The White Saviour Complex And The Liberal Feminism Movement

 Illustration by: Kristin Smith  @Skristinnsmith  

Illustration by: Kristin Smith @Skristinnsmith 

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Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 3.21.40 PM.png

The "white savior complex" is a term coined by Nigerian American novelist Teju Cole, after the viral documentary "Kony 2012" launched, in hopes to better explain white superiority. It is the idea that the majority of Westerners obtain the belief that they are more advantaged than other people. It's no surprise that many feel this way, as in the West, people generally reap the benefits of equality, health care, and freedoms. This feeling of having more superiority and privilege than others has given Westerners the impression that they need to emotionally "liberate" or "save" people from their own cultures, or circumstances. This distorted view that paints developing communities and countries as "needy" in turn creates an emotional need for whites to satisfy. It is the idea or emotion that you helped someone "lesser" than yourself that fuels this complex. Teju Cole, author of Open City, and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award says, "The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”. By saying this, Cole tries to display how "flip-floppy" the white savior complex can be. It is an ideology based on instant gratification, lack of diligence, and privilege.

G.D Anderson, an acclaimed poet, and writer argues that “feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It's about changing the way the world perceives that strength”. Now, 2018 has been coined "the year feminists fought back"- women are regaining political power, autonomy, and for some, their own voices. We have witnessed one million people attend women’s marches, twitter conversations regarding sexual harassment reached new heights, and in many ways built a stronger sense of community among women. However, the hype that comes along with the many ideas, and ideologies feminism holds, has led to a less genuine movement. With celebrity culture parading their so-called "feminist" banners, the word itself has become porous, confusing, and exclusive. 2018's idea of feminism, though powerful, fails to include minority groups, and in the few cases that it does, insists that ethnic women abide by "white liberal rules".

In hopes to better define the loaded idea behind the word, Alison Jaggar published "Feminist Politics and Human Nature" in 1983. Her work tried to define different groups and ideologies within the blanket term. Jaggar’s interpretation, which is often used today, prompted liberal feminism, which is considered one of the four pillars of feminism alongside Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism. Liberal feminists tend to fight for issues that pertain to equal rights in education, the workplace, political autonomy, sexual harassment, and pro-choice. Though, the group rightfully has been criticized for their lack of social understanding. Critics often point out that liberal feminists create a large divide between themselves and men, only judging women's success relative to men, without understanding or taking into account the ways women are biologically different from men.

The idea of "white liberal feminism" has been connected with "the white saviour complex", as it assumes that problems white women face in society are problems that all women face. Liberal feminism lacks an analysis of the ways in which racism can affect women in particular, and thus comes off as exclusive. This was evident at the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017. Jessica Xiao, a political writer for "The Establishment", described the white feminism displayed at the march as "visibly jarring". Slogans and language meant to represent the black struggle had become a punchline for white women. Xiao explains that when a white woman holds a sign with the lyrics "let's get information" from Beyonce's revolutionary Lemonade album that depicts black struggle the message is lost and misinterpreted. By saying "all lives matter" yet again we are neglecting to validate the black struggle is only necessary due to the actions of white people. Similarly, by using hashtag #SAYHISNAME liberal feminists are perpetuating the toxic system of the gender divide in society. By making men feel lesser and fearful of women, liberal feminists believe they will regain power, but in reality, they are just oppressing another gender. This is the exact opposite of what the feminist movement encourages.

 
 Illustration by: Kristin Smith  @Skristinnsmith  

Illustration by: Kristin Smith @Skristinnsmith 

This complex within liberal feminism has now created hostility between ethnic groups, as it tries to assimilate people into white culture, rather than help them regain autonomy on their own. Taking examples from the crusades, the discovery of the Americas, and recently Muslim women. Abi-Lughod, an acclaimed activist, and writer explains in her interview for Asia Society, entitled "Attitudes towards Muslim Women in the West", that the idea of Westerners wanting to "save" women from Islam is universally felt in the Muslim community. The idea of white liberal feminists feeling more superior than other women goes completely against the idea of feminism. Abi Lughod says, " this is an arrogance feminist need to question". Who are westerners to decide if other women are oppressed without fully understanding the complexity of the situation? What if women stopped trying to "save" each other and take the time to understand and show support? By not asking these questions, Westerners have tried to help "Muslim women" in a "white" or "western" way, providing solutions that do not honor the opposing side or their views.

