Friday, March 23, 2012

Poverty Colonialism in Chicago and Uganda

Several years ago, a church that I was heavily involved in spent good parts of its summers bringing in youth groups from White suburban and exurban churches. This fulfilled a few needs. The need for the church to bring in some funds so it could pay its youth pastor full-time. The need for White youth a million miles removed from urban poverty to see it for a few days and feel better about themselves. The need for our neighbors to shake their heads at lost white kids in their neighborhood.

They usually did service projects, like picking up scattered trash in the neighborhoods and running Vacation Bible Schools. But, come to think of it, cleaning trash is probably a perfect metaphor for this type of poverty colonialism. White people coming to make a difference, not aware of their surroundings, not aware of who they are coming to serve, involved in futile projects that effectively shame those they are there to help. And then leaving - themselves feeling a little frustrated by the wind that blows all the trash back, by the generational sands of poverty that didn't recede during the three days of their visit, and by the humiliation of public service.

Although, I hasten to add, as far as these things are concerned, the church learned to take steps to educate their guests in a primer of urban living, using natives from the church for that task*. And I got to sit in during a screening of a local PBS documentary on the decades-long project of tearing down the notorious (but strategically located, prime real estate) Cabrini Green housing projects. The Greens were being shuttled for a mixed-income privatized project of town homes. The idea behind it is that the poor Black families that will remain (after the displacement of hundreds of families) will benefit from having upper middle class neighbors who diligently go to work every day to earn their keep and better their lives.

Some protest arose from the young viewers: How can the residents not want their help. It's obvious they need whatever help they can get!

Life in Chicago
Cabrini Green, from "Life in Chicago" by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John White, 1982. Found on Flickr.

This all struck close to home. After all, gentrification had been happening (and is still happening) in the surrounding neighborhoods and our own congregants were finding themselves unable to live in their neighborhoods anymore nd found themselves scattered from their networks of support and family. To those with plenty of money and who can afford alternatives methods of networking and support, this may not be such a primary need and they may not recognize it for what it is. But that's the heart of the matter of Poverty Colonialism: Educated white males are trained from an early age to truly believe we know better. This belies the heart of racism. We think we know better because - whether or not we have come to grips with it - we think we are better...

Teju Cole does an outstanding job of laying out the problems of Poverty Colonialism - what he and most others call the White Savior Industrial Complex (page 2 here) - in the Atlantic. I think the article needs to be required reading for all of us would-be saviors.

Some long-ish excerpts:

I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than "making a difference." There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them...

I am sensitive to the power of narratives. When Jason Russell, narrator of the Kony 2012 video, showed his cheerful blonde toddler a photo of Joseph Kony as the embodiment of evil (a glowering dark man), and of his friend Jacob as the representative of helplessness (a sweet-faced African), I wondered how Russell's little boy would develop a nuanced sense of the lives of others, particularly others of a different race from his own. How would that little boy come to understand that others have autonomy; that their right to life is not exclusive of a right to self-respect? In a different context, John Berger once wrote, "A singer may be innocent; never the song."

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of "making a difference."...

How, for example, could a well-meaning American "help" a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments... about how "we have to save them because they can't save themselves" can't change that fact...

If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself. The fact of the matter is that Nigeria is one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S., and American policy is interested first and foremost in the flow of that oil. The American government did not see fit to support the Nigeria protests... This was as expected; under the banner of "American interests," the oil comes first. Under that same banner, the livelihood of corn farmers in Mexico has been destroyed by NAFTA. Haitian rice farmers have suffered appalling losses due to Haiti being flooded with subsidized American rice. A nightmare has been playing out in Honduras in the past three years: an American-backed coup and American militarization of that country have contributed to a conflict in which hundreds of activists and journalists have already been murdered. The Egyptian military, which is now suppressing the country's once-hopeful movement for democracy and killing dozens of activists in the process, subsists on $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid. This is a litany that will be familiar to some. To others, it will be news. But, familiar or not, it has a bearing on our notions of innocence and our right to "help."

Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to "make a difference" trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don't always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage. We can participate in the economic destruction of Haiti over long years, but when the earthquake strikes it feels good to send $10 each to the rescue fund...

* Full disclosure, I had an opportunity to go over the script with one of the groups. I laid it in a bit heavy. I try not to be such an arse in public anymore. But anybody who follows me here or on Facebook knows where I put that energy.


  1. Marla Abe12:02 PM

    I personally am tired of the implications that Africans are poor, ignorant, less intelligent than us and need us to help them. On the question of the acceptance of gay lifestyles, for example, the opinion of the Southern World is not considered, as they aren't as educated in "science" as we are. We often pay someone to do mission work that would be more adequately done b someone already in the country.
    Due to a friendship I developed, our church has been helping an African church with its mission. We are constantly working at seeing them as the leaders and ourselves as simply supporters,not rescuers.
    Most people do not realize how the US keeps the Southern World in poverty and war. They prefer ignorance.

    1. I would heavily disagree with the "gay lifestyle" part - as it heavily endangers the lives of homosexuals and those accused of being homosexual. But I think those views will change as more open dialog happens.

      Of course, I agree with the rest.

  2. I remember being one of those groups.

  3. Curt A.8:38 AM

    This blog, and your particulary irritating one, "H8r Crimes & White Christian Privilege" are enlightening pieces that bring together your inner city upbringing, activity in those Christ-centered outreach efforts, and piercing insights on the dynamic of not just "racial relationships", but relationships across all peoples. mainly of differing economic and social experiences.

    I struggle--apparently not surprisingly--seeing the racial issues. When I serve now, or have in the past, among a cross cultural people group, I am intending to express compassion and the love of Christ. As I read your pieces, I acknowledge if I was "on the other side" of the outreach (and I have been a few times), such acts of "kindness" may become unwanted handouts belittling the pride and self respect of the recipients. Of course, as the tension comes, such an outcome is the last thing I would want to communicate.

    I am learning from you my friend, though not liking the process. Thanks for writing.


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