Speaking for, Speaking Over, Speaking With

Let’s talk about the Great White Saviour for a moment. You know the person I’m thinking of; the brave white individual who ventures into Darkest Africa or Soulless Asia to meet with The Natives and Understand Their Plight, converting them to the way of rightness (whiteness) and bringing news of their deplorable conditions to the West so that the West can duly intervene to save everyone. The Great White Saviour is often wealthy, perhaps struggling with guilt over an amassed estate, and also under social pressure to perform some sort of aspect of charity or humanity in order to justify immense wealth, and thus takes on a Charity Mission to improve the lives of others.

Great White Saviours date back to the colonial era and the idea of the ‘white man’s burden,’ that colonising other nations was not just a strategic trade decision, but also a moral imperative. It wasn’t all about profits, you see, because that wouldn’t be very nice, it was also about Saving the Natives and fixing their backwards ways so they could enjoy a standard of living (and G-d) like that followed in the West. Thus, the imposition of Western values, social structures, attitudes, and beliefs on cultures all over the world, and subsequent self-congratulatory back-patting on the part of the people who were willing to do such dangerous work.

And, of course, the Great White Saviour endures to this day; look to Nicholas Kristof, or Madonna, or Bono, or other high-profile people who are on a mission to tell us all about how difficult the lives of people in dark, backwards, miserable ‘third world’ nations are. Those people travel forth, bringing us news of abject poverty and misery, speaking for the poor of the world and urging us to donate and intervene in their lives so that they can access basic standards of living like education and potable water.

I’m reminded of the slogan of The Fund for Animals: ‘We speak for those who can’t.’ The Fund is a venerable animal rights organisation that’s known both for its radical initiatives (like the Sea Shepherd) and projects like the Black Beauty Ranch, which provides a forever home to abused animals. The key takeaway here, though, is that the Fund focuses on animal rights, as in the rights of living organisms who have limited communication abilities. Elephants cannot lobby Congress for legal protections. Cats cannot demand tougher anti-cruelty laws. Apes can’t report poaching.

The Fund literally speaks for those who cannot. That is its role as an organisation. And Great White Saviours position themselves in exactly the same way; they ‘speak for those who can’t.’ In other words, they view the populations they’re advocating for like…animals. As they talk over the voices of the people they claim to be helping, they’re contributing to their further marginalisation, because the cameras and media and attention will come for Bono, or the white bloggers sent on a press tour, but they will not linger once the Great White Saviours are gone, and they are not interested in hearing the voices of the people who are actually experiencing the conditions profiled.

This is imperialism at work, the attitude among many self-righteous Westerners that they have a ‘responsibility’ to speak for populations they should be speaking with. There is an assumption that they know what is best (because West is best, yes?) and that their work only serves to improve the lives of the people they’re actually overriding entirely with their notions of right and wrong, appropriate ways to live, how to apply morals, how to live.

A little self-fulfilling circle is created, too, where everyone praises the Saviours, continues to ignore voices, and congratulates themselves on their progressive politics and how they’re going to change the world. For every charity, for every benefit concert, for every company pledging to donate proceeds to marginalised communities in the Global South, there’s an utter lack of the very people the West should actually be hearing from, namely, the people affected by these things, who are in the best position to speak to what they actually need and want. And who are in the best position to talk about what they do not need and want, what will not help their communities, what may in fact harm them.

Challenging the culture of the Great White Saviour involves deconstructing the systems that privilege such voices above all others, which also requires taking down imperialist attitudes about the value of various voices and the ‘right’ ‘way to live. For every Nicholas Kristof, there are plenty of people on the ground working in their own communities on direct service issues who are never heard, who are never offered the support they need, who never have an opportunity to speak for themselves on the global stage. For every Bono charity concert, there are people who are quite happy to speak out about the issues they face in their communities, and to challenge narratives about ‘helping,’ but those people are ignored in the face of the seduction of celebrities.

Those voices are especially ignored when they dare to challenge their Great White Saviours, to suggest that the kind of help being offered is not wanted or not necessary, and may in fact be harmful. Should they indicate that, in fact, this is simply a new iteration of imperialism and they are tired of being treated like trash, they’ll be told to sit down and shut up, because the adults are talking. Hush, don’t bother the bloggers on a press tour, they’re here to help you!