The White Savior Complex?
“A White Savior Complex?”
Philanthropology Episode 102
AD SPOT – Advanced Micro Devices
PLUG for The Good Road television show
Earl: Guillermo Paxton is an author who's recording an interview for an upcoming book on gangs in America. He is interviewing Jesse Darrington and Da’cino Dees. It's the middle of the afternoon at 3:00 p.m. in a place called Alabama Village.
Craig: What you're about to hear is something that has heard way too often in this neighborhood. I will warn you it's not suited for all audiences
(Interview audio garbled)
Guillermo: How do you think that is, because I know not everyone is going to church.
(5 Gunshots ring out)
Craig: What you just heard was a young man named Mayo getting shot to death in a ghetto called Alabama Village just outside Mobile. That is where our story of the white savior complex all starts.
Earl: When we drove into the village for the first time it appeared to be a violent battleground set against the backdrop of a typical southern suburb. Burned out and bullet ridden homes, garbage in the streets, there because the sanitation department won't go into the neighborhood… and a major thoroughfare blocked by the police barricades.
Craig: And yet inside. Life goes on like anywhere else in America. Well with a near constant daily sound of gunfire.
Earl: In this episode of Philanthropology we talked to the founder and director of a community center called light in the village. John Eads addresses what it's like to be a white man serving and helping in a community of African-American kids and adults who struggle daily to survive.
Craig: There has been a lot of talk in the world of charity and philanthropy about the white savior complex. We also visit with one of the former residents of Light of the Village Da’cino Dees
Earl: And an ex-Hollywood executive and founder of Good Black News, Lori Lakin Hutcherson, who sheds light on the issues from a successful black woman's perspective.
Craig: Stay tuned for this really compelling and in-depth conversation
Earl: and stick around for our road trips towards the end of the podcast
Craig: You know are all you and I have talked a lot about this image of the old white guy helping poor black kids are flies on their eyes in Africa it's kind of iconic in Western media
Earl: Yeah and it's a hard topic to even address.
Craig: So even one of my close friends you know kind of was played that role on TV sometimes and so we just decided to drill down into this topic of the white savior complex with a couple friends who've gotten to know pretty well John Eads. He's the founder of something called light of the village in a place called Alabama Village and he runs a community center. He's white. His wife is Hispanic and Da’cino Dees is a great guy who grew up in that community. He's African-American and pulled himself out of just this extreme poverty. So let's just jump in and chat a little bit with Da’cino and first find out about how he grew up.
Da’cino: Growing up I stayed in the house with my mom and my four sisters and with three brothers and we shared everything. I’m talking about everything, like my dad whenever there so I had a stepdad and he was on drugs so when he wasn't on drugs he was he was the meanest person in the world but when he got on drugs he was nice like we could go outside normally we couldn't. It just seems always he just was mad that someone was like always bothering him and he took it out on us. I'm like someone is we will go cut grass we'll never get rid of one at all. Like where did you get a bag of chips and juice. We knew like once we got home he kept the money and then he would give drugs or whatever day we can go outside and play. So at the time it didn't bother us because we was young and we really didn't care.
00:05:59:27 - 00:06:19:14
One time I was in a house and we didn't have power for like a year and that's when our water got turned off. So I was off for like six months. So like who to cook or even like when water to four bath. What would I do it on a barbecue grill. It was it was it was bad like my mom she never worked. She took care of eight kids and it was just, it was just hard. But now I live on my own. I work for full-time and life is just way better. I don't have the share anything any more, you know?
Craig: Da’cino needed a lot of help to put him on his path. It didn't just happen overnight. The problem is you know amongst all these drug deals and shootings and you know stepdad who's an addict he you know he didn't really have much support until he met John and Dolores Eads. D’Lo,as they call her, and John really worked hard to get to see you know on a path out of the drugs and violence. And so honestly know from all appearances they feed that white savior stereotype.
Earl: John is white. He's in an all black neighborhood. And D’Lo is Hispanic but it smacks of everything that you would have thought of as classic white savior complex.
