Will you commit class suicide with me?

Recognizing that privilege is unearned is essential to dismantling the white saviour complex.

Rolf Straubhaar
14 August 2015

Hilary Swank in “Freedom Writers.” Credit: All rights reserved.

When I was eight years old, I lived with my family in the giant metroplex of São Paulo, Brazil. One evening my parents took us to the movies to see Back to the Future Part II, a relative luxury in what were very troubled times for the Brazilian economy.

On the way out of the film, as my imagination soared on dreams of riding a hoverboard just like the characters on the screen, we passed by several street-children wearing worn-out clothes. The oldest of them looked to be about my age, and she was pushing two toddlers in a wheelbarrow and holding a sign that asked for money.

At this point in my life, my main concerns were waking up in time for my morning cartoons and remembering to buy my favourite comics every month. Yet there in front of me was a child just like me in years who was already responsible for feeding herself and two other children. It was the first time that I remember feeling the reality of income inequality, and much later in life, it provided a formative experience for me as I began to study ‘white privilege,’  ‘white supremacy,’ and the ‘white saviour complex.’ 

By ‘white saviour complex’ I mean the idea that socially privileged individuals possess, simply by virtue of their position, some unique ability or power to help less-privileged people in ways they’re unable to help themselves. In hierarchical societies both the one per cent and the 99 per cent routinely receive messages implying that their respective positions are natural, justified and based on merit.

These messages translate easily into a belief in superior wisdom and capability for those who are born into privilege. We see this reflected constantly in the media we consume, which elevates narratives portraying noble white saviours helping marginalized people of color who are seemingly unable to help themselves—the self-sacrificing small-town lawyer who represents black defendants in the American South in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, or the rich white woman who adopts a black teenage boy in The Blind Side and encourages him to pursue a career in American football.

I grew up surrounded by these narratives and found them immensely appealing. I wanted to use the law to stand up for the downtrodden like Atticus Finch, or help a bunch of lost black and brown students to find purpose and self-confidence like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers. The role of people like me in narratives like these was very clear and—fresh out of college—I was on fire to get started.

My cognitive dissonance emerged about halfway through my second job in international development, while I was working for an NGO in adult education in rural Mozambique. I had worked in this field before, as an English as a Second Language instructor in Houston and with community organizations in Northeast Brazil. But many of the Mozambican staff in the organization had much more experience than I did, and most were many years my senior.

Yet time and time again, they would ask me for advice and guidance, often with regard to tasks that were far outside my professional purview. And time and time again, I would give my uninformed opinion. That’s when the question hit me: why did I keep on pretending? The answer, though painful at first, was obvious—it was because I held an implicit belief that I brought a greater understanding, vision, or something to the job by virtue of who I was and where I came from. In other words, I had a well-developed white saviour complex.

What can be done to dismantle a sense of entitlement like this that’s built up over many years of experience and socialization and reinforced every day? In the nine years since I started that job in Mozambique I’ve been trying to find out the answer to that conundrum. The process of questioning usually begins with some event or series of events that makes your privilege crystal clear—just like my realization in Mozambique. But in isolation, such experiences don’t produce much change, especially if you let them pass without any serious reflection.

Challenging white privilege—something that has been reinforced for decades to the point of becoming ‘common sense’—requires a regular, committed, and long-term unpacking of assumptions and behaviour; an explicit effort to recognize and refute the privileges we are afforded. To quote the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, it requires that people like me be willing to commit ‘class suicide.’

A commitment to class suicide is a process, not a singular event. It must be re-enjoined again and again, every time a benefit is offered, every time status is implicitly conferred, and every time advantages are provided that have no basis in merit or achievement. Recognizing that privilege is unearned is essential to this process. If this doesn’t happen, whatever actions we may undertake out of a sense of social responsibility may be held up by a latent social Darwinism, an implicit assumption that I am in a privileged position to help because I deserve to be. Unfortunately this is typically what happens, especially in the ‘helping professions’ like international development, foreign aid, NGOs and philanthropy. I know, because it’s happened to me.

I can think of dozens of moments when I’ve let this recognition slide, sometimes because I’ve wanted the personal benefits that come with privilege, and at other times because I’ve acted out of pride—not wanting to give up the idea that I had earned or deserved what I was given. Here’s an example:

Some years ago I was teaching third grade school children on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico. At the end of one school year, we found out that the students’ test scores had risen dramatically, improving the school’s position on the state’s performance rankings. While I was one of three third grade teachers, I was new to the school that year, and I remember that many more teachers, administrators and parents came to thank me than went into the classrooms of my two other colleagues. They were both older Navajo women, and I was a white man in my mid-20s. But I did nothing to share the appreciation of any of my well-wishers with my co-workers.

I don’t make excuses for decisions like these, since there are none to be made. I shouldn’t have to wait for others to point them out to me since dealing with privilege isn’t someone else’s job – it’s mine. And while ‘class suicide’ may seem intimidating, it’s a clear and abiding responsibility for everyone who is born and raised with privilege. If you think that’s unfair, consider it a simple act of rebalancing power and opportunity in the world. What’s truly unfair is that people who don’t share your privileges are assumed to be less deserving.

If you are reading this and are in any way like me—that is, if you are engaged in social justice work and are at the same time white, or male, or from a privileged social class, or heterosexual, or cisgender, or able-bodied, or a member of a dominant religious tradition such as Christianity, or any combination of the above—I hope you’ll look inside and consider the possibility that the personal motivations behind your work are linked to a white saviour complex, at least to some extent.

Only when we are willing to recognize this bias and give it a name can we begin to work against it. And only in naming it can we engage honestly with our colleagues in the pursuit of true equality and justice.

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