Trevor and i have not done a Tandem Blog post for a while and so we decided to jump right into this topic of The White Saviour Complex with the rules being five comments per person at around 100 words back and forth until we have a conversation to share. You can see this and more on Trevor’s Swart Donkey blog over here
Brett, you and I both come from incredibly similar backgrounds. We are also both extroverts and very keen to have a positive impact on the world. Then come the demons to wrestle. Poems like ‘White Man’s Burden’ by the author of the Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling. Cringe. The History of the ‘Civilising Missions’ of Colonialism as a modern version of the failed Crusades. I look around the world and see deep structural challenges and pain. In my core, I feel compelled to do something about. Yet something shouts back. White, English-speaking, Men like you and I have a lot to answer for. Is it our place to be at the front of discussions?
Great question, Trevor and i think this is one of those very thin lines we need to tread carefully. White people doing nothing is problematic for sure. White people trying to do everything or feeling like they need to swoop in and save the day [white saviour complex is a term for a reason] is seriously unhelpful too. So what’s a white middle-aged guy to do? i think, at the very least, that our role is to do the work that needs to be done with white middle-aged men. Call our own to action and to change and where necessary help explain concepts like white privilege and being an ally and sharing some of the lessons we have hopefully been learning as we have started to change. It is a sad reality that many white men will only listen to white men and so another place where we possibly have positive influence is to be able to draw that crowd and then hand over the mic to a black/coloured/indian person. How best do we leverage the white male privilege and influence we have without it being a power move is something to wrestle with i believe?
I am busy reading a book called ‘Factfulness‘ by Han Rosling. It is a really powerful reminder of how much the world has changed in our lifetimes. It talks about the Drama Instinct, and our need to divide things into categories (Rich/Poor, Developing/Developed, Racist/Not Racist, Us/Them) and create a gap. I worry that in our atonement, we end up focussing on and highlighting real, but increasingly extreme, problems. We feed them. We (cough) elect them. Partnered with that, I am reading ‘Trying not to Try‘ by Edward Slingerland on the Chinese idea of Wu Wei – action through inaction. I have always been what we called at Westville Boys’ High a ‘Try Hard’. Sometimes I think we end up falling over ourselves in our desperation to be agents of change. To hold that mic in the first place to be able to hand over.
i think in South Africa we have had too long a time of white people on the whole not contributing much to the betterment of our country. i don’t think it takes any action or effort to locate the privilege we have or the mic – i think what is key is what we do with what we have. i also believe that most significant change will come through relationships and if we all just focused on developing deeper authentic relationships with people who didn’t look like us then the majority of that other stuff will naturally be taken care of from the foundation or platform of friendship and family. i think i disagree with you on the not-trying part – i don’t think white people in South Africa right now need to be given more license to not do stuff.
Yes, the stuff I am reading about certainly doesn’t sit well with how we were brought up. We are wired on action and rolling your sleeves up. On ‘doing stuff’. It is interesting watching the miracle happening around the world, but particularly in China and India, over the last 30 years. As people are empowered through the removal of obstacles. The type of action I am suggesting isn’t doing nothing. It is more opening our eyes and curiosity to the things that are going well and feeding them. Often ‘giving back’ from a Privileged position feels hierarchical and condescending. I will include the cartoon you shared, which you then asked for a discussion around, which led to this exchange. I 100% agree it starts with developing more relationships. Most relationships I have seen that thrive have a degree of peer-to-peer respect and (wink, wink) Common Change. The irony implicit in Wu Wei is that ‘not trying’ opens up spontaneity and more effective action, because of the natural flow of things. Instead of fighting.
i completely agree that developing more relationships is the way to go and if the focus is on that then you can probably eliminate a lot of the trying. The white people i think of when i talk about those who have not made effort have particularly not made it in the area of relationships and so they tend to live in largely white bubbles and black/coloured/indian people tend to be the people who serve them [be it homes or petrol or groceries] which is problematic if that is the only narrative because then you don’t have to teach your children how to be prejudiced at all because the lesson is being modelled day in and day out. i do still think because of the extent of the inequality in South Africa that action has to be a part of moving forwards even beyond relationships [or around the foundation of relationships]. It is not enough to say let’s be better from now when the difference it still so glaringly stark. How does your thinking relate to this aspect of life?