Craig: Yeah definitely. So he told us a little bit about it what it was like to first meet John and D’Lo
Da’cino: These white people crazy. I was like, man, I'm not talking to you. I'd go for like four years, and I'd never say anything, but they talked to me though. But I never talked to them. It was some morning, I was cutting grass. I seen all these white people at the church playing with the black kids. I was like, people are trippin! You know, no white people just come to the neighborhood and just play with the black kids unless they want something. At first I was like, I’m not going over there. And eventually… I don’t know … me and my brother, we just ran over and start playing because my step dad had stopped to talk to somebody. We just left the lawnmover and everything right there, and we ran over to play with the kids or whatever and that's when he came over, and he was cussing us out and calling us all kind of names. And that's when the D’Lo heard him, and D-Lo talked to him for a minute, and then that's when John walked over. And I don't really know how the conversation between him and John. But we ended up staying that day and normally that man never gives in to nobody. But he did that day, and I would just surprised.
Craig: So we asked John what is impressions for her. When he first met Da’cino and I and I just kind of love his descriptions. Knowing Da’cino as we know him and then hearing John say what he was like at the very beginning of this.
John: He was a thick kind of a big kid who said absolutely nothing. And I wasn't even sure whether he liked us, like being at the ministry. Like I say, the first few times we saw him he was working. He was cutting grass and he was out there cutting grass in these funky shoes, man. You could tell they didn't have much. Again that's common with our group, not because they're black, but because of where they live, ok? But he was that and ,really like I said, we didn't… I can't say we didn't give him a lot of attention. He was around, but he just didn't speak man. And you know that was a good lesson for us. You don't really know who's listening. Truth is bro, we learned that in the prisons and the juvenile facilities as well. Back when we did that you know for about 10 years before we got involved in the streets stuff you'd be surprised. You don't think they're listening but man they are hearing everything you say. And that's always impressed us. And we see that with our group now.
Da’cino: Like I seen my mom struggle so. And I was like, “I don't want to do this”, and “I don't want to have to ask and beg for everything. That’s when it hit me. I was like, when I met Mr. John and D-Lo, I was like, I could see that there was another way to live. And, didn’t have to struggle, and I could just go get a job for myself. Stuff like that. I just didn't want to struggle anymore.
Craig: You know it's probably fair to say that, if you're white people like us Earl, that when you walk into a neighborhood like Alabama Village, if you walk in without that kind of positive attitude and humbleness… looking at folks as your equal, and the people who you are there to help but are also people you can learn from. If you walk in with that attitude I think you avoid this whole white savior thing. One of the things that was fun about talking with Da’cino is that he calls B.S. on a lot of this stuff. You know? In terms of the perceptions of John and D-Lo, because, he's like … “No, you know he has his perspective, which is they're actually there to do great work and help his family and stuff.” So he gets he himself gets kind of irritated by the whole idea of the white savior. But it is a serious topic and you have to you have to look at it without you know going in being patronizing and feeling like you're there to save the day. If you go on with humility like the Eads do I think it's great. But I will tell you talking to John, it is hard for him when he hears that criticism of being the quote white savior and
John: You know it's funny Craig I don't hear that much from the kids on the street. I hear it more from people in the suite. And let me explain that to you. Is the way I define it. The kids what we are and you've been where we are the most violent and most impoverished neighborhood census track in Alabama. It's pretty much a 100% African-American. And that doesn't seem to be a problem with them. The only time it seems to be an issue is people who are not in the street. Let me just put it that way. They're either in academia or in some political settings or they have an agenda. Or they don't live there. And so first and foremost you know as you've seen our ministry is frontline street ministry, straight up! Been there 17 years man. And we've seen it all. And one thing Morgan, who you've met, one of our interns, and now is staff, is that you know we do “life” with these folks. And what's so cool man is the community calls the place God's house and our home. And it's almost like we become part of the family. And I'll be honest with you we don't get tangled up in white black or anything I guess. It's almost silly to me, but to step back and to really look at that term, in some ways and it's almost infuriating to me all the kids that we've seen that have been killed… As you know, we've buried our 31st person last month. And it just aggravates me to no end that people get on these rabbit trails about what I consider trivial. I know other people don't consider it trivial. That's fine. But just kind of get out of our way.
Earl: You know we saw a lot of examples of racism when we were in Alabama Village. There was that father and son… remember that? You met at that bar. Tell the story.
Craig: So I remember. You know, you go into this bar at the end of every evening because it is it's kind of sad to be in the village and so you kind of unwind
Earl: Well, we unwind every night!
Craig: Okay well I was trying to make an excuse for it.
