Telling Someone Else’s Story and the White Savior Complex

One thing that has come to be my biggest pet peeves is allies trying to tell someone else’s story. While I was growing up and finding my own way as a beginning activist, I was fed the narrative to speak for those who are voiceless. But as I grew and learned, I realized that no one is inherently voiceless – people often are able and should be allowed to share their own stories, to create their own narratives.

Part of being an activist, of being an ally with any community is to listen to the people tell their own stories and lift up their voices rather than drown out them out by talking more loudly. And more often than not, if you’re not a part of the community, odds are you have no idea the extent of the issues or the solutions that could actually work. Linda Martin Alcoff wrote about the problem of speaking for others; some of her main points include listening to less privileged speakers instead of speaking over them and remain open to criticism.

For a transcript of the video, click here.

And a lot that comes with this topic is the problematic nature of white saviors because there’s this idea, this nature that as white people living in a western country (like the US), we have the answers to ending oppression and the world’s problems. Teju Cole wrote about the white savior industrial complex, highlighting some campaigns like #StopKony/#Kony2012.  Anne Theriault wrote about the white feminist savior complex, touching on some of the points that Cole wrote about particularly in the context of white western feminism. Toi Scott wrote about the problems with the white savior complex, including tokenization of people of color and erroneous assumptions. Julie Hall wrote about what really happens when white saviors try to ‘save’ Muslim women, writing specifically about an interaction she had with a white man attempting to ‘save’ Muslim women, saying that:

Not only that, but he denies women of color agency and heroizes himself and Western people who work in the developing world. “We, we, we, we, we,” he intoned. We have to take initiative.We have to go to the local authorities. We have to start these projects. We have to help them see. Because they obviously can’t fix any problems without the aid of the Great White Hero.

His condescension towards me is more than personally irritating. It is representative of how privileged people treat marginalized people. His disrespect of my work experience was evident and, regrettably, predictable. A white man arrogantly attempting to demean a woman of color is not new or shocking.

Having agency and control of your own narrative is such a unbelievably important thing, especially for marginalized communities whose stories are often removed to be told by others. Being an ally to any community and being an activist in general, to me, means listening to and uplifting the voices of those trying to speak. Highlighting the stories and narratives from marginalized and oppressed communities is a critical part of acting as an ally (particularly since a big part of being an ally also includes not having all of the focus on you).

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