Avoiding white saviourism
From a session at Unreached 2022
Susie Howe has worked for 25 years in cross-cultural contexts on African continent with Christian NGOs. She spoke at a conference on the subject, 'Serving with Humilty and Showing our Scars: Avoiding White Saviourism'.
The term 'white saviour' is a sarcastic or critical description of a white person who is depicted as liberating, rescuing or uplifting non-white people. It is critical in the sense that it describes a pattern in which third world peoples are denied agency and are seen as passive recipients of white benevolence.
Extracts from Susie's talk follow:
I've been asked to speak about avoiding white saviour complex in cross-cultural work. I'm going to be sharing out of my experience of working into different nations on the African continent. Please understand that I'm still wearing my learner plates, made many mistakes, not an expert but a fellow traveller with you.
The principles that I'm going to be sharing with you are by no means exhaustive but they're hopefully going to give you food for thought. They are principles that can be applied to you working cross-culturally whether overseas or with communities in your own nation and whether you are planting churches or doing community development work or perhaps you're integrating both of them or thinking about doing that in the future.
'White saviourism' is often described as a form of post-modern colonialism whereby those from the global north seek to fix the problems of those in the global south imposing their worldview, their cultural norms or their own solutions to problems and difficulties without any attempt to learn from, listen to, or to involve local people or to take into account their skills, their abilities, their resources or even their history, worldview or culture.
So-called 'white saviours' are often very loving, caring, well-meaning people but they can put an absolute wrecking ball through the local communities and cause untold harm to them. Let me give you some examples.
The first that comes to my mind is short-term volun-tourism whereby teams of very kind-hearted, well-meaning but totally inexperienced, unskilled youth and adults go and construct buildings for example or work in overseas schools, orphanages for a couple of weeks. They're totally inexperienced, get to go somewhere 'exotic' and feel good about themselves because they have helped the poor. They talk, they take lots of selfies with poor children but there is very little community transformation and indeed, there are far too many examples of shoddy work that has to be undone and redone by local people once the teams have left.
Another example of white saviours are those who believe that their theology and ecclesiology needs to be exported to the rest of the world in order to save the world. They are totally ignorant of or show no interest in learning from the rich theological thinking and reflection that exists in other parts of the world that we can wonderfully learn from and that God has given as a gift to us. They plant and lead churches in other cultures, set vision, impose western church culture. Church funding is sourced from overseas and local church members just play a peripheral role.
Then there are those who treat people who are poor as a project or a problem to be fixed. Oscar Mourinho, a leader and pastor in Kenya says, "So many people have come to fix us. Oh Lord, please don't bring another person to fix us. We have been fixed so many times, we're in a real mess now. Please allow us to be us. Allow us to find God and to find faith in the reality of our need."
White saviourism harms. It robs people of their dignity and their identity. It creates dependence. It says you can't but we can. It creates jealousy and divisions and it upsets the finely balanced traditional relationships and systems and structures that exist in local communities. God forbid that church planting or community development should ever be like that.
So how can we avoid being 'white saviours'?
1. First of all I think we need to check our motives, our attitudes, biases and prejudices. I know that I'm constantly having to check mine and the way that I view people. It's something we have to do again and again. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any unconscious biases and beliefs that we hold that are harmful and ask Him to change and transform our hearts and the way that we see things.
2. Then there's the importance of relationships first. Let's not make people into a project. When I'm visiting the families of vulnerable children overseas I always build in lots of time just to hang out with them, play with the kids, chat in the yard with the parents and see where the conversation leads. I try not to over plan my trips but see where the Holy Spirit leads and where the people lead me into. It might not make for efficiency which actually can be a killer of relationship building but it does make for effectiveness because it builds trust and I get to learn what the real issues are for families and what's important to them.
The obsession with finding solutions can get in the way of forming profound relationships. Often people who come from the global north are all about finding the solutions. We've got have the plan mapped out to finding the solutions when actually what local people are wanting and what God is wanting of us is to build relationship and to learn from each other.