But I remember that I walk in and they were sitting there. And this guy comes over. No, actually, I go up to him. He goes, “Hey where y'all from?” And you know, I said, “I'm from Richmond and Earl's from Charleston”. And he says, “what y’all doing?” Cause you know, obviously, me and my red shoes.. right? He didn't figure we're from around there. And he said, “what y'all doing?”. I said well we're doing a TV show, and we're working with this group in Alabama Village. He immediately goes, “why would you want to do that?” “Why would you want to help those...”. And he uses the N-word in front of his son. In front of his son! His teenage son! And I just remember saying, “you're going to say that word in front of your son? You're gonna teach your son that word?” That's horrible!
And this pretty big Alabama guy gets up, stands up… and I'm like “oh crap, I'm about to get beat up in Alabama”!
Earl: No I mean this is the story of race I mean a lot of people see it and they look at the optics and they see you for what they think you are. This white guy, with red shoes, I mean a bunch of Hollywood types.
Earl: And you know we didn't see an Alabama Village? Not a single Native American… So we all came from somewhere else, right? And we have all these optics that we're dealing with. So, I thought it was interesting to turn to a professional kind of an expert on the subject. So I went down the road and interviewed this Dr. Matthew Hughey. He had written a book called, The White Savior Film, which I thought for us on this exploration, I thought it was perfect.
Earl: Let me set up who Dr. Matthew Hughey is. He's an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and he specializes in the Study of Race and Racism specifically about that relationship between how people make meaning and how do they come to understand race and racism and that relationship with actual objective levels of racial inequality and racism and how the whole thing really reproduces each other.
Earl: I think one of the things we wanted to know is are we inadvertently making a show that's a White Savior TV show? That's why we bring in the professionals.
Craig: So are we, you know, contributing to that negative paternalistic colonial thing.
Earl: And why does all that matter? And why do we care?
Earl interviewing Dr. Hughey: All right let's get back to some of the filmmaking pieces as well. And this is one of the reasons why we're doing this piece. We're just concerned about, you know, not trying to come off as, I don't know, overly good or not.
Dr. Hughey: …and you're scared of being called racist.
Earl: Ouch that hurts.
Dr. Hughey : But it's kind of true right? I mean what's the worst thing that someone could call you a racist.
Earl: Last thing I want to be called is a racist.
Dr. Hughey: See? That's what I mean. It's the ultimate white slur. It is the thing that white people are scared of…
Earl: you can call me cracker, or honky. It doesn't matter here. But you call me racist?
Dr. Hughey: You know I saw a comedian do this very skit the other day where he was saying you can do exactly that. You can call white people, “cracker”, bufey, or all these terms.. and a lot of white people don't even know. Well the charge of racism is almost like ethnic slurs for white folks. Because you have all types of slurs and horrible things you can call people of color that have charged histories. You have a lot of slurs and people of color of use against white folks. But in a way folks even know them, and aren't even hurt by them. Right? But if you call a white person a racist they freak out. Right? So that's like the white slur for white people is racist. What that does, I think, actually shows the height of kind of white egotism. That we privilege white intentions to such an extent that white people use that as a get out of racism card. Where they say, “I didn't mean it, therefore that wasn't the thing”. But that's absolutely ridiculous if we take that analogy and apply it to anything else. I can say, “I didn't mean to break my leg when I fell”. “Therefore my leg shouldn't be broken”. No, the leg is broken. Even though I didn't mean to.
Earl: That's always a shitty apology where someone says I'm sorry that you misunderstood.
Dr. Hughey: Or, “I'm sorry that you felt that way”. Right. So it's a non-apology. But it's based on the utter egotism of whiteness, that all that matters are my intentions. And it doesn't matter what I actually do or the effects of what I do. You should be concentrating on what I meant.
Earl: You know it was a fascinating interview and we'll post a link to the full conversation with Dr. Matthew Huey where you can really deep dive into the discussions of biological determinism, racial essentialism, and what not. But it is incredibly interesting. I don't think we really have time to get into all of it in this podcast, but I do think it helps to understand where this concept of a white savior complex came from.
