Memoirs of a White Savior

Last year, a student came to my office hours to discuss her post-graduation plans. She said she wanted to travel, teach, and write.  “How about joining the Peace Corps?” I suggested. She grimaced. “The Peace Corps is problematic,” she said.  I replied the way I always do when a student uses that all-purpose put-down. “What’s the problem?” I asked.  “I don’t want to be a white savior,” she explained. “That’s pretty much the worst thing you can be.” Indeed it is. The term “white savior” became commonplace in 2012, when the Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole issued a series of tweets — later expanded into an article in The Atlantic — denouncing American do-gooder campaigns overseas, especially in Africa. His immediate target was the “KONY 2012” video of that year, a slickly produced film — by a white moviemaker — demanding the arrest of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. But Cole’s larger goal was to indict the entire “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” as he called it, which allowed Westerners to imagine themselves as heroic protectors of defenseless Africans. Conveniently, Cole added, it also let them ignore the deep structural and historical inequities that had enriched the West at the expense of everybody else. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” Cole wrote. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Instead of assuming that they know what is best, he urged, Americans should ask other people what they want. And instead of engaging in feel-good volunteer projects that do not do any actual good, we should challenge “a system built on pillage” and “the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy.”          The Peace Corps is a volunteer agency as well as an agent of foreign policy. So it has also become a frequent punching

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