(UPDATED) The [White Savior] Elephant in the Room: Ally Theater, Savior Complex, and Speaking for ‘T
[THIS POST IS UPDATED FROM YESTERDAY. I DIDN’T KNOW I HAD PUBLISHED AN EARLIER VERSION WHICH LEFT OUT PATTRICE JONES’ WORK]
[Note: Christopher Sebastian McJetters is a Black and vegan man who approaches non-human animal compassion activism with anti-racist and decolonial frameworks.]
Years ago (but post-2000), my friend, a person from Africa ( I won’t be too specific to protect their identity) was studying at UC Berkeley as an Anthropology doctoral student. They told me that they saw a disturbing poster in their Anthropology department. The poster had the images of indigenous African people and gorillas, with the question, “Who will speak for them?”
They were appalled, but certainly not surprised; the traditional discipline of Anthropology in the USA was fundamentally a white colonialist/imperialist project: on many levels, that poster reflected that continuing tradition, whether intentional or not (because it’s all about impact and not intentions). My friend wrote on a public forum about the experience:
The now infamous Gorilla poster is wrong on so many levels; however, my initial views concerning the poster’s phrases and imagery straddled the line between applauding the conservationism and masking my embarrassment over the overt paternalism inherent in the question: “Who will speak for them?”
Did it occur to the creators of the poster that they (meaning the “Indigenous people”) could speak for themselves? That rather than speaking for someone they could act as allies transmitting their message to areas they cannot reach, if in fact they are incapable of reaching such areas on their own?
Despite being bothered by the line, I wasn’t the least bit shocked by the poster. I’m kinda used to encountering that line of thinking, even at Cal. This type of conditioning results from a life time of hearing, seeing, and reading others act as if they can speak on my “Indigenous” behalf in the way that parents do for their children.
P.D. It didn’t occur to me that the poster’s content could be interpreted as comparing Sub-Saharan Africans to Gorillas. The notion that some groups of people are “monkey-like” is not universal and certainly not an a priori form of perception and understanding. Sadly, some of the people making such comparisons will do so regardless of reason and truth. We can just work to ensure that that crowd becomes (or remains) a minute minority that doesn’t perpetuate its perspective
Though savior complex and ally theater are not limited to white people, I am focusing more or less on white savior complex within the USA. This is because a significant number of POC (vegan and non-vegan) experience ‘post-racial’ white people involved in animal rights (and other spaces) as being on a mission[ary] to be their allies save them. But, these “saviors'” are collectively ignorant about a centuries old history of [white] savior complex and have not engaged in any self-interrogation about its impact on how they both relate to non-white people and non-human animals…and how that, in turn, racializes and socializes them into whiteness.
And by ‘save them’, I mean the goal is to save the collectivity of POC from their perspectives that are so centered on anti-racism (which is read as “irrational and distracting” by the collectivity of white animal rights/vegans). POC must be saved and taught that non-human animals come first while issues around race and whiteness are not only secondary, but divisive and distracting.
However, veganism and animal rights are not the only spaces in which [white] savior complex and speaking for the ‘other’ can happen. White anti-racist and vegan activist pattrice jones’ recent book Oxen at the Intersection, critically analyzes the impact of white supremacist and ableist logic in terms of speaking for ‘the animals’. The book narrates the story of two oxen at a Vermont College, Bill and Lou, that focuses on locavorism and ‘traditional’ pre-industrial use of non-human animals. Even though there is a lot going on in her brilliant book, I can’t emphasize enough how students, staff, and faculty at Green Mountain College felt compelled to speak for the oxen through their white supremacist and speciesist imagination of how the oxen can ‘best’ serve the mostly white bodied campus. They ‘saved’ the oxen from having ‘meaningless’ lives by forcing them into a life of servitude and being part of a nostalgic white pre-industrial agricultural narrative…nothing short of the ‘noble savage’ narrative applied to the non-human animals who cannot speak for themselves or have their own agency to determine if they even want to be part of this white bygone-era farming narrative.
As I read the book, I couldn’t help but get the sense that collectively, these people who wanted to decide the fate of Lou and Bill considered themselves non-human animal allies. These ‘good allies’ were teaching Bill, Lou, and other non-human animals how to make a mostly white campus look ‘ethical’ and ‘holier than thou’ when it comes to sustainability and creating a better food system. The ‘white innocence’ agricultural narrative and image, depended on how this pro-locavore white Green Mountain College community spoke for these animals as both their ‘allies’ and their saviors– whether Bill and Lou truly benefited or not (which isn’t really the point; branding a white dominated college in white dominated Vermont as the symbol of white ethical practices around farming and food is the point). (Click on title below for more info)
So, now that you’ve read this post, here are some questions below (but don’t feel limited by them).
What was your initial reaction after reading the quotes?
Have you ever engaged in ally theater or savior complex?
Were you ever called out because you were engaging in ally theater or savior complex behavior, and if so, how did you respond?
If you identify as white, have you every leveraged ‘being an ally’ or savior for non-white folk and/or non-human animals to show how you are ‘one of the good whites’? (You may not even be conscious of having done so)
Thanks Christopher Sebastian McJetters for starting this conversation and giving me permission to post. Thanks pattrice jones for your amazing book.
About the Author and The Sistah Vegan Project
Dr. A. Breeze Harper
Dr. Harper currently manages the Staff Diversity Initiative’s Multicultural Education Program at UC Berkeley and is the founder of the Critical Diversity Solutions. Check her profile out on LinkedIn. Inquire about Dr. A. Breeze Harper lecturing or giving a workshop at your organization, school, or business.