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Rethinking Western Dominance

We often find ourselves swooning over Instagram shots of our friends from their recent volunteer trips to third-world countries, cheek-to-cheek with chubby Peruvian babies, digging up dirt for an East African village, or shadowing doctors in at-risk communities. While many of us hope that one day we too can have the privilege of providing this positive aid and making a difference in an individual’s life, these kinds of good intentions can turn dangerous very quickly.

While volunteering at a Belizean school last summer, I noticed, with alarm and profound disappointment, that my own seemingly beneficial intentions started to metamorphose into something that, at first, seemed very vague. Lounging in a hammock overlooking the stunning landscape of our home base, I started to gradually get a general sense of what it was. Then, with guidance from our counselors and similar feelings courageously shared by members of our volunteer group, I could pinpoint it exactly. The “White Savior Complex”.

One look at the famed satirical Instagram account @barbiesavior, and I felt that this was a tangible issue, one that needed immediate recognition by people my age. The “White Savior Complex” refers to the generalization of the privileged westerner trying to “mend” third-world countries, and often all for that pleasant feeling of accomplishment at the end. The word “mend,” however, refers to objects that are broken, and that’s where western perceptions of humanitarian aid go haywire.

You see, I, along with peers all across the United States, settled comfortably into our versions of a trip the final outcomes of which amounted to happy, educated children, proud parents, boosted self esteems, and, of course, none other than bragging rights! So, how much of that happiness concoction actually consisted of the impact played upon the country I was visiting? 

In truth, this psychological trait of dominance by westerners over, seemingly, the whole world, is exemplified even in the common terms we use to describe our cultural and political framework: first-world countries and third-world countries. This pedestal-style ranking is nothing but a perception, very much skewed by our own media. By spending time with the children of Belize– the essential harbingers of a country’s cultural tapestry– I was shocked to consider how independent, free-thinking, and self-sufficient even the tiniest members of a society are. We bore bottomless English grammar lesson plans and workbooks; they pleasantly surprised us by their near-mastery of the language. We awarded lollipops for a week’s worth of productive lessons; they accepted gratefully but casually. We questioned the burning garbage pile centered imperfectly near the kids’ playground area; they informed us of its essentiality in keeping the environment litter-free. We hugged and played and giggled with the schoolchildren; they graciously reciprocated in a way that eliminated any culture barriers or hesitations about us–strangers, at first– from a country they haven’t even heard about before. 

Shedding all preconceived notions about the country I was in was strangely liberating. I realized that we often seclude ourselves to our own microcosms, putting that “us versus them” watermark over every encounter with other cultures, and we do it out of primitive fear. Yet, if we want to instill courage in ourselves to break through cultural barriers and truly reach the hearts of other nations’ people, we need to mirror children, who so poignantly open their arms to kind and loving humans, no matter where their origins are. 

As I took one last look at our class of about twenty students, each with their own bright, bubbly, and complex personalities that I have come to know over the past weeks, I concentrated all my efforts on trying to keep myself from breaking into tears. There was no more an unconquerable chasm between me and the kids. I couldn’t tell which one of us played a bigger role in the others’ life, or as the saying goes, “who rescued who?” Intuitively, however, I knew the answer to that exactly. In truth, we would be lucky if the children, a couple of years in the future, would even remembered us as “those people who came to our school.” Yet, I, for one, will never forget the joy these children brought into my life. I find myself thanking them for this profusely, and knowing they made more of an emotional impact on our group of volunteers than we could ever match with our lessons, games, and affections. I am indebted to these young souls for reversing the “White Savior” narrative for me completely and opening my eyes to the idea that was there all along: there is no real distinction, no line drawn in the sand between the “first” and “third” world (terms I will now refrain from ever using unless to educate against them). We are all one and the same: humans. So how can any one group of us feel like we have more leverage than the others to become a societal “savior,” without any real basis for such a model of thought?

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