A. Nicot – Assignment 5: Ethnocentrism and the White Savior

My internet service has been acting up due to the copious floods in the region of the world where I am right now, so forgive the absence of the previous two assignments, I’ll see about getting those up as soon as possible – I shouldn’t expect many other delays, after talking with my ISP.


France bringing “civilization, liberty, and peace” to Morocco (or possibly Algeria).

Before commenting on Ethnocentrism as a force, I think it would be wise to take some time to talk about the less important but nevertheless irritating “white savior” complex. In his editorial reply to some received criticism, Easterly identifies the modern “white savior” mentality, which consists of Europeans and Americans (mostly anglophones) supporting charitable action or humanitarian intervention in African countries, usually attributed out of  a desire to feel good as opposed to a desire to do good. Easterly makes a connection between this complex and the historic notion of the “White Man’s Burden,” which I contend is in fact quite dissimilar. Whereas white saviors advocate increased charitable donation to poverty-stricken countries (Jeffry Sachs, identified as the man making the comments displeasing to Easterly, mentions $75 billion annual donations), they take a purely materialist view of the problem. That is, they, with the bureaucratic entities of the higher orders (mainly the UN and it’s various subordinate entities such as UNESCO or UNICEF) argue that money will somehow solve the problems.

This is not the case in reality, and was not the case with the White Man’s Burden. Real aid to these sorts of Third-World wastelands (to put it bluntly) comes in the aid of active development. China understands this, even though they tend to do a sub-par job with their infrastructure development. But China sees that it’s a quid pro quo exchange of services and goods. They come and build the roads and the power structures, they fund schools and so on instead of just dumping the money into the governments, and in return, they obtain resources and privileges in commerce. Similarly, 19th Century neo-colonial Empires exchanged what was understood to be civilization (schools, medicine, religion, participation in Empire itself) in exchange for resources (manual labour, troops, minerals, lumber, etc.). The relationship was proportional to the level of development between the two parties. It was the act of domination, of establishing a hierarchy of civilizations, and of the greater uplifting the lesser. In the eyes of the 19th Century European, in any case.

This puts it miles away from modern “white saviors” who are motivated purely by humanist, soft, charitable ambitions and demand nothing in return but gratitude (and the inevitable adulation of their supporters on the home front, for their “bravery” and “courage” and so forth). Naturally, one can observe that the first model, the Colonial one (and as successor the more equilateral arrangements between China and African countries) as more effective at raising standards of living in Africa proper. After all, when the Empires left, Africa was left with so much more than what it had before, and so many more resources to spare besides. The dichotomy between the two concepts is the first point is the first ting I wanted to address, since Easterly and Cole (from his Atlantic editorial) seem to suggest that the one derives from the other. One was born of a sense of superiority and moral duty, the other was not.

One can see from this that the white savior complex is not mandated from an explicit ethnocentrism, whereas old-style colonial relationships were openly so. So how do some cry “ethnocentrism” (one should note as well that this term is used, for no good reason, in an almost entirely negative manner by all) when it comes to modern humanitarian missions? I recall reading the book Dancing Skeletons, an extensive study by Katherine Dettwyler about the state of the health of West African tribesmen in Mali. I hate to bring in anecdotes, but it seems to adequately summarize the concerns over ethnocentrism. In this book, Dettwyler chronicles the various diseases and afflictions that had befallen this particular tribe of Bambara, including but not limited to urinating blood, intestinal parasites, widespread malnutrition, and the like. Now, the interesting part of this account comes when analyzing the causes of these tragedies and the reasons for their persistence: native Bambara culture. Indeed, in their traditional way of life, the Bambara treat ailments by rubbing feces into open wounds, keeping essential proteins contained in meat away from the young because it was felt the elders deserved it more, or thinking that goiters the size of basketballs are part of a healthy physique; thinking that blood in urine for boys is the equivalent of menstruation in girls – a sign of maturity. These are all indigenous beliefs and practices of the Bambara people. Now, Kettwyler detailed in her book how she did her best to treat these people, but concern was raised amongst my fellow students and my professor about this. Apparently, there is no right to alter these people’s culture just to make them healthier. Naturally I was dumbfounded. It was suggested to me that Western medication is a Western cultural artifact that should not be imposed upon the tribesmen. Naturally, I concluded that if juggling rocks would allow a people to establish good health amongst themselves, then there should be no problem with not giving them pills and injections. But that simply isn’t the case. The mortality rate has always been high in certain parts of the world specifically because of cultural practices which are objectively dangerous for the human body. Circumcision for example. But let us look at a hypothetical European example: as many know, the French do not pasteurize their cheese. Now obviously this might seem dangerous to those who understand that this increases the likelihood of contracting disease. Which is why cheese is made in sanitary conditions and it’s ingredients carefully selected. No artisanal fromagerie culture is sacrificed, nobody dies (or at least very rarely). The proposition to introduce objectively superior practices, in this case healthcare ones, was and is perceived as ethnocentric.

Nobody was making a fuss about child soldiers in Europe until the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

It is interesting to note that such cases of humanitarian aid, perceived as ethnocentric, are not motivated by a feeling of superiority of the white as is implied by the term “white savior” but by a feeling of guilt and contrition. Essentially white guilt. Would it not be more ethnocentric to not be contrite, to refuse apology, and to say “enough is enough, not one cent more, we’ll deal with our own problems?”

The Kony 2012 campaign, while absolutely laughable from the start, was not ethnocentric. It was not, as Teju Cole heavily implied, for the benefit of the white man’s superiority complex. It was a commercial event and nothing more. A symptom of the decadence of Western civilization, where people believe they can make a difference in the world by sitting on their backsides and buying shirts and posters online after watching a moderately long video on the internet. Where ignorance is the substitute for knowledge and feel-goodery the substitute of genuine charitable spirit. False emotion (as outlined in the David Jefferess piece) attempts to supplant real and genuine attempts to aid Africans who suffer. the Catholic Church runs through it’s extensive charitable network services which benefit the suffering and demands nothing in return. It doesn’t even demand recognition. Things like the Kony 2012 campaign insult both Africans and Europeans/Americans who support it – the former for patronizing them and the latter for stealing from them by playing their emotions.

On a lighter note, this series of comedy sketches are spoofs of the “white savior” image and how Africans many perceive it:


Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/?single_page=true>.

Dettwyler, Katherine A. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1994. Print.

Easterly, William. “The White Man’s Burden.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., 11 Jan. 2007. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/jan/11/the-white-mans-burden/?pagination=false>.

Jefferess, David. “Humanitarian Relations: Emotion and the Limits of Critique.” Critical Literacy Journal 7.1 (2013): n. pag. Http://www.academia.edu. Web. 13 June 2013. <http://www.academia.edu/2966954/Humanitarian_Relations_Emotion_and_the_Limits_of_Critique>.


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