White saviourism has thrown travellers from first-world countries into disrepute
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
White saviourism is a highly problematic complex—it is patronizing, and an extension of white supremacy. And this complex comes with many repercussions; I believe that its connotations have tainted those of other volunteering first-world travelers. Do not get me wrong, by no means do I think white saviours giving the rest of us a bad rep is the worst consequence of this “ism.” However, as someone who has volunteered abroad in a half-dozen countries, I would like to illuminate the line that separates a “white saviour” from someone who simply volunteers in a country other than their own to help people.
White saviorism refers to a white person who helps or aids non-white people in a way that is self-serving, but for the purpose of this article, I would extend the definition as the false belief that one’s own nationality—being from a first world country—grants them superiority over others. This self-aggrandizing supremacy gives this person the illusion of an inherent capability to “help” those from a less-privileged country—regardless of their actual knowledge or education. I would also argue that a white saviour does not need to be Caucasian and can be anyone from a first world country.
This term is closely tied to “voluntourism”—the action of traveling to another country to volunteer. While this term does not always outline something negative nor appropriating, it has been linked to a dverse outcomes. And, while I think all white saviours participate in voluntourism, not all voluntourism involves these sorts. Unfortunately, these self-interested, ego-inflating individuals have stigmatized those who have volunteered or participated in similar international work. I am often apprehensive to share with people that I have volunteered abroad. Do I feel guilty—like I have participated in white saviourism? No. Do I feel embarrassed that in giving such little information regarding my experience, people would haphazardly associate me with the definition of one? Absolutely.
In 2015, I went to Nicaragua for what began as an indefinite time. I had heard about a work exchange website—a platform where travelers can connect with people looking for volunteers. The usual deal was a couple hours of work in exchange for meals and a place to stay. Through this platform, I first connected with a hacienda (an estate) owner outside Granada. There I painted, cleaned, and fed his horses, crocodiles, and monkeys. A few weeks later, I went to the city of Granada and began bartending at hostels. While bartending in Vancouver soaked my life in alcohol, at least I was always able to leave work at the end of the shift. When you bartend at a hostel bar—the same place where you are essentially living—the on/off switch does not come as easily. Wanting a change of pace, I began teaching English to first graders. Prior to beginning, I was weary on whether or not I should go forth with it. While the organization was non-religious and created by Nicaraguans—an organization occupying the opposite of which, might surely involve white saviourism—this notion still lingered and felt distant from my identity. In no way did I believe that my nationality—nor any nationality, was superior to another.
Frankly, I often give shit to Caucasian people—note, that I am Caucasian myself—for our vast histories in stealing other societies’ culture, land, and art, among other things, as due in part to an incorrect Darwinist race superiority theory. I did go forth with teaching English for my remaining months there. In the following years, I returned to Latin America and Europe where I participated in similar work-exchanges, gardening, teaching, painting, cooking, cleaning and so forth—and along the way I met many humble travelers from first-world countries who were not posting their “good deeds abroad” on social media for self gratification.
The point of my anecdote is that I believe that individuals can volunteer abroad without a supremist perspective and without displacing those native to the area. In being well-versed in both the possible consequences of voluntourism, white saviourism, and t he vast history of how racial inequalities came to be, international work-exchange and volunteering is possible and innocuous.