Contemplating my complexes…especially the White Savior one

Wanting to change the world can seem idealistic, ambitious and completely unrealistic. Yes, I have been called those things. It turns out I might have a complex because I want to save the world. That’s the story I’m digging into today in response to the article recently published in the Atlantic by Teju Cole, the White Savior Industrial Complex. The title caught my attention and I immediately experienced that sinking feeling in my stomach. What if I have that? My friend calls it driven, results oriented and slightly annoying which sounds a lot better than a complex. I was aware that I felt uncomfortable diving into this topic but I committed to be honest along my journey.

There are many annoying things about this already. The first one is my discomfort and my need to share that. Poor me and all of my whiteness is getting squirmy. Eye roll.
However, I’m going to unpack my shit because I’m all about getting naked and being real. This is my truth.

At the end of my junior year of college I had finally decided on a major, Spanish. I had returned from a study abroad experience in Spain and had fallen in love with the Spanish language as the door to really understanding culture. It took my breath away. So, yay me! I found something I loved, finally, and upon returning from Spain I took as many classes as I could to catch up. It might have been the mixture of my Woman’s Studies class at the same time I was taking a Chicana class that lit me up. Or the injustices and trauma I had recently faced as a sexual assault victim. Either way I was certain that my calling was to bring the Woman’s Movement to Central America and shine my bright light all around, fix all their problems and enlighten them. ‘Them’ being ‘Other’. Because ‘they’ needed me…my 21 one year old brilliant self.

I thought I had figured it all out…that the world needed me. I wasn’t sure how but I was the one that was going to make it all better. The injustices that women faced were devastating. It was all too horrible for me to live with and I felt called to change it.

One afternoon I was on my ‘I’m going to save the world’ high and my Grandma Harriet called. I was excited to tell her about my plans. She listened lovingly. And then she said in her sweet voice, “Dollface (yes she really called me that), I don’t think that is a good way for you.”

My Grandma adored me and believed in me more than anyone else. I was like…”What? Why?”
She replied, “Honey, you’re white. You look different and you come from a different place so it will be hard for you to create the change you want. It is more likely that you’ll have an impact on people that relate to you, that look like you.” Snap.

I was taken aback. I didn’t understand. I wish she would have told me more or that I would have asked. I wish I would have studied white privilege in any of the classes I took so I could have put a name to it and learned to understand it. That came later.

My grandma had touched on it but it remained unnamed. All I knew was that she made me think a little differently that day. She made me question my potential for impact. I desperately wanted women to stand in their true power. It all seemed so wrong to me and I felt a scalding pain of injustice. It’s not fair. It can be different. It has to be different and why can’t I help?

I have always had this burning desire in me to be the change I want to see in the world. Thank you Ghandi. And when I read an article like Teju Cole’s I am snapped into self-doubt.

Oh sweet Sara and your righteous all-knowing ways…that has a name, in fact it is a complex. You have a White Savior Complex. Yuk. That feels bad. Get back in the corner.

There is no conclusion here. It is another moment of duality. I want to feel good. I want to feel like a shining bright ray of change. That lights me up. I don’t want to be in the naughty corner for feeling like I can change the world. I think the White Savior Complex is mostly about believing that I know what someone else needs better than they do. I don’t have that. But maybe sometimes I do. If acknowledging that helps me be a better person then I want to be open to that and see it for what it is even when it makes me uncomfortable (especially then). I want to be aware that I don’t know what will make a difference. I want to believe that love and abundance are keys to making a difference but that is my truth and not everyone else’s truth.
That’s a hit. That is where I feel the shift.

I am self-righteous in believing that we can change the world.
I am not self-righteous in believing that I have the answers. I will own my truth and my truth only. And I will allow my truth to change throughout my process.

The most comfortable place for me to be right now is in the place of not knowing yet trying anyway. I believe that awareness, together with action, can create impactful change. But I’m not claiming to know what actions will or will not work.

I commit to staying in a place of awareness and I am willing to notice. I am willing to do the inner work with myself. I notice my impatience, my sarcasm, my judgments and biases when they come up. That’s my work. That’s my awareness. I notice my love, my empathy and my passion too. I notice my desire for courage and my fear of what might happen when I choose to be brave and make a mistake.

I’m willing to take action.
I listen and seek answers from people that I admire and trust.
I listen to people who are different from me and have different experiences.
I stay open.
Then I take what feels right and implement that in my life. I don’t believe in one magic answer.
I believe in constant progress.

I will teach what I learn and grow into who I want to be and continue to transform. I will not figure it all out. I will not strive for perfection. I will always be searching and seeking because that is who I am. That is my truth. That is my zen.

Who are you? What works for you? When you feel the zing of being labeled as having a White Savior Complex do you check in with yourself or do you shrug it off? Do you feel a hit when people talk about the typical Madisonian White Progressive? Are they talking about you? Are you comfortable with the status quo? Is it easier to see the racial disparities as someone else’s problem? Or are you standing in the spotlight wanting to feel better about yourself because you are DOING something? All of those questions feel judgy to me so I take them all back. But I won’t delete them…because this is about getting naked.

I want to live in a just and fair world. I want to be part of the change. I will continue to listen, to check myself and keep listening…because my heart is good and I want my impact to be good too.

2 thoughts on “Contemplating my complexes…especially the White Savior one”

  1. Deborah Wunnicke says:

    For all the questing and questioning, you are clear in your head and your heart, Sara.
    I admire your ability to delve into ‘not knowing’ and see what comes up.
    Feeling your way rather than thinking your way IS the way.
    Your grandmother, who surely art in heaven, is applauding.

  2. Ann Imig says:

    Yup, so important to question ourselves, our motivations, and how we can share the power we have. I relate.

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