Will the white man ever stop trying to “save” us?
A few days ago, I came across a viral video by Mikko Foundation, an organisation run by a brother-sister duo from Seattle with a "burning desire to give back to community." The video showed the founder, who is white, trying to persuade locals in Gulshan neighbourhood to wear t-shirts designed by the organisation, supposedly as a humanitarian gesture of giving back to a struggling community. Several people hesitated about wearing the t-shirts including traffic police on duty who claimed that they were required to don their uniform at that time. Another video showed Mikko handing out rice to whoever they considered "poor". At the end of both videos, Mikko Foundation still congratulated themselves for "helping" the community.
It is unclear what the Mikko Foundation actually does but their videos make two things stand out to me immediately. The first is that Mikko Foundation has a limited idea of the global poverty structure. The idea of handing out short-term solutions such as t-shirts and bags of rice only provide instant gratification for the provider with no significant change in the receiver's life. Most importantly, they do not challenge but rather reinforce the unequal capitalist structures that create and perpetuate poverty and inequality, particularly in countries of the Global South. Often, Western charity foundations running on this model make local residents dependent on aid till their funds run out or their interests fade away—leaving the dependents in uncertainty. This sort of charity model does not help the residents develop any skill or permanently move out of their existing situation. These projects sometimes blow out of proportion, bringing in huge sums of foreign donation money which is spent more on charity galas and plane fares for the foundation people rather than empowering the people in need.
The second point is that the white immigrant's entitlement prevents them from acknowledging the first point. These two issues are symptoms of what we call White Saviour Industrial Complex. It's a system where white immigrants with a background of wealth and education go to less privileged countries like Bangladesh to save the natives from their own fate.This has expanded to a global system, becoming the fastest growing industry in the US according to writer and art-historian, Teju Cole. But to understand white saviour complex, we must first understand white privilege and the civilisation project.
Due to hundreds of years of colonisation and continuing neoliberal and imperial global structure, Western countries are currently in a better economic position and also are able to exert stronger cultural dominance on the Global South (which includes Bangladesh). In that context, we can say that white people are dealt the stronger hand in this power dynamics and therefore, enjoy privileges such as higher purchasing power, the liberty to travel anywhere without a visa, perceived attractiveness, and of course, intellectual legitimacy.
This culture project has a long reigning tradition from the colonial times. The image of brown and black people has been overtly degraded and caricatured in Western eyes. The caricature, which began in literature and anthropology of colonial times, has extended to modern media coverage. Non-white identities are reproduced as uncivilised and devoid of their own idea of culture and society in fiction such as Indiana Jones as well as non-fiction reportage of poverty and climate crises. The hypocrisy extends to terminology where white immigrants are often called expatriates while non-whites are referred to as immigrants. While the word "expat" resonates with education, wealth, and contribution, "immigrants" resonate with "unskilled" labour, "backward" culture, criminality, disease, and burden.
White people who accept this narrative view countries like Bangladesh as inherently deprived rather than a country recovering from loot, man-made famine, and Post-Partition regional turmoil—all of which are direct consequence of colonial rule. In this situation, white people in need of self-validation run to solve these problems belonging to "others". Voila! There you have the birth of the white saviour complex such as the people of Mikko foundation. In fact, the term white saviour is often considered a modern-day personification of Rudyard Kipling's colonial-era poem "White Man's Burden".
What is further problematic about this narrative is the entitlement with which white immigrants take space and authority in non-white countries. White immigrants are allocated safe spaces such as "expat-only" schools and clubs. These institutions are highly guarded with elite security forces and do not allow Bangladeshi guests even though they exist on Bangladeshi soil. At a recent Facebook event page of a yoga session hosted by an elite Scandinavian Club, a brown-skinned French passport holder raised a valuable question, "Can I get to attend, or my olive skin tone will offend the club members?"
The question is not ungrounded in any way—many of these "expats-only" clubs are infamous for this sort of unabashed racism. Only last year, Raju*, a Bangladeshi artist and photographer who was invited to exhibit in the gallery premises of the Scandinavian Club, encountered multiple instances of discrimination by the club employees. Raju was asked to leave premises and was refused service on the mere reason that he was Bangladeshi, regardless of having been invited by the club's art-committee. After taking up the issue with authorities, the club declined to apologise resulting in Raju refusing to sell any of his works through the club.
White immigrants are also brought in for various research projects and consultancy assignments, especially related to development or empowerment issues, while local experts are constantly side-lined. And this is not about white people being Western-educated since many Bangladeshis holding degrees from reputed institutions do not receive the same intellectual validation in the field as their white peers. Anika*, who works at a renowned international aid-organization, says she is waiting for her American passport before moving back to Bangladesh because she would receive considerably higher salary for her exact same job if she came in as an "expat". Sounds a lot like "immigrants are taking our job" narrative—except expats are treated with respect and dignity for their work in our country.
Aligning with their entitlement, white immigrants feel authorised to comment on local issues in powerful platforms despite their apparent distance from it. What results out of it is a mismatch of allocation and interests—locals are provided the type of help they often do not want and are forced to adapt ideologies that are alien to local nuances.
The double standard engulfing white and non-white immigrants extend to rights as well. While Western embassies exert a lot of power in Bangladesh and white immigrants are given support during any kind of unrest, Bangladeshis abroad are always at risk from rising Islamophobic and xenophobic hate attacks. Furthermore, many Bangladeshi workers are faced with harsh immigration and labour laws that do not protect their interests while white immigrants breeze through any country in the Global South without accountability.
Finally, no matter how well-intended, white saviour complex is rooted in a misguided sense of racial superiority. The white immigrants who we encounter in the streets of Dhaka, a place they deem as underdeveloped, are either in constant denial, or constantly exploiting, their white privilege. The exploitation often manifests as forced narratives of progressiveness or Western ideals with little context of Bangladeshi history. Other times, it manifests as over-fetishisation of our culture. They reduce our heritage to an essence of warmth and hospitality rather than actual tradition and complex histories.
These immigrants feel entitled to our gratefulness even though they often create barriers for our people to have an independent voice in a global platform. They enjoy privileges in our soil that not even local residents do. Yet, many of them have the audacity to discriminate us and view our culture as inferior. To all those who want to save us, I wonder when was the last time that you asked us if we wanted any saving.
*Names have been changed to maintain privacy
Sarah Nafisa Shahid studied Art-History at McGill University and is a columnist for Star Weekend.