How to avoid becoming a "White Saviour"

When we tell stories about poverty and development, who are the heroes?

From The Blind Side to Avatar, Freedom Writers to The Help - Hollywood LOVES a White Saviour. These movies and heaps more, are all variations on the same cliche - the White Saviour parachutes in, sympathizes with the problems of the people, learns what needs to happen to solve their problems, and finally wins their favour and becomes the hero. 

If you haven't already, check out the satirical Barbie Savior instagram page for their super-FUNNY take on this tired trope.

And it's not just in fiction - Kony, Three Cups of Tea, and so many more show just how much appetite we have for this narrative that places US in the middle of the story.

As activist Teju Cole puts it, "The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."

Ouch!

Poverty has been overcome. My work here is done. Now to work on the book and movie rights.

Poverty has been overcome. My work here is done. Now to work on the book and movie rights.

The problem with this White Saviour way of telling the story, is that the very people God places at the center of their own transformation, are shifted to the margins.

Local people become bit players in the story of a Great Foreign Hero. And it's not right.

So, recognizing that there is a potential problem, how do we move forward with integrity? Should we just give up? Stay home in our white suburb and distract ourselves with Netflix, craft beers and other white people hobbies?

That doesn't sound right either.

Fortunately, there is a third way. A way that sounds more like Jesus. The path of humility.

A helpful way to frame it has been put foward by Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor:

"Become a SIDEKICK. Local Leaders with local solutions to local problems will end poverty. You will not. I will not. We cannot. In the story of poverty’s end, we cannot be HEROES. But, we can be SIDEKICKS. You can too. And, if you want to, here’s what you will  need to do:

You will need to learn a new language. You will need a new global positioning system. Our old system – the one that positioned us at the center of the social good space – is outdated. We neither deserved nor knew what to do with that positioning. In turn, you will need to reconsider your place, role and responsibilities in this world.  You will need to lay bare your motivations, strengths, and limitations when it comes to making a difference. And, you will need to make some promises."

Humphrey goes on to lay out 10 promises of a sidekick, which are all pretty brilliant, like:

  • I will ride in the sidecar. I will not lead. I will listen...
  • I will question the utility of my utility belt. Technology and gadgets are helpful (sometimes). But they do not address the root causes of poverty...

  • I will welcome my sidekick slaps. I will make mistakes. And when I do, I will welcome correction and take responsibility...

  • I will explore my dark side. I will ask “Do I want poverty to end? Who would I be without it? What would I do? ...

  • I will be the constant understudy. I will always be learning, and seeking a deeper understanding of my role in the story of poverty’s end...

Check out the full explanation and list of promises here.

I think this is a brilliant way of re-framing our role in working for change. Shawn doesn't say "Buzz off - you're not needed here so go back to living your selfish life." He doesn't propose independence, disconnection and apathy.

Instead he is proposing humble INTERdependence. I need to repeat that word, because it really is the key: INTERdependence.

So, don't lose hope, become discouraged and give up just because you can't be in the center of everything. Instead re-calibrate your place as an outsider. There is room for you to have a significant role in this beautiful and broken world - but it won't be a CENTRAL role in other people's stories. 

My own journey has taken me down this very path, to the point where the movement I'm privileged to serve with, Alongsiders International, is ALL ABOUT local Christian youth in a dozen Asian and African countries - who themselves walk alongside vulnerable children, in their own communities. Our small but appropriately peripheral role as Westerners and outsiders is simply to support, encourage and serve from the edges.

Srey Ta (on the right) is one of my heroes. She lost her father at a young age and grew up in an urban slum. But despite those challenges, she has become a mother, a teacher, and an Alongsider to another little girl in the same community.

Srey Ta (on the right) is one of my heroes. She lost her father at a young age and grew up in an urban slum. But despite those challenges, she has become a mother, a teacher, and an Alongsider to another little girl in the same community.

It's been exciting to watch as God takes those who are normally considered victims, clients or beneficiaries, and turn them into heroes. I'm just a sidekick in that story. Most of them wouldn't even know who I am.

So, how about you? Are you willing to lay down your life and be a sidekick?

For whoever wants to be a hero (save their life), will lose it. But whoever loses their life for God's sake will find it (Mt 16:25).

Paradoxically, the way to life and transformation is through a willingness to die to ourselves. 

Jesus said it first. 


You can read Shawn Humphrey's full Sidekick Manifesto here and join the movement.