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A (Call And) Response To “White Savior Industrial Complex”

While shopping, I come across items made in Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic or China and wonder who made it, under what conditions, how they live everyday and, almost concurrently, how this purse will look against a pair of slacks in my closet back at home or that hard drive will satisfy my space requirements, and whether I can get the item for cheaper elsewhere. When the next disaster hits one of these countries, I will most probably send money.

To top it all off, I recognize that to entertain all of these thoughts in one sitting is horrifyingly privileged and, at the same time, all too normal. That we can live with these dichotomies, but that’s life. Then, why do I rage on hearing of the latest young American who moved to New Orleans to “do good” or “make a difference” in the world?

In the wake of Kony 2012 (consider moving out from under your rock if you haven’t heard of this documentary and its fallout yet; on second thought, stay there), writer Teju Cole tweeted up a storm of a response. It started with “From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.” Six of these followed touching on the injustices levied against minorities, women and inhabitants of the developing world, all the way from the “microaggressions of American racism” to the stark contrast between American foreign policy on certain countries and our sentimentality towards what we consider charity cases in many of those same nations. Cole then hashed all of this out in a long-form Atlantic essay that is so civilized while not holding back. Please read it, take it all in and return.

Amen to these Cole observations: our not-really-post-racial society, the repulsiveness of “civilized” journalism about topics inherently messy and barbaric and it being way past time we reclaim the ability to talk openly and directly about issues that pertain to us, especially when people who are not us do so fearlessly. Think Trayvon Martin, Wendell Allen, Robert Bales and even Joseph Kony and Jason Russell. But, here, I want to address the White Savior Complex specifically (leaving out “Industrial” on purpose for now, I’ll get to that later).

I disagree with Cole. I completely agree with him. Again with that pesky co-existing duality.

Disagreement – American sentimentality is a tremendously useful thing. It’s what drives the haves to replenish food banks and medical supplies in disaster-ravaged areas and offer money to people who need it NOW, to make it to TONIGHT, much less tomorrow. Back in 2008, when a group of us in New Orleans loaded up supplies for the United Houma Nations Old Store after Hurricane Gustav laid waste to Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes in southern Louisiana, a volunteer asked, “What’s the point in taking all of these things down there if Hurricane Ike will come along next and wipe their homes off the map?” Another volunteer replied, “They’re still alive and need these things now, to make it to that next hurricane.” Even if there are grim and farther-reaching political reasons behind floods, wars and homelessness, up to and including the way we ourselves vote, those in need are in need right now. Food, drugs and money – stat.

I also noted at the time that the hurricane-flood victims themselves acknowledged the batshit-insane but economically-real logic with which they live in coastal Louisiana. In the interest of that cherished due diligence, let’s understand that those being helped are not utterly ignorant of their circumstances, too.

They spoke of the irony of working for [the offshore oil and gas] industry that destroys their land and ecosystem but offers them a steady paycheck. If they give up working as oilmen and start a petition for the removal of oil-producing infrastructure from their area, how else will they stay economically viable?  Everyone agreed that digging their own graves is what feeds them, but their hands are tied.

Agreement – But, when we went down from New Orleans to the southern parishes after days of the roads being closed off by FEMA and other authorities, when the midwest-based First Draft crew came down to New Orleans to gut houses that had been allowed to flood in the first place and then fester for months thanks to federal-state-local government turf wars, we did so only on being invited by homeowners and communities themselves, to address very specific material wants and knowing fully well that the loss these folks suffered was our loss, too. That, as First Draft’s Athenae has tattooed on her arm since: Our fate is your fate. Intent, “[connecting the dots and seeing] the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters'” and having a clue before intervention.

It goes back to Nicholas Kristof’s response to Cole’s tweets in which he says, “It seems even more uncomfortable to think that we as white Americans should not intervene in a humanitarian disaster because the victims are of a different skin color.” Good grief, way to miss the point entirely. White is not just a skin color, Mr. Kristof, it’s also a state of mind and an economic paradigm. To put it in more blunt terms, even though my husband is white and understands the instant privilege that comes with the territory, I have more in common with boojie America than he does solely based on our respective families’/societies’ economic backgrounds and prevailing notions of success. To intervene with this mindset and little prior research into people’s cultures, what they consider home and their larger sociopolitical picture is nothing short of cultural proselytism.

With this in mind, too many times have I seen bright, young things armed with college degrees, blogs, social media cred and TED/Davos appearances come to New Orleans to “make a difference,” to “save New Orleanians because they can’t save themselves.” They show up, make Connections, tweet a lot about Warehouse District parties, second lines, parades and their new Friends in the Lower Ninth and Treme, raise some money for the latest charitable organization by getting a big corporation involved (which only gets the company more advertising and the community unsustainably dependent on a large outside source for financing and survival), find that they actually need money and real jobs to live in New Orleans, grow bored of keeping the charitable-organization-that-has-taken-on-a-life-of-its-own alive and weary of living amid the people they came to help and leave for New York or Los Angeles leaving a mess behind for someone else to clean up.

Because it is the only way they know how. And this is what I mean by intent: your only goal should be to want to help people restore or change themselves with self-respect based on their own cultural and economic dispositions and not remake them and their home in your image, much less feel good about yourself, pad your resume and make some money in the process.

Real help is not a sanitary or unique solution. Never ever help from a place of pity, misplaced self-confidence, an attempt to define your identity with externalities, self-justification or, worst of all, with no respect for the fact that the people you want to save are most probably doing their best to save themselves. Find out more about that and help that or get out of the way.

As for Industrial, this Charitable Behavior also reminds me a lot of emails from budding entrepreneurs asking if they can do you a favor by guest-writing on your blog about gardening equipment or child-rearing when that’s clearly not your territory or are  Just Plain Clueless. And then you build up a whole infrastructure around it with flashy conferences in exotic locales and, there you have it, your insta-money-making scheme: Sound passionate about a current hot philanthropic topic, put a logo on it, cash in. You know why I like Warren Buffett? Because he made and still makes money honestly and doesn’t look blatantly inauthentic doing it.

I keep going back to First Draft because they are a great model of how to be (relatively more) privileged and effect real change. Girl loves her sexy boots and specialty soaps but, every single day, the time, money, sweat and tears Athenae and the other bloggers pour into no-bullshit, informational and passionate posts about politics, society and foreign policy and fundraisers for vetted causes – it’s amazing and stuff gets done. You would never see her or some others post the Kony documentary’s promo video as it is and then say something trite about the power of story, because (journalists, take note) they know the story changes based on who’s telling it. It’s so easy to feel good.

Please send money to Mexico. Also read up on why this most recent earthquake was destructive but not deadly, research our political relationship with Mexico, write your politicians on the way we treat Mexicans (and perceived Mexicans)  in America and think about how foreign stories are reported in our mainstream media. The more we inform ourselves, the more we participate and help in a really effective way, and the less antiseptic we are in our interaction with those different from us.

At the very least, it helps us recognize that the world is full of people different from us and they are all worthy of the same respect we expect. That right there is a ton of help.

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