Dr. Hughey: But the white savior, as it's kind of developed in the in the recent couple centuries and in a North American context, I think you have to go back to terms like “Manifest Destiny”. You have to look at ideas of the “white man's burden”. The famous Kipling poem and understandings of “great white hopes” that have come out of boxing and is spreading in North America. So first, with “Manifest Destiny”, you have this understanding that White people... European descended folks… are entitled divinely to lands in North America. Which meant a kind of interesting problem and that is how do we deal with Indigenous peoples. And there are many approaches. One of them was a very paternalistic approach was which was embodied in the saying called “Kill the Indian, and save the man”. Just to try to get rid of the indigenous and literally whitewash them. Not just their Indian schools, but make their languages, their culture, their clothing, their food, any of their cultural traditions, literally illegal. There was debate about whether he was in fact writing a kind of satirical parody of Western colonialism or if he was in fact advocating it. And I think it was written for the diamond jubilee
for the Queen of England. Nevertheless, any type of written thing is polysyllabic. It's open to many interpretations. So some people read his poem as, “Oh you're actually advocating white paternalism”, right? Other people saw it as a critique thereof. Regardless, one of those messages is a kind of rationalization of white paternalism.. that it is the duty, a moral, ethical, religious, humanist, calling of white people to go and save people of color. Often, from themselves.
Earl: So that's a bit about how we ended up using this phrase white savior complex but how does that play out in films and TV shows.
Dr. Hughey: Well I think, what it does, is it relies again on notions of racial paternalism. In that, I tell my students all the time…Think about those films and then make the black or brown character being saved white and tell me if the film still works. And it often doesn't. Right? Because we conceptualize people of color as victims as needing to be saved as problems. And that's longstanding. W. E. B. Du Bois, who is one of my favorite American sociologists, in his landmark work, “The Souls of Black Folk”, pose this kind of questioning. Saying, “How's it feel to be a problem?” And he said, “how does it feel to be an object of contempt and pity?”. And we often think of racism and white supremacy as the contempt part of people hating you. Of actively trying to hurt you. But there's also this objectification of people of color as poor little objects that need to be saved from themselves. And that's the pity part. DuBois was way ahead of his time in that rendering of being an object of contempt and pity I think is carried forward into two modern white savior films right. It's a device that especially white audiences can really feel good about because it solves a kind of crisis of whiteness in which white people themselves are. I think we are in a time today which they don't want to feel bad about whiteness. And so they're looking for any type of story that can address race, but not really address race. Address race in a way that makes them feel good. So we rely on tropes of sentimentalism. Racial essentialism and biological determinism, to say “oh yeah, I'm better. But, you know, I do good with it.” And I shed a little tear, and I'm like, “Oh, we're not all bad. I feel better with my popcorn and Coke”.
Earl: Which brings us to the question that we have as one of basic explorations of this whole project. We’re “Philanthropologists”. What are the motivations of the people who are doing good? And I really liked the interview that you did with Dr. Lori Lakin Hutcherson, of the Good Black News.
Craig: It is a really interesting because first of all she comes from the business. She's Hollywood. So I love that, and I love her perspective. Big deal in the industry. So, very interesting stuff.
Lori Lakin Hutcherson: My name is Lori Lakin Hutcherson. And in addition to being a writer and producer of Film and Television, I also created, and am the editor in chief and founder of a website called www.goodblacknews.com which focuses on positive news stories about black people all around the world.
I was fortunate enough, a month before the movie went into production, was asked to come in and do some rewriting. So I did a production polish on the Hidden Figures script before it went into production.
They just needed a little bit of help with the voices of the women and the perspective of the women as black females. And I was very fortunate to be the person who was able to do that. And bring some of that to the movie, because I majored in history and literature in college. In addition to having lived a whole life as a black woman. So even though it was set in the 60s there were still many things that they were dealing with in terms of entering into a work space that was primarily white primarily male that I'd personally experienced myself when I was an executive at 20th Century Fox where I literally was the first black Executive, male or female, to ever be in the development department. So I was actually able to bring some personal experiences that happened to me into what happened in the movie.
Craig: You know this topic had some really kind of heavy stuff in it. It sounds so negative but Lori does kind of give some good ideas of how not to be the quote white savior.
Lori Lakin Hutcherson: Well I think just like we're having a very honest conversation about the topic, and we are saying, “white person”, “black person”, (ick) White Savior… all of that. Another myth I want to bust about the African-American community, if possible, is that white people tend to think that black people hate them or resent them. African-American people, in general, are extremely forgiving. If you come at somebody and you say, “look I don't know how this looks. I'm sorry if I'm stepping on toes but I really want to help”. like somebody with a genuine heart, coming to you and offering what they have.. That offer goes a long way in the fact that you told me that they've been working with this community for 15 years, tells me that they're accepted. So whatever the optics are for somebody who comes to it for the first time; their record? their level of experience? their acceptance within that community? communicates to me, as a black woman, that they're cool people. They're in it, they get it, it’s cool.
