Blog > Big Picture > Four Ways to Avoid the White Savior Complex in Missions
Four Ways to Avoid the White Savior Complex in Missions
July 10, 2018
When I was 26, I moved to Uganda to start a non-profit. I didn’t really identify as a “missionary” then because there was too much baggage associated with the term and I wasn’t “evangelizing” people, I was simply loving them as Jesus would. But new to the field, there was a lot I didn’t know I didn’t know.
I admit I had a bit of the “white savior” complex in me. I lived in an area with abject poverty, with a long history of trauma. I went in with good intentions but fell into trying to play the hero. I felt responsible to help people, to provide for them, to fix their problems. But I made many mistakes along the way. In the beginning I didn’t understand many cultural nuances and I assumed I “knew better.”
Urban Dictionary’s definition of a “white savior” is:
“Western people going in to ‘fix’ the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.”
I’m ashamed to admit it, but during my first long-term volunteer trip in Rwanda at 24, I gave money to help a genocide survivor escaping domestic violence move into her own home because I paid rent for a few months. Now that might sound noble, but the local pastor in the community advised me against it, he warned it was unsustainable. But I ignored him. I let my compassion lead versus a national’s wisdom, and I put him in an awkward position. It would have been better if I could have helped her find work, or supported a local organization that was empowering national women.
I positioned myself as “hero” instead of listening to her solutions for her own problems.
After seven years of living on the ground, I began to see the true dangers of the white savior complex emerging. I saw pastors of churches corrupted by Western resources, who once were “called” but were poisoned by wanting more resources: a better car to drive, better music systems. They thought they needed these things now to show they were successful.
They relied completely on the West for funding and therefore if they ever stopped giving they would have been destitute. Leadership conferences couldn’t be conducted unless food and transportation were provided. Nationals looked to Westerners to preach and be in charge whether or not they had the skill-set.
Dependency destroyed dignity. Nationals were disrespected. Good people were corrupted by overwhelming resources and no accountability. People’s privacy was violated.
Often orphans are “created” by local agencies who take children from their parents in order to meet the demand of Western adoptive parents.
I had a friend give $25,000 for a school that was never built and the person was never held accountable. He still runs a church today.
I also saw short-term teams come in and create harm and havoc. Often these people came for their own personal development and wanted to do things their way, rather than offering any benefit to the local community. They took selfies with children of color, and handed out soccer balls, but these children’s lives were not ultimately changed.
“Too often, volunteering abroad becomes that ‘big emotional experience’ we’re looking for. It satisfies our sentimental needs, and so we find little reason to stop and reflect whether it actually meets the needs of the people we’re supposedly helping.”- Amanda Machado
So how do we ensure when we go into missions we aren’t doing more harm? I recently had a Facebook live conversation with Jean Johnson, author of “We Are Not the Hero” and much of this is what came out of that. I wish I’d had this book before I moved overseas!
Here are four ways to avoid the white savior complex in missions:
1) Be a Learner
When we go into a new culture we should spend up to two years learning, having conversations, doing life with people, doing research, understanding complex political dynamics and cultural elements before we launch projects. Find local people who are already working to improve their communities and partner with them. Our goal should be to be a learner and be completely relational. We should understand we don’t know what’s best for nationals. They know what’s best for them. We should lean on their strengths and assets and use what they have available to them to create change. We should listen and let them have ownership in solutions, without bringing our Western boxes and trying to fit them into it. Believe the resources are already in their world and don’t make them change into your version of Christianity.
2) Check Your Compassion
Compassion is good. It’s what moved Jesus to help those in need. We need that compassion to move us to seek justice in the world. We all have good intentions when we serve overseas, but good intentions are not enough. People overseas do not need your pity based on your white privilege.
Compassion without wisdom can rob people of being empowered, it can place them in a position of always looking to you when they could be looking to themselves, or to God. A wonderful example in Jean’s book is where a Western missionary steps in to buy food for some national pastors attending a conference, thinking he is helping. But this completely undermined the national pastor who had specifically worked hard not to have a dependence on the West, who had asked pastors to bring their own food to the conference. These pastors learned the white man will step in and be the hero versus learning to rely on their own strength, resources and community to solve problems. If we don’t learn this, then when you leave, the people you care for may be in the same position as before you arrived. Pause, and see if it’s really the Holy Spirit, or if it’s just guilt.
3) Empower Nationals
Trust takes time. Go slow. Build relationships of mutual respect where the power dynamics do not rest on you “saving” someone, but rather where you are learning and sharing your own problems as much as you are “teaching.” Respect the agency of each individual, that they have the power and knowledge to solve their own problems and they have the capacity, knowledge and ability to change their own lives. Ask what they have and use that instead of thinking of what you have. Start with the end in mind: We should have Day 1,000 in mind when we begin on Day 1. That means that we shouldn’t begin anything that we don’t feel the nationals will be able to maintain on their own that will not be dependent on us. They will have their local community long after you leave and need to learn to rely on that community for resources and help instead of relying on the West. Everything you do should be intentionally reproducible without any outside money or influence, it should be able to be sustained by nationals. Ask, “What does love look like in this situation for the long run?”
4) Avoid the “Gospel of Goods”
We are corrupting the gospel when we step in with handouts. We want people to follow Jesus out of love and a sense of calling, not because they think they’ll get Western support if they become a “pastor.” These mismatched incentives harm the indigenous church. It prevents them from growing naturally on their own. I completely believe in providing practical aid to meet needs. That’s exactly what my organization did. But when we use wealth to manipulate people to do what we want them to do or to profess their faith…it’s wrong.
If this sounds harder, it’s because it is. It’s much easier to just go in with an ethnocentric mindset rather than putting the cross-cultural responsibility back on our shoulders. But it’s not impossible. We can, and we need to do better. Learn from my mistakes. We cannot save people, but God for sure can meet them in their need.
Remember that what you do in a country to minister can have a powerful effect on nations either for or against Christ.
When in doubt, lean on the wisdom of locals and put your plans and projects on hold if there’s any thought they could do more damage.
[Originally published at www.saritahartz.com ]
Sarita Hartz is a writer and life coach who served for 6 years in Uganda running a non profit. She tackles issues of how to live healthily overseas and how to have self-compassion in her blog. She also provides inner healing and coaching to cross cultural workers, specializing in compassion fatigue and burnout. She loves a cup of tea with friends and full belly laughter.