Even in our eagerness to see people saved, we can treat people as a salvation project. People see right through us when we come with that attitude instead of really valuing them, appreciating them. So a question to ask ourselves is do we treat people as a project and we parachute with our own agenda or do we give time and space to allow relationship to develop?
3. Next the importance of humility. We need to have the attitudes of a servant and to be aware of the power dynamic that we represent. Wherever I travel on the African continent, people look at the colour of my skin and instantly they make a set of default assumptions about me that I am rich, that I'm influential and there to take the lead. So when I go to a new area I always start by saying that I have come to serve and to learn. I reinforce that the local people are the experts in their context and try to resist the efforts of local people to make me into something that I definitely am not.
I make a point of respecting local culture, living as local people live, eating what they eat and dressing as a local woman. I tend to stay with local team members or families rather than in hostels or hotels because I don't want to be distant from them. I do the house work that they do and sweep the yard as they would and it always draws me closer to the local people and because of this I've been told again and again you are like one of us. That degree of acceptance is lovely.
4. Then there's the importance of treating those that we are working with as collaborators and partners rather than those who just expected to do what we say. I always make a point of asking local community members and local teams what they think, how they would handle things, what their vision is. I get them to lead the way in planning.
I have seen white people come and ignore what a local person is doing. I have seen local African people abandon what they said God had asked them to do in order to run after the white person's vision and (the white person's money). It builds no transformation for the people in the local community because there's no consultation with local people, who are the ones who know what is needed.
We need to foster inclusion and not exclusion and adhere to the maxim, "Nothing for us, without us." We need to include the local people in setting vision and that includes the most marginalized. We need to give them a place at the planning table and on the team. We need to take a background role and champion those that we are reaching out to. God chooses to include and partner with those on the margins in order to advance His kingdom and so should we.
5. Next we need to learn to listen well. I've had to build a relationship of trust with local people before they will freely open up to me about what they really believe, their cultural practices. I have to show them the respect of really listening to what they are saying no matter how alien it might sound to my western ears. We get to learn what people really believe and can then, through guided discussions and the application of God's word in a culturally appropriate, contextualized way, through relationship begin to address harmful and distorted thinking.
6. Then, acknowledge our own inadequacies, our own vulnerabilities and our need for help. How can those we are connecting with relate to us when we come across as being invincible, invulnerable, self-sufficient, having all the answers and never putting a foot wrong. We must resist the temptation to act or speak in ways that imply that we have all the answers and have come to save people from their ignorance.
"The people we are working with locally are looking to see if we have a scar where they have a wound." Are we prepared to show our scars and express our need for help from those that we are reaching out to? Are we prepared to show our vulnerabilities?
7. Next we need to make ourselves redundant. Whether we're church planting or involved in community development or integrating both, it's vital that from day one we seek to make ourselves redundant. So help local people to find their own strengths, build on them. Focus on strengths and not needs because white saviours are very good at focusing on needs. So flip the question - we don't ask what are the needs here but rather what are the strengths and resources that exist here.
We're seeking to strengthen capacity rather than providing services. We take a mentoring approach rather than a managing approach and as soon as possible we try to identify local people to mentor as leaders. These may be unlikely people who are not obvious candidates for leadership so don't necessarily look for the most experienced or educated or influential person and beware of your cultural bias.
8. Finally, as far as possible, sustainability right from the start by helping local people to use their own skills, strengths and local resources. Unwise giving can destroy local growth and initiatives. "Give once and people respond with gratitude. Give twice and you create expectation. Give three times and people develop a sense of entitlement."
"Wherever there is sustained one-way giving unwholesome dynamics and relationships will flourish. Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people."
It is the unreached who are going to transform us, to shape us. It's a two-way street and God uses them and us working together. He uses us to impart something of his love and his grace to local people and they impart something of His love and grace to us in a beautiful cycle of reciprocity.
Listen to Susie's 38 minute talk here:
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