“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”~ Teju Cole
It was after we had been in Pakistan a week that I realized, despite the bleak surroundings of still present flood waters, mud and brick homes that would have to be rebuilt from the foundation up, and scarcity of basic supplies of food, that not one time had I felt pity for anyone we met.
I had come back to Pakistan after seeing my childhood home, Jacobabad, devastated by flood waters in the fall of 2010. Seeing the New York Times picture did a number on my soul and a few weeks later I was on the ground in Pakistan, and my heart was in Heaven.
Every day we were surrounded by women and children. Women in brightly embroidered shalwar/kameez with dupattas gracefully draped over their heads. Children of every shape and size, some picked on by older siblings; others naughty as can be, into all sorts of laughter and mischief; older teens, slightly more self-conscious but curious and eager to ask questions and observe.
Their resilience was remarkable. Their ability to withstand this devastating flood courageous. They were so much better than me – there was nothing to pity.
We laughed until our sides ached; cried until our souls felt crushed; raged at poverty and injustice; got excited at seeing a mom learning how to care for a wound; felt joy as we watched women and children gather around when we arrived; and each day at the end of a long, hot clinic, we were satisfied. We were not leading – we were being led by a dedicated and gifted team of Pakistanis. I had been on many trips to serve in the past – yet this was the first time I had been on a service trip where I was led by someone from the country where I was serving.
And not once had I felt pity for those who came into our lives.
Maybe that’s why this trip was going so well — because pity doesn’t help. You can’t empower those you pity.
Pity insults. Pity humiliates. Pity sees others as ‘less than’ not ‘equal to’ or ‘above’. While compassion is a vital part of love and moves us to action, pity looks on as a superior bystander.
In the last few years a conversation has started about what is termed the “white Saviour complex” – when people like me get on planes and go to places like Pakistan, thinking they are going to save the masses from starvation, devastation, and Hell, trips that are sometimes made of pity for the less fortunate. And there is merit to what has been said. Teju Cole wrote a challenging and provocative piece about this last year soon after the Kony 2012 video went viral. It was a piece that first made me cringe, then made me angry, and finally made me nod in agreement.
Too often we go with heads and egos held high. Too often we want to serve instead of to learn. Too often we pity those around us. Too often we decide what those around us need – instead of asking them what they need.
So what do we do – just stop going? No – I don’t think so. But asking ahead of time what is needed is imperative. Realizing that we don’t hold all the answers is critical. Humility of heart and body must be present in all we do.
If we go with pity and seeing ourselves as doing any ‘saving’ then several things happen: We burn out, unable to last long. We subconsciously want to be thanked and praised. We fail to respect the very people we have come to serve, instead seeing them as incapable of being partners and leaders. We don’t acknowledge the bigger problems behind those that are visible. We don’t acknowledge God as God – and us as human.
I know a post like this just begins the conversation about service. It’s a big topic, but as churches and other organizations around the country get ready for summer service projects, gear up to ‘go’, it behooves all of us to dig deep and ask the hard, but important question – Why, really, are we doing this?
And If we go? Our charge is to go in humility, with a heart to learn; never to go out of pity and above all, know we are not, will never be, the Saviour.
“There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Teju Cole in The White Saviour Industrial Complex