On Western Paternalism, Suffering Others, and White Knight Syndrome

By Sergei A. Samoilenko

In March 2012, Teju Cole, an American writer, photographer, and art historian, wrote on his Twitter account, “The fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex. The white saviour supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” It was his response to the popular video and a subsequent movement Kony-2012 targeting an African warlord and advocating further U.S. military intervention in Uganda.

One of the most intrinsic characteristics of the White Savior Complex is the paternalistic notion that Westerners are the solution to the problems of people in other countries. This colonial relic used to be a backbone of Western imperialism, seeking to control land and trade in other countries using a false premise that whites know what is best for people of other races. Paradoxically, many contemporary campaigns promoting the ideas of Westernization and liberal democracy embrace the same paternalistic mindset. As stated by Inayatullah, modernization “shows remarkable ethnocentrism by equating modern [Western] society with paradise.”

(Photo: Peace Corps/Facebook)

In Hollywood movies, such as Dangerous Minds (1995) or The Blind Side (2009), the white saviour is an archetypal character who takes on a messianic duty to save people of color from their plights. This good Samaritan acts out of a good will and guided by their own judgement, often seeking an opportunity to save others. The trademark of our time is the industry of self-designated heroes who hold the belief that they are constantly responsible for helping others. Hundreds of humanitarian aid campaigns rely on such volunteers who sign petitions, organize hashtag discussions, and raise money for a new social cause. Clicktivists relentlessly show support for people in other countries – they probably never heard about before – raising awareness of  popular online movements, such as the infamous Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls.

The self-directed Samaritan needs the suffering Other. The development and humanitarian aid is a lucrative business that attracts multiple NGOs and private contractors. For many NGOs, the images of starving African women and children have become an established norm for charity fundraising. Many charity campaigns overuse “poverty porn” images in their advertisements depicting malnourished people of other races wearing ragged clothing. Scholars argue that images of distant suffering women and children justify colonialist and paternalistic attitudes and policies mainly because they suggest that those in need are the victims of the environment who are incapable of governing themselves.

In fact, paternalistic do-gooders show many symptoms of White Knight Syndrome, when individuals are possessed by an obsessive-compulsive need to look out for women or men who need comfort or fixing. They often presume that the world needs their heroic deed to become a better place. Many political and social activists excel at this messiah role. For example, Bob Geldof, known for his song “We Are The World” recently re-recorded his 1984 hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise funds to fight to the Ethiopia famine. Soon after, Geldof announced that he was planning to record the song again now to fight Ebola.

Many self-designated “white knights” feel at liberty to cultivate and promote their own interpretations of victims and victimisation in the popular media, especially when discussed in the context of international politics and foreign affairs. Ironically, their views reflect the same colonial mentality arguing that people in their native countries can’t save themselves without foreign interference. For example, popular U.S. historian Timothy Snyder refers to people in Russia and Eastern Ukraine as brain-washed masses, totally zombified by political propaganda, who can’t think or decide for themselves without Western expertise.

There are several reasons why the White Savior Industrial Complex is an unscrupulous and corrupt practice.

First, it perpetuates the portrayal by popular media and NGOs of some countries and cultures as helpless and seeking Western intervention, which can negatively impact these countries’ images images. As a result, many in the West, for example, develop stereotypes of the African continent as a homogeneous and underdeveloped country in which people are “overgrown children” that need oversight.

Second, the White Savior Complex is driven by paternalistic attitudes that essentially deny people in other countries  agency of their own. In fact, these people often don’t really need or want any help. As previously mentioned, this provides an excuse for uninvited white man’s burden as a noble duty to help the “suffering Other”.

The media’s focus on popular and sensational aspects of local life and images of hunger, famine and poverty muffles alternative voices questioning serious problems of law and order, governance, and infrastructure. For example, the Kony-2012 campaign had no reference to the economic context or underlying systemic causes of the conflict. There were no questions raised about corporations and governments that fund and profit from the ongoing conflict.

Third, many popular social cause campaigns are short lived and unable to create any sustainable, fundamental changes. Many campaigns are too preoccupied with “giving a man a fish” instead of “a fishing rod”  that they end up creating additional recycling problems by dumping unwanted Western goods and old computers on African countries. In addition, they create incentives for illegal profiteering for black market dealers. Just like many self-directed “white knights” who are suckers for tales of woe, dazzled by their desire to “rescue” another created and idealized “victim,” many professional do-gooders often become excellent prey for numerous parasites. In many countries, local elites  conveniently take advantage of good intentions and frequently manipulate humanitarian aid providers into fulfilling her needs for money or resources. Similarly, local elites and politicians have in the past hijacked positive ideas for transformation, such as the notion of Euro-integration for Eastern Europe and the Balkans, to use this as a populist tool to stay in power.

Finally, the White Savior Complex is highly unethical because it is driven not by the compulsion to effect change, but primarily by the desire of many campaigners to look heroic, improve their self-worth, and feel good about themselves. They feed their egos by taking pictures with orphans and publishing them on social media under such hashtags as #loveorphans. An article in The Onion encourages” social media volunteerism stating that  a “6-day visit to rural African village completely changes woman’s Facebook profile.”

Every noble idea, such as altruism and volunteerism, may become a subject of mockery and ridicule when based on paternalistic attitudes, egocentrism and unrealistic expectations. For example, a new Kenyan comedy called “The Samaritans” successfully mocks the conduct of Western NGOs’ work in African countries by following the daily routine of Aid for Aid, a fictitious humanitarian organization that basically “does nothing” while trying to save the planet.  The real impact of such benevolent aspirations cannot be evaluated by the spirit of heroic altruism of the volunteers and donors, but rather reflect the needs of the recipients. As practice attests, however, many “white knights” often forget that they are solving the overseas problems that were created by their own countries in the first place.

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