The White savior: a person of privilege who picks a cause they know little to nothing about and insists on solutions that inevitably cause more harm than good. YES! Illustration by Fran Murphy.
The time we’re living in requires an extraordinary understanding of who we are, what we’re working toward, and how to get there. As people committed to social justice in the time of Trump, we have a twofold challenge: resisting an administration that came into power through an election won on the dehumanization of marginalized people, while also being mindful not to reproduce the devastating hierarchies that mimic that power. So far, we’ve largely come up short.
A new book by Jordan Flaherty, "No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality," offers insight into how the practice of “saviorism” injures our movements and provides visions for an alternative and much-needed praxis.
You’re no doubt familiar with the White savior: a person of privilege picks a cause they know little to nothing about and insists on solutions that inevitably cause more harm than good. As Flaherty explains, the savior mentality cannot exist without turning people into objects who need rescuing.
“It is as old as conquest and as enduring as colonialism,” he writes. As an activist and a journalist, Flaherty has witnessed firsthand the harms of saviorism and neatly lays out countless examples of its failure—perhaps most poignantly when he writes about Brandon Darby. Flaherty cites numerous articles and other activists for his well-researched chapter about Darby, a man he’s known for several years.
Darby’s origin myth, as it were, begins in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when, Darby says, he rescued Robert King, a Black Panther who spent three decades in solitary confinement until his conviction was overturned in 2001. Darby, along with anarchist organizer scott crow, “had taken a boat to Robert King’s house [and] faced down state troopers who got in his way.” Shortly after, Darby became a leader in “Common Ground, an anarchist-leaning volunteer group that brought thousands of young, mostly White volunteers to work on rebuilding New Orleans,” Flaherty writes.
What followed, as described in No More Heroes, is a case of “disaster masculinity,” a term coined by scholar Rachel Luft to describe the familiar practice in which charismatic men (often White—but not always) poise themselves to presumably lead a marginalized group to freedom. What ensues is destructive abuse and exploitation against the very people these saviors claim to want to rescue.
As described in No More Heroes, in the case of Darby, it was not only the Black people of New Orleans who were disregarded to let Darby shine, but also women who were sidelined through the use of sexual assault under his leadership at Common Ground. Despite constant warnings about and accusations against him, Darby garnered and maintained support from well-intentioned men and was allowed to continue to do his work however he saw fit. That work paved a path of ruin.
Shortly thereafter, according to Darby’s own account, he became an informant for the FBI.
As Flaherty explains, Darby tipped off the FBI about Austin, Texas, activist (and Flaherty’s friend) Riad Hamad, a full-time schoolteacher who used to sell crafts in support of Palestinian children, an operation he ran from his home. Darby apparently convinced the FBI that Hamad had been living a double life, but a subsequent raid of Hamad’s home found no evidence of any crime. Less than two months later, Hamad was found dead in an Austin lake with his mouth duct-taped and his arms bound. The death was ruled a suicide—but Darby suggested to Flaherty that the FBI may have killed Hamad. Months later, Darby was outed as an informant.
Men such as Darby, who take center stage in struggles they know nothing about, who are applauded for doing so, and who are excused for abusive behavior, don’t always turn into informants for the FBI. But the truth is that they don’t have to. To make this point, No More Heroesquotes scholar Courtney Desiree Morris’ essay “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants”: “Before or regardless of whether they are ever recruited by the state to disrupt a movement or destabilize an organization, they’ve likely become well versed in practices of disruptive behavior.”
That is, activist men who come to command without listening to those they’re ostensibly helping—and dismiss marginalized people who critique their methods—produce a kind of devastation that makes the project of systemic oppression that much easier. Darby’s work, however outwardly flawed, was also unconditionally backed by community supporters.
“This period in New Orleans crystallized the idea of the savior for me. It is not just about Brandon Darby, but also about the people who followed him,” Flaherty writes. “Darby is not so much a prototypical savior as he is the kind of dangerous person who can rise to power when we are seeking saviors.” The way that saviors are doing the work, and the way it’s supported by activists seeking a savior, only serves to perpetuate inequity and sow discord. And that has a lasting, if not permanent, effect on marginalized people involved in movement work, who are already less visible.
Flaherty’s book doesn’t focus solely on Darby—in fact, Darby’s mostly limited to one of 11 chapters in No More Heroes. The rest cover observations from cities as far away as Gaza, and organizations ranging from Teach for America to Occupy Wall Street. Part of what will strike you about No More Heroes is the multitude of voices included throughout its pages. The author manages to amplify the voices of people who have drawn significant conclusions across the spectrum of privilege and marginalization.
Although I recommend reading the book in its entirety, most of the chapters stand alone, so that you can pick up what piques your interest from the chapter titles. The final three chapters, which cover Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter—along with a thoughtful ending on how to decenter privilege—are worth reading in one sitting if possible. Flaherty’s knowledge of the last few decades of grassroots organizing proves especially incisive here.
Flaherty concludes his first chapter by quoting the Zapatista saying “preguntando caminamos,” which he translates as “Walking, we ask questions,” explaining that one shouldn’t “be so afraid to take action that you are immobilized.” Early on, I returned to these pages over and over again, mostly because my interpretation of this phrase is different. For me, a better translation might be “Asking questions, we walk.” But even that translation doesn’t convey the depth of the words in Spanish, which can also be interpreted to mean “Asking questions, we walked,” to indicate the past tense of asking and walking to arrive at the present.
"Preguntando caminamos" originally comes from an early Zapatista communiqué in 1994, which tells the story of two gods, Ik’al and Votán, who were one. One asked the other to walk, and the other asked how and where. The two gods couldn’t move at the same time, so they agreed to walk together but separately. All in small and deliberate steps. It doesn’t matter who walked first, the story goes—it matters that they asked questions before moving. The gods have walked with questions ever since and have never stopped. And, in the Zapatista story, real people have learned from the gods that questions serve us to walk together and separately, and never stand still.
By the end of reading No More Heroes, it mattered less to me how Flaherty, a writer I’ve long admired, interpreted the phrase. It mattered more that he took the time to incorporate his understanding of this phrase in his opening chapter. I know he and I are walking together but separately. Flaherty’s book is a critical and welcomed meditation on how imperative it is to keep a measured stride on the long marathon toward justice. It couldn’t come at a better time.
This article was first published in YES! Magazine.