The satirical “Barbie Savior” Instagram account uses a Barbie doll to illustrate an intricate concept — the White Savior complex, a trope in which Caucasian people “save” people of color. The White Savior complex usually doesn’t happen with malice in mind, but it ends up hurting everyone. On the Barbie Savior account, Barbie works for a NGO that provides drinking water to those in Africa. Barbie Savior’s exploits are maddening and exemplify why all help isn’t good help. Photo illustration by Lucia Bermudez.
By JURNEE LOUDER – Print Variety Editor
Variety Editor Jurnee Louder understands you loved your mission trip to Africa, but here’s why it could be problematic.
You’re scrolling down your Instagram feed, and you see a post from one of your friends. You realize to yourself, “Oh, he went to Africa! That’s cool!” You scroll down and see another post, this time of him and a group of African children. “I taught these children how to walk today!” the caption says. “I’m so glad I was able to change their lives forever. They certainly have changed mine!”
These tourists have been struck by the White Savior complex. It’s the trope in which Caucasian people “save” people of color.
This can be seen in movies like “The Help” and in other mediums of pop culture. Here’s why it’s fairly problematic, especially in relation to Africa.
SOUL SEARCHING IN AFRICA
There are lots of reasons why people go to Africa: for mission trips, to contribute to a charity or maybe just to go to some place new. But what common theme unites them all?
Apparently, Africa is home to some incredible therapeutic power where anyone can go to “find themselves”– whatever that might mean. No matter what part of Africa they visit, they always come back reborn.
Well, what did they learn about themselves on their soul searching adventure?
Did they learn that not everyone has clean water? Yes, but anyone could’ve told