Skip to content

We Know What Is Best For Africans Like We Knew What Was Best For Native Americans

Africa_satellite_orthographicSo I hope everyone is getting the concept that “perfectly joyful” has some fairly tongue in cheek connotations to it. I tend to blog, not when I am ecstatic over a new crochet piece but when I am fired up, royally. Last night got me all fired up! Why? Read the title….that fired up. However, I want to write this in hopes that the people with whom I was having the heated discussion will read it and not get offended. Good luck, huh? especially knowing me and my fairly scathing posts. The one caveat is that  no matter what I post, even when we have talked about it hours ago, is not read…so maybe they will miss it…or maybe I will post it someplace where it is hard to ignore. I guess we will find out when I judge how mean I am going to get.

On with it. Well, the alternative title to this blog was The White Savior Industrial Complex….unfortunately, someone much smarter than I has already taken that title, so I will settle with my own…same sentiment, though.

What happened? What has caused this upset….and then this hesitation in spitting it out? Let me describe the sit….e….a….tion.

We have this group at my church (right there, everyone should pause and tell me to stop typing…of course, I cannot). They met at my home last night and it ended rather daftly. Daft is a mild sentiment. It ended wretchedly. If I was a crying woman, I would have been crying. I am not, and did not. I type instead. Everything was great until we started talking about Africa. God, why Africa? It got very heated because a couple of folks were/are of the opinion that we, rich, white, Americans ought to be in Africa assisting them in whatever assistance we deem necessary. Now, I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth but that was my take on it. I, being the cultural anthropologist took umbrage with both the sentiments and the specific wording and way it was being said. However, before we even go further into the “African Argument” I have to give a mea culpa side note.

Mea Culpa Side Note

I have a real problem with people positing that they or their relatives are “experts” in a field and acting as if I am some nitwit housewife whose only joy in the world is to crochet toy bats. I am not saying that this is what was said, it is how I took it and it is my problem. You ever notice that when other people are debating how many years the Jews were in captivity in Egypt, my head is down in my smart phone looking it up. I would NEVER hazard a guess out loud. For shits and giggles my internal guess was 400 years. Turns out it was 430 years…if you are using the Bible as your time measure. Basically, I don’t talk out my ass. I am not good at it and it makes me  highly uncomfortable. I don’t “wing it” in conversations. I am just fine saying, “I don’t know. Tell me about it.” When I don’t know. When I know….I just do. I read like a lunatic and I have probably read 20 scholarly journal articles on the topic, or I just wouldn’t insist upon it. Maybe it is more of an underlying fear of being proven wrong. This is deep psychological analysis. That said, when people approach me as if I am talking out of my ass.  I am offended.  It is my problem. I admit it.

On with the “African Argument” (Expect Scholarly Article References)

So the argument is whether we ought to be in Africa “helping” them or not, basically. At some point there was a distinction drawn between missions and NGOs but looking back, that may not have been fruitful. The last statement made was that I was painting all white, African bound do-gooders with a broad brush. It was a bit offensive but not an altogether inaccurate statement. I was, and I am.

Where do I start?

White Paternalism

White paternalism is the belief that whites know what is best for people of other races, viewing them pretty much as overgrown children. It is racist since it assumes that whites know better than other races.

The first example is …..wait for it…White man’s burden – the duty of whites to help the lesser races. Used in the early 1900s to excuse imperialism. This phrase was actually said last night.

I suggest that everyone go to this site and read the article. It is interesting and it sets the stage for my argument.

What is your stupid argument already?

My point is that we don’t know! Thats it! We think we know. We want to do good! We want to make people’s lives better.
We have the best of intentions. The problem is that we don’t know. Us imposing our version of what is needed, wanted, good, healthy, right….add a word….borders on racism because we don’t know and we insist, like our life depends upon it, that we do know.

When you start listening to the people in the countries you are “helping” sometimes they say things you don’t want to hear. Try on Teju Cole’s piece “The White Industrial Savior Complex”. It is scathing. Here it is…right from Cole’s mouth…in tweet form

1- From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.

2- The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.

3- The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

4- This world exists simply to satisfy the needs—including, importantly, the sentimental needs—of white people and Oprah.

5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

6- Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.

7- I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

I also came across a white do-gooder blog trying to come to grips with African folks telling us to take our good intentions and shove them up our asses. Called The Complexity of the White Industrial Savior Complex. I love his reference to Thoreau’s quote “If I knew for certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing to me good. I should run for my life.”

The way he describes the problem is thusly

“Recently I attended a conference in Cape Town called Open Forum, put on by the Open Society Foundation. One of the best talks at the event was given by Mona Eltahawy, a brilliantly articulate feminist and Egyptian. She spoke with passion and clarity about the challenges facing Egypt as it struggles to re-define itself as a nation. The poignant part for me though came when she was asked “What can the West do to help?” and she recalled what Malcolm X said to a young, white, liberal woman in the early sixties, who believed in his cause, and who asked him what she could do to help. To which Malcom X replies “nothing”, or at least that’s what he says in the Spike Lee movie.”

His conclusion is AWESOME and completely summarizes my problem with the entire discussion:

“is it legitimate for white middle-class North Americans and Europeans to come to Africa with the intention of “helping” of “doing good”? I think the answer to the question phrased in that particular way is a resounding “NO”. It isn’t legitimate because nobody really wants to be “done unto” and it reeks of paternalism and power imbalance.” There is another way for him…it is about loving Africa and “being useful” to them in VERY QUALIFIED ways. He goes on to give rules of being a white do-gooder in Africa…we all do well to read them if we are so inclined to that manner of do-gooder-ism. (see there is another link…so you really can easily go read them.)

