others are less fortunate than I. I think that being fortunate is not something I should be ashamed of, but something I should be proud of. Proud of in the sense that someone is proud of their son or daughter. Proud of in the sense of being proud that you have the work-ethic to accomplish your goals, or are able to problem-solve better than others, or that you have a community that you can always fall back on.

The truth is, everyone is fortunate in some way. Some are fortunate with families or community, while others are fortunate with intellect and reason. Fortune comes in many different forms, and there is no reason why we should be jealous of nor covet our own fortune. Instead, we should work to bring that fortune to others. We should work, in our lives, to serve each other, because we all have different kinds of fortune to offer. We all have fortune that we have gained in our own lives, and fortune is meant to be shared. Through sharing fortune with each other, we are able to work for the betterment of each other, not in a condescending, superior vs inferior kind of way, but in a way that makes us more human.

I think part of being human is being able to work to serve others, and I can’t think of a better privilege than the opportunity to serve humanity.

TL;DR: Privilege, or fortune, is nothing to be ashamed of. 

 

Answers

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “issues” (poverty, corruption, war, death). But more than that, I’m also trying to keep in mind not just the issues themselves, but what to do about them.

Up until a few months ago, I figured that one person can’t really do a whole lot on a large scale. One person can’t end poverty, or war, but one person CAN do what they are able to given their situation. Which I think is really the best thing to do. I thought that was the nature of “service,” that it’s a way of doing what one can to make the world a little bit better. One person can’t end poverty, but they CAN volunteer and help out at a homeless shelter. It’s not a lot, but it’s as much as they are able to.

Then the whole Kony 2012 thing happened, and with it came a shitstorm of attention, most of it bad. At some point, criticism started extending beyond just the video, or even Invisible Children, soon it started focusing on college-aged Americans and how their efforts to “make a difference” are both selfish and insulting. That their motivations to help out were a way to either validate their privileged life, or a way of exerting their role as being “a good person” or “savior.” Granted, I do believe there are those who fit this role. There are people who buy expensive clothing and think they’ve done their due diligence by donating $5 to charity. There are those that spend 6 days a week drinking and one night a week volunteering and make that their justification for living a debaucherous lifestyle. Even at Creighton I think there’s a “yay service” aspect, where it seems doing volunteer work is either a way of fitting in, or a way of beefing up one’s Resume.

And of course, these kinds of criticisms and questions are the kind I’ve asked myself lately. How can I be sure I’m doing the right thing for the right reasons? Today as we drove by certain slums, I saw people that looked like they were barely surviving, manning a small shop that no one went into, probably never making much profit. And I felt sorry for them. Being in that situation, to me, is one that I feel is akin to being imprisoned inside one’s own economic circumstance and lack of opportunity. I thought to myself, I wish I could help them. I wish I could help them out of that situation.

The problem with that line of thinking however is that it assumes several things: It assumes that said people never had opportunity because they run a shop, which is social prejudice. It assumes that they are unhappy with their life, which is based on nothing but mere observation. It assumes that said person is lesser than me, and that it is my job to “help” them ascend to my position of life, which is fitting that “savior” role that said critics accuse people like me of doing.

At the same time, there are those who ARE in that situation. There are those that, due to where or how they were born, can’t break free of economic or social limitations. There are people who simply aren’t in a position they can break out of on their own, and those people, it seems, require help.

So then what is the answer? Should I go home and never do what little I can to make the world a better place? Do I ignore the critics and do my best to “help” people, which violates their dignity? Or do I continue doing what I feel is right and necessary, regardless of what someone else may have to say about it? What is the right thing to do?

I’m interested in answers, not just in asking questions. Hopefully I’ll find the answers soon.

Does it matter if you’re black or white?

In case you may not already know, Uganda has had significant media attention the past few months. Mainly due to a certain notorious video entitled “Kony 2012.” The video, produced by Invisible Children, chronicled Invisible Children’s efforts to bring Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has terrorized Uganda and now other parts of Central Africa for 20 years, to justice. While the video was successful in the sense that Joseph Kony became a name everybody would recognize, it has drawn phenomenal amounts of criticism.

In particular, several critics have accused Invisible Children and other advocacy groups of being guilty of the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” This complex is the idea that white men (particularly American 20-something’s) are hoping to ride in on a white horse to places like Africa and gain some kind of emotional satisfaction from the experience so that they may continue to live their privileged lives guilt-free. While this article is highly critical, and may even be overly-critical, it is important to consider these kinds of conceptions when trying to deal with global issues, particularly those like poverty and conflict.

When dealing with people in the developing world, we must take into account their dignity and right to self-respect. If we see ourselves as saviors of these people that cannot help themselves, we are guilty of both Hubris and social prejudice.

These issues, particularly the issue of race and economic inequality, are things I’ve been thinking about lately. It is especially difficult not to consider in our current society, where it seems like issues of race, inequality, sexism, and other kinds of prejudice are put under a microscope. I know that personally, race was never an issue for me until I got to North America. Growing up, I had friends from Palestine, Tanzania, Nigeria, and many other nations, and never once thought that was strange. Lately though, I seem to have read a lot of critics who draw a lot of attention to people like myself, where I am considered one of those white, middle-class, college-educated 20-somethings who are looking to be a savior in order to have some powerful emotional experience that validates my privileged life.

These kinds of critics, despite my wish to tune them out, are successful in that they force me to ask myself very difficult questions. What is it exactly that I’m doing? What do I hope to accomplish by going to a developing country? Why am I drawn to the idea of doing something good? What is goodness? How can I know my actions are the result of goodness, rather than some selfish, emotional desire? How can I really know whether my actions are just? Am I doing the right thing?

These questions, unfortunately, are difficult for me to answer. Partly due to my incredibly convenient ability to only be able to answer questions slowly, and partly because I simply have not had an experience in a developing nation yet. Which is why, on this trip, I hope to explore several issues:

1. Social inequality and social justice

2. Violence, and why the area of the world we are traveling to has had so much violence, as well as how people recover from said violence.

3. Race, and whether there is anything to be said of the fact that I am indeed a white American traveling to an African nation, and whether that matters.

Earlier today, we were given small statues that an artist made for us. These statues are meant to be placed somewhere in the world and we are to grab a snapshot of it in its newfound home. When it came my turn to pick two, I found it funny that I picked up two statues that were almost completely identical, except that one was white and one was black. When I put the two statues together, I laughed at what they looked like. It looked like the black statue was looking questioningly at the white statue, who had a vacant, dumb-founded expression. I couldn’t help but think of the above article, and all of the issues surrounding the kind of trip I’m about to make.

So, over the course of the trip, I plan to go a little bit outside my comfort zone and try to make something artistic. I plan to put these two statues next to each other in different places, particularly places that I think are related to the issues I described above. When I get back, I plan to find some way to put that into a media form, in hopes of being able to at least discuss these issues from an artistic perspective.

tl;dr: Me being a white, middle-class, college-educated twenty-something seems to matter. During this trip I’m going to find out if this is true. Enjoy!