I just think we end up focusing on the dramatic and missing the miraculous shift of the normal. So the Purple Cow gets the attention. The type of situation you describe was absolutely normal growing up. I had no people who weren’t Germanic in my class until I was 12. I was lucky to have parents who taught me about what was going on and to live in a relatively liberal place. Even then, Westville was by no means an exception to the Apartheid Bubble in terms of prejudice. Westville today has come on in leaps and bounds. It is not the same place. The ‘gap’ between Black and White has disappeared, and there are now heaps and heaps of positive examples of the kinds of conversations that need having. There is still a gap between the averages, but not a hole without real people. Just think of the variety of views in our Social Media conversations. I am not saying the example you highlight is okay. It isn’t. I am not asking you to change what you are doing (I got in trouble after our last conversation on anger). I still do a lot of fighting and focusing on the things that aren’t right. I just think perhaps we need to be pausing, celebrating, and remembering just what a miracle we have born witness to over the course of our lives.
Well, that is where i would strongly suggest we inject the Both/And over the Either/Or which if i have learned anything over the last four years – and hopefully i have – is the biggest of them all. We tend towards extremes or to putting up boundaries or insisting on labels and so much of that stuff is problematic. Yes, in many cases the gap between black and white has disappeared but also in many cases it hasn’t [maybe particularly in Cape Town where we have a bad rep for that sort of thing and well earned] and so we need to celebrate the victories and continue to shout the stories of those doing incredible things [people, communities, organisations] and this i feel could use way more airplay. But at the same time, we need to continue to hold the light in front of those who haven’t seen it yet and continue to call them to the table. Have we strayed a little bit from our starting point which seemed to be an acknowledgement that there is work to be done, but when it needs to be done, where is our place as white people in that? What is the Both/And to that question i wonder?
I think we can BOTH recognise that there is work to be done AND celebrate the progress that has been made. We can BOTH have a positive impact AND not fall to our ‘gap instinct’ of having to create an us and them to understand things. As the walls of Apartheid have fallen, perhaps our eyes need updating from 1994 to 2018. Much like the Africa of the ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all‘ from 1984 needs updating in the minds of those in the United Kingdom. I don’t think we need to be panicking and shouting to make real change. That can be true at the same time as not believing that the extremes are justified. To return to the start… I think the lessons of ‘Civilising Missions’ of the past and unintended consequences mean we should always be armed with a mirror, a feedback loop, and the knowledge that we are probably wrong in the way we see things. We don’t need to be passive. Curiosity and love aren’t passive… and we both know a dude who lived 2000 years ago who was both.
i really just wanted to say ‘Yes!’ as my final comment but people would suspect it wasn’t me. i love the idea of being “armed with a mirror, a feedback loop, and the knowledge that we are probably wrong in the way we see things” and also that “curiosity and love aren’t passive”. i have the strongest belief that whether people believe Jesus was God or not, we can learn so very much from the way He lived and the things He said. If there was ever someone who so completely got it. But He was known to shout and throw things when necessary and so again i will invoke the Both/And and suggest that perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face is figuring out the timing and audience for both. Jesus tended to humble [humiliate?] those who felt like they had it or knew it or were it. The woke crowd of His day perhaps? So maybe the biggest lesson out of all this is that we can leave the Saviouring to Jesus and seek to live out our curiosity and love unashamedly, while not giving in to who the world suggests should and shouldn’t be loved.
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Thanks Trevor for that conversation and if you would like to see more of those, make sure you go and visit his Swart Donkey blog where he have done a number of these types of conversations with me and other people.
But what about you? Any thoughts mentioned here that stirred you up in some way? Got you agreeing or angry or confused? Please give us some feedback in the comments section below and let’s build a conversation from here.