There is the gist of my argument….let’s get to the specifics

The problem, for me, is cultural bias. Cultural anthropology=culture related issues. One thing I kept bringing up to prove my point…which, again, may have been lame in retrospect but does serve to illustrate my point of cultural bias is that people who we look at and perceive as necessarily being unhappy, are in fact, very happy according to every measure we can throw at them. Despite our best efforts to prove their misery, they seem to be very, very happy. An article called Culture and Conceptions of Happiness: Individual Oriented and Social Oriented SWB, by Luo Lu and Robin Gilmour may give us some clues about why this is the case. We don’t even judge happiness the same in other cultures. Do you know that some cultures are happy, merely because they are in harmony, balance, and fitness with their surroundings? It has nothing to do with individual variables that we think are so dang critical.

As it turns out Latin American folks, especially the most rural and poor are the happiest folks in the world? What with no air conditioning, running water, or t.v.? How is that even possible? Well because they describe happiness as being a “national mentality.” “Despite all the problems we are facing, we are surrounded by natural beauty.” Wow..defies our ideas about what makes people happy. In Panama and Paraguay 85% of people said they were “well rested, had been treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, learned something interesting recently, and felt feelings of enjoyment.”

Happiness, like other concepts, is culture bound. We go out there on our stallions imposing our ideas of what make people happy and all manner of tragedy ensues. My husbands quote for this blog was “the best minds in America came up with the Trail of Tears.” And that is where it went last night.

DG1: Water is an issue. We need to give the Africans fresh water. Everyone needs clean water.

Me: Well, we have problems with that. Across Africa, a majority of food was gathered along long daily walks to get water. Now, they need a grocery store.

My husband: Well then, even worse is that the wells break and now the Africans are dependent on buying their food, not gathering. We always cause more problems than we solve.

DG1: Well, if the girls are on daily walks they can’t go to school. They will be uneducated and illiterate. Everyone needs to be educated.

Me: Because no education takes place on any daily walks. [mouth drops open, agape]

So many issues with this. Where do I start? It is just all about this idea that we know what is best. We know the best way to give people water. We know the best way to educate people and what it is that they need to be educated with.

Fuck, my husband was functionally illiterate until the 4th grade and he was attending a rich, white private school…WALDORF! Nobody cares when rich, white people choose to educate in a different way and decide not to teach their kids to read.  Nobody bats an eye when the children never see text books but damn in an African mother gets to educate her child on what matters in their life? Food? Medicinal plants? Where to find water? Saying these folks aren’t educated makes me say, “wow!” I know what you are going to say….it is about the choice….They didn’t have the choice to learn to read and write and now they do. Well when we rich white people go into an area and give people a whole new set of choices all of a sudden there are unforseen consequences to our good intentions. Bad consequences.

I will end my rant with another mea culpa

I watch CBS Sunday Morning. Heck I record it. Last Sunday there was a piece on the McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson. He and his wife passed by the projects they grew up in. The commentator asked, “would you change where you came from if you could?” His wife said, “no”. I expected her to say, something like, we wouldn’t be who we are today without this experience. What she said was that there was real joy and happiness growing up there. It was a family.  That can be hard to find when you make a lot of money. Blew me away….mea culpa.

4 Comments

  1. Adam Atamian on October 28, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Great blog! You present a much needed critical voice in the matter. Where conservatives simply dismiss all aid for fear of losing a buck, your blog provides an expression of dissatisfaction with the other extreme: the liberal’s undirected and relentless barrage of misguided parenting.

    • Rachael Atamian on October 28, 2014 at 7:55 pm

      Thank you for your kind words. Always out there raising some eyebrows and causing trouble.

  2. azjaleah on November 9, 2014 at 9:35 am

    Hey, ‘Waldorf’ is not a rich, white private school. A large percentage of the enrollees are gifted their enrollment from the rich, white tuition-payers. So bless those rich, white tuitioners because their ability to pay full tuition helped your husband become the creative thinker that he is.

    And “…functionally illiterate until the 4th grade…” contains the seed of a bias about what constitutes a ‘good education’. My greatest insights about myself and the world came to me through the act of art. Naturally, Waldorf’s art-based curriculum was the best thing I could offer my child.

    Sorry, I do get sensitive when you bring up the ‘Waldorf problem.’

    Next time I am at an Oprah taping, I will be sure to check under the seat for a solution to the African problem.

    • Rachael on May 27, 2015 at 12:49 pm

      I appreciate your take on Waldorf…but really, even in downtown SD, I looked around to a lily white group of kids in a racially diverse neighborhood. Aside from the scholarship kids, they all have to have parents making a six figure income. Rich…white…isn’t so unfair, in my experience.

      It is interesting that Adam doesn’t take offense at being labeled “functionally illiterate”. Why ? because he told me so. He didn’t know what a textbook was and it was extremely difficult for him to figure out the reading thing. Because no novels were presented to him during his formative years, he has no delight in reading stories for the sake of reading stories.

      Wildly, little Adam is much more a child who should have gone to Waldorf than your son. Adam is an INTJ, after all.

Leave a Comment