This false sense of entitlement isn't a new habit. White superiority and feminism have been connected since suffragette times. For most women, the suffrage movement represents a time of women empowerment, but for marginalized groups like African Americans, it was the opposite, when the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1890, black women faced tremendous resistance from them, even though they were fighting for the same right. Thus the "anti-black" women's suffrage movement was born. White women knew they would gain more support from outsiders if women of color were not involved in the movement. This resulted in the NAWSA narrowing and creating guidelines they knew black women couldn't uphold. For example, the idea that all sufferers needed to be "educated" was created knowing that most black women at the time were not educated and would not have the access to it. Black suffragettes were labeled as violent, unruly, unrefined, and undeserving of the vote by most white suffragettes. This was the catalyst for the creation of The National Association Of Coloured Women's Clubs. If black women would not be accepted by white "feminists" they would have to go off to form a new "club". This separation is still very prevalent, even now in woman's study courses students are being taught the different ideologies of white vs. black feminism. This idea of separatism is not only a strong representation of the racism that thrives in society but also the internal hostility within the female community.

Due to white dominance in society when people think about feminism, liberal views and demands are commonly associated with the word. Black feminism focuses its efforts on social justice, faced by minority groups facing poverty or racial hate, while liberal feminisms historically fights for women in middle to high-class society.  This misconception and misinterpretation of feminist demands show that the white savior complex has played a role in shaping the demands deeply rooted in the idea of feminism. Latinas, blacks, and aboriginal women are being overlooked when it comes to feminism because this white complex invalidates their cries for justice. White liberal feminism is now spearheading the fight for equality, and with it, undermining smaller minority groups of women and their needs. While most liberal feminists are fighting for equal pay, some women are fighting for the right to even go to work, get an education, or drive a car. Biased demands have been created because of this complex, and now the idea of “feminism” cannot represent a brand spectrum of women, without specific definition.

Creative freedom has now been threatened by feminism and its practitioners. The white savior complex infiltrated not only feminism but the art world last year when acclaimed artist Dana Schutz painted Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955. Her painting shows the boys lifeless, beat up body in an open casket. Black artists, not only female, were furious that Whitney, an acclaimed gallery for showing politically charged art, would display such a painting. African Americans felt that Dana Schutz was trying to use her white savior complex to bring awareness to this time in history, arguing that it is impossible for a white artist to illustrate the black struggle. While liberal feminists came to the defense of the artist, black feminists were furious . This example perfectly illustrates the divide white savior complexes create in society.

However, we should not discount the flawed but ultimately good intentions behind liberal feminism, and "the white savior complex". Trying to find a consensus on such multifaceted problems is not easy, and sometimes unsolicited intervention is needed. Ultimately, feminism means to fight for equality, and by analyzing the different types of feminism, and their accompanying complexes, we can overcomplicate things. Confucius, a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher, says, "Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated"  Maybe the issue isn't feminism or "the white savior complex" but society’s hypersensitivity to issues pertaining to race and gender politics. Feminism has historically never been a positively received ideology, as women have almost always lived in societies run by men. If we are able to change this narrative, and create a "feminism" that lacks entitlement, biased views, and is inclusive of all ethnicities, women will be giving each other a hand up. Maya Angelou says, "Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women" . No matter your skin color, or religious ideologies, feminism is an idea that pertains to everyone, not just white liberals.

In summary, the "white savior' complex has successfully infiltrated the western movement towards feminism, leaving many women with a flawed sense of entitlement, creating biased demands and hostility between ethnic groups. The separatism this complex creates is not a positive one. Even though most liberal feminist women simply believe they are helping other women, they are actually putting them down. If a greater awareness would come to this idea, more women would be able to catch themselves unintentionally acting like "white saviors". The push towards equality will be an uphill one, and inclusivity, and open eyes will be the key to reaching it.

 
 Illustration by: Kristin Smith  @Skristinnsmith  

Illustration by: Kristin Smith @Skristinnsmith