Craig: I love Lori's interview and she gave us some really honest feedback on how to avoid getting caught up in that kind of white savior label.
Lori Lakin Hutcherson: I think in general if anybody who is an outsider of any community whether it's blacks to whites, whites to black, and they're in a position of power? to me that's a very important component of it. They're in a position of power, entering into the community… they have to be very honest about why they're there. And that they're there to listen, as well as offer suggestions, or assistance in certain ways. And if they prove to do that, and they offer like flexibility within… it's like, “okay you know you guys want to do it this way but this is really how it would really help us” OK well we'll try it your way with our resources. Then you've got a synergy you've got you know any kind of divisions or divisiveness will go away because people are coming together with a common goal and they've come together as you say as equals and they're working towards it together. Yeah. If you're not looking at all of the issues of racism, sexism, cronyism, capitalism, dictatorship,… a lot of the efforts are definitely helpful impactful but it's not necessarily changing or causing the sea change that needs to happen so that people can actually live instead of just survive.
Earl: I wasn't sure I wanted to do an episode on the white savior complex quite frankly. I mean because there's so much of it that's really it relies on one of your senses that I think is your biggest liar which is your eyes. You know, a lot of times we use these sayings, and say “you know I saw it with my own eyes” but that's deceitful and oftentimes I think if you just close your eyes, and you view people from their heart or their actions that they do.
Craig: You know one of the things I say in the book I wrote about my experiences on working overseas is that when you're trying to help people you really have to see them as your equal. If you don't see them as your equal. That's a real problem. And you've got to, kind of, love them. I mean you got to love them. You've got to love working with them, because it shows when you care.
Earl: So check out our Web site at www.philanthropology.tv And there you're going to find “behind the scenes”, extended interviews, and some just funny stuff that Craig and I tend to get in to.
Craig: Next on Philanthropology we'll explore how technology is having an impact on the world of philanthropy and specifically will focus on virtual reality or VR. And learn why it is called the empathy machine.
Earl: So join us for an interview with our VR director Mark Lambert who is notable for leading graphic teams on films like the Harry Potter series and Polar Express.
Craig: And we sit down for a conversation with one of the pioneers of VR research. USC professor Skip Rizzo
Earl: You will not want to miss this exciting episode. I guarantee, because like Craig and me, you will learn something new.
Craig: The Philanthropology podcast is recorded at In Your Ear studios in Richmond, Virginia
Earl: With direction from our producer Carlos Chafin, Engineering help from Andrea Stefl.
Craig: Earl and I also get creative direction from Andy Duensing,
Earl: We also want to thank all our “do gooders” who gave us their time, support and gray matter.
Craig: And finally we want to thank our original investors in all of this our wives and kids specifically our wives who put up with us. Pam Bridges and Erika Martin.
Earl (singing…) And to all the girls I've loved before….
ROAD SIGNS EXTRAS….
John Eads: I'm going to read just how they wrote it, ok?
You ask if we for real
we live in that place where people shoot and smoke and steal
we in that neighborhood you forgot
where people hustle get arrested and get shot.
See that duplex where people used to smoke crack?
That's where our Bible study is at
this building shows concern for people's souls.
Never mind those five bullet holes.
Miss D-Lo is brown.
Mr. John is white.
That may be a problem for you
but for us that's all right.
While you stay up in your little huddle
They with us down here in the struggle
if you're dismissing this as just another street rhyme
why don't you leave the reporters and cameras and come visit us sometime
if you visit. Come here with an open mind and a genuine desire to see and learn if you come here with attitude.
You better not make a wrong turn.
So while you pass judgment about things you don't know.
Remember this place is God's house
and our home.
Da’cino: We know if you're coming in to get praise for something. And we know if it's real or not. We know if you really love us or not. And so, like, now I don't think it's a bad thing… if people come in help. Like, they call it a white savior thing or whatever. Like, what if somebody’s black? in a black neighborhood Is it called a black savior? I don't I don't really understand that.
Well, if you're genuinely wants to help somebody, then just feel free to do it. Don't do it to get something back for it. Because most time you won't.
Most of the time, all you’ll get back is heartbreak.