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Special white lady syndrome

2012/04/15

My topics of the last few days made me think of variations of the same issue I keep seeing over and over. Special White Ladies are stereotypically middle-to-upper-class white Western housewives who want to show their compassion by helping poor people with the problems they assume they have. It’s also known as the White Savior Complex. However, such people needn’t be white, women, or even wealthy by the standard of their country. The basic problem is people trying to help groups they feel sorry for, but don’t know or understand. While there are intersectionalities, it’s basically classism. People want to help their social inferiors so they can tell themselves they are compassionate, but are just acting on what they think people need without asking the people in question.

A few years ago, I was at Zio Johnos waiting for them to finishing making my spaghetti. A wealthy looking white woman was at the counter. I worked for Nordstrom at the time and I’m fairly confident that the total cost of her handbag, shoes and coat was more than I made in a week, and Nordstrom doesn’t pinch pennies on employee compensation. And old man shuffled in to get himself some spaghetti and garlic bread. He was rather unkempt. His hat and coat were old and dingy and he looked like he had shaved about three days ago, then not done much since. The woman offered to pay for his meal. He said he was fine. He could get it himself. She said she really wanted him to have a good, hot meal. He said he could get it himself. They went back and forth for about five minutes while everyone was paralyzed by politeness. None of us, including him, wanted to make her feel bad for trying to be helpful and she just couldn’t accept that this guy didn’t want her help and found it patronizing that she apparently assumed he was incapable of supporting himself and likely homeless because he didn’t move very fast anymore and wore old clothes for whatever reason. Thankfully, she gave up a few minutes after her food was ready because she apparently didn’t think being charitable was worth letting her lasagna get cold or she may have notice all the other customers and employees glaring at her. In retrospect, I probably should have said something around her third offer. I would have made things less socially awkward for everyone except the one oblivious rich lady and possibly impressed my lady friend that I was with.

You don’t have to look to hard to see this all over in our culture. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement wanted to ban alcohol to protect working-class women from being beaten by their drunken husbands. Of course, this is based more on stereotypes that working-class were boozing, violent louts than any real causative link. Remember when we started wars with The Philippines in part to help Christianize those savages or Afghanistan to save women from burqas and killed a few hundred thousand of them in the process? Autism Speaks would be more accurately called “Neurotypical people speak for autistic people and ignore what they say for themselves.” What about sending one million free t-shirts to Africa? The shirts were made in Asian sweatshops and Africans already have shirts if they want them. This would mainly put local clothing merchants out of business. Invisible Children is another great example, as are all the people who want to save prostitutes from being able to make a living in their chosen vocation, as I wrote about the last few days.

Obviously, poor people are not a monolith and will often disagree on what exactly they need. There is no objective answer for what we need to do, at least not that’s easy to understand. Look at the controversy over One Laptop per Child, which did go to great lengths to study and address the needs of their recipients. My point is that you need to think about what will really help people, which includes taking a hard look at their actual situation, not just taking a few cherry-picked facts and stereotypes. Charity is supposed to be about helping others. It helps you feel good, too, but that’s not supposed to be the point.

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From → politics

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