I spend a great deal of time talking about the intersecting vectors of oppression. Some conversations are more difficult than others. Critical discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, colonialism, and other forms of systemic oppression are never easy. However, conversations about institutionalized marginalization often become super fraught in this era of neo liberalism. As Angela Davis points out in her examination of racism in the neo liberal era, the problem with neo liberalism lies in its efforts to construct and perpetuate ahistorical ideologies. According to Davis, neoliberalism suggests that, “history doesn’t matter.” Therefore, discourses about racial subjection (and other markers of liminality) are presumed to exist with no thought as to how the present moment is informed by history or Avery Gordon’s ghosts.
If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for granted realities, the ghost is just the sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you a haunting is taking place. The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life… To impute a kind of subjectivity to ghosts implies that from certain standpoints, the dialectics of visibility and invisibility involve constant negotiation between what can be seen and what is in the shadows- Avery Gordon in Charles Lemert’s Social Theory: the Multicultural and Classic Readings
What is in the shadows actually matter. Our conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, class, sanity, and the like did not materialize out of thin air. They were discursively formed. Therefore, we cannot truly dismantle systemic oppression if we refuse to see subjection for what it is and insist on ignoring how it was shaped. In this era of neoliberalism, we find that some seek to replace #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter through a refusal to engage with how the historical construction of Black people as abject figures and dehumanized specters rather than actual human beings manifests in the contemporary moment. Consequently, neoliberal humanism appears as benign when the sad truth of the matter is that we are merely witnessing a thinly veiled deployment of white supremacist violence. This pseudo humanism, to use Aimé Césaire’s term from a Discourse on Colonialism, is a part of the problem.
To all of my white (and otherwise privileged) neo liberal homies who are trying to “save” some disenfranchised folk, do me a favor and wheel and come again. To be clear, I’m not saying that one shouldn’t be interested in pursuing social transformation in a world that deeply needs more love, compassion, solidarity, and structural change. I am merely asking you to examine your strategies and employ a robust critical consciousness in your approach. More specifically, I’m asking you to abandon the white savior complex and learn how to be an ally in the struggle. You’ve heard through the grapevine or through the media that life can be hard in “other” places in the world, especially those predominantly Black spaces somewhere in those nebulous regions called “the islands” and/or “Africa.” You want to fix our problems with education, healthcare, poverty, environmental catastrophes and the like. While this “heroic (white) American sentimentality” (to dust off Teju Cole’s 2012 piece) may be rooted in a space filled with good intentions, it is also dangerous.
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.”
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. -Teju Cole
The white savior complex and the white man’s burden invoke a hegemonic symbolic order that is prefaced on schemas of racial difference. We see powerless and dependent Black and Brown beings who can presumably only be saved by white privileged Americans. More specifically, our systems of knowledge are erased as the Westerner assumes that they know what is truly best for us. At times, we aren’t even consulted. In other moments, we are simply invoked as props or assistants to the white American hero. I’ve often heard tourists lament about “how poor people are in the Virgin Islands” and “how bad our education system is.” They then start to describe fantasies about moving to our “beautiful” islands and fixing one problem or another. Here, we find no interrogation of privilege, paternalism, displacement of local bodies, or the colonizing gaze.
This savior complex is rooted in ideologies that are rarely interrogated. The notion of American exceptionalism, or the idea that the United States of America is the leader of the free world, allows tourists to make a spectacle of our problems while ignoring their own. Even more so, the tourist can mitigate any feelings of guilt and replace it with satisfaction without ever having to interrogate the structural component of global white supremacy. If we are speaking of the U.S. Virgin Islands specifically, how has continuous colonial subjection created the conditions that we are in today? More importantly, what are our discursive locations in the colonial project? If this is a colonial space, someone is doing the colonizing.
In essence, we don’t need colonizing saviors. If you are trying to save us, wheel and come again. We need allies.