In the real world, people don’t need heroes or rescue: They need systemic solutions to racism, patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism. But the seductive myth of the savior complex all too often leads us astray, as Jordan Flaherty shows in No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality. Robin D.G. Kelley calls this book “A perfect gift for the age of Trump.” Get your copy by making a tax-deductible donation to Truthout today!
Could charity and the mission of many non-governmental organizations be related to white privilege? Jordan Flaherty argues “yes” in the following excerpt from his new book, No More Heroes.
The savior mentality means that you want to help others but are not open to guidance from those you want to help. Saviors fundamentally believe they are better than the people they are rescuing. Saviors want to support the struggle of communities that are not their own, but they believe they must remain in charge. The savior always wants to lead, never to follow. When the people they have chosen to rescue tell them they are not helping, they think those people are mistaken. It is almost taken as evidence that they need more help.
The savior mentality is not about individual failings. It is the logical result of a racist, colonialist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal system setting us against each other. And being a savior is not a fixed identity. Under the struggle to survive within capitalism, most of us are forced into decisions that contradict our ideals. Many people are involved in liberation movements in their free time while their day job is at a charity or other nonprofit that does not challenge the status quo. We can be a savior one day and an ally the next.
The savior mentality always looks for solutions by working within our current system, because deeper change might push us out of the picture. This focus on quick fixes is also partly a product of an outrage-oriented media. We pay attention to an issue for one day, and we want to hear that someone will be fired or arrested. If that happens, we move on.
Saviors adopt trendy labels such as social entrepreneur or change agent. They preach the religion of kinder capitalism, the idea that you can get rich while also helping others, that the pursuit of profit, described with buzzwords like engagement, innovation, and sharing economy, will improve everyone’s lives through efficiency. However, I stand with nineteenth-century novelist Honoré de Balzac, who wrote that behind every fortune is a concealed crime. I don’t believe you can get rich while doing good — wealth and justice are mutually exclusive. The more wealth exists in the world, the less justice.
“There’s a term, social entrepreneurship, that I see tossed around a lot these days,” says poverty lawyer Dean Spade. “That what we just need is the right person to graduate from Harvard, maybe Harvard Business School, and have this vision about how to change poverty, how to end poverty. That kind of imagination, that there’s just the smart right-thinking charismatic individual, and that’s how change is made, is completely the opposite of everything we know about movements. We know that real expertise and leadership around transforming poverty is going to come from masses of poor people in coordinated movement together solving these problems and creating a new world.”
This paucity of imagination has led to a bleaker life for all of us. If all of our “solutions” are just tinkering within the system, how can we truly imagine, let alone build, a better world? It’s also disempowering — it teaches that most people will have no role in affecting the problems that afflict them.
For some, the journey to more accountable activism can be difficult. People with privilege often respond with defensiveness when their privilege is pointed out. Robin DiAngelo coined the term white fragility to describe white reactions to criticism from people of color, including “the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” All of which, she notes, serves to “reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
White people have a hard time talking about what racism is. When someone is a member of the Klan or says racial slurs, we call that racism. But when we discuss race we often don’t discuss systems that maintain inequality and injustice. Scholar and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” It’s not about feelings and words; it’s about the devastation visited upon communities of color by systems like capitalism and white supremacy.
Novelist and activist Sarah Schulman describes privilege as seeing your dominance as “simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order … the self-deceived premise that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement.” Those who have power hate accountability, she adds, in favor of “vagueness, lack of delineation of how things work, the idea that people do not have to keep their promises.”
The privilege of the able-bodied leads to people with disabilities being pushed out of our movements and our society. Saviors often see people with disabilities as fundamentally less than a full person, of needing help, rather than having wisdom and experience to learn from. Rather than deserving political power and autonomy, they are supposed to be grateful for telethons and sympathy. The disability justice movement is mostly led by people of color, and advocates for change on an intersectional model, as opposed to the mostly white-led disability rights movement. (“Intersectionality” refers to a way of looking at interlocking identities and oppressions and was coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989). Disability justice says we all must move forward together or it’s not really justice. It issues a challenge to the able-bodied. As poet, author, and disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has said, “You need to change the way your life is and the way movements are so we can actually be part of that radical imagination.”
People with privilege are raised to see their own experience as central and objective. We can’t imagine a story in which we are not the protagonist. We can’t imagine a different, better economic system. We can’t imagine a world without white, cisgendered, male dominance.
Saviors are not interested in examining their own privilege. We don’t want to see that the systems of race and class and gender that keep us in comfort where we are — in the “right” jobs and neighborhoods and schools — are the same systems that created the problems we say we want to solve.
Charity is often seen as the wealthy helping the less fortunate. But the roots of modern charity have a sinister undertone, rooted in maintaining inequality. Charitable gifts in the postcolonial Americas came with biological warfare. In 1763 Lord Jeffrey Amherst plotted to give blankets infected with smallpox to Native Americans, writing to a colonel at Fort Pitt, “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” Of course, most of today’s charitable enterprises do not have such murderous intentions. But in many ways they have not come that far from the days of Amherst — generous on the surface, but with deadly consequences.
The Progressive Era in US politics, from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, represented a rise in charitable giving and a more active role for the federal government in blunting the sharpest abuses of capitalism (passing labor reforms like the minimum wage law, for example, and antitrust statutes). But this era, when colonial expansion was publicly defended through the philosophy of manifest destiny, also modeled the condescending kindness we see in the worst kinds of charity today. This was also the era of forced sterilizations and hospitalizations of people with disabilities. In other words, military invasions in the “best interests” of those being invaded abroad and interventions into the lives of poor people at home, also to “help.”
Entities like the Charity Organization Societies provided aid to the poor while catering to wealthy sensibilities. The New York branch’s Hand-Book for Friendly Visitors among the Poor divided the “worthy cases needing relief ” from the “shiftless cases needing counsel, stimulus, and work.” In words that have been echoed by charitable givers a million times since, the handbook advises, “It is well for the visitor to bear in mind the important distinction between poverty resulting from misfortune and that resulting from ignorance or vice.”
Philanthropy is portrayed as generous, but where did that money come from? Have the Rockefeller and Ford charities washed the blood off of their family names, and should we allow them to? The more than $700 billion held by US foundations is twice stolen. It was stolen the first time by making profit from the work of others (employees or even slaves) and from the earth’s resources. The money was stolen a second time when the wealthy avoided taxes by funneling their fortunes through foundations, which allow them to dictate how the money will be spent.
As rapper and mogul Jay-Z wrote in his book Decoded: “To some degree charity is a racket in a capitalist system, a way of making our obligations to each other optional, and of keeping poor people feeling a sense of indebtedness to the rich, even if the rich spend every other day exploiting those same people.”
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When charities and other nonprofits seek to “save” poor people, they often end up perpetuating unjust hierarchies. Sixty percent of US nonprofits see their mission as serving people of color. Sixty-three percent say that diversity is a key value of their organization. Yet 93 percent of nonprofit chief executives, 92 percent of their boards, and 82 percent of their staff are white. Thirty percent of nonprofit boards are all-white. These statistics suggest that the people directing and funding these organizations have absorbed the idea that people of color are not the experts in what they need.
Despite mission statements that nobly describe commitment to racial justice, many of these “liberal” or humanitarian organizations are just a couple staffing changes (or less) from having the look of a white supremacist organization. And if you don’t think any people of color are qualified to work on your project to help people of color, are you sure you’re not a white supremacist? What is your definition of white supremacy if it does not include undervaluing the work, intelligence, and experience of people of color?
Copyright (2016) by Jordan Flaherty. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publishers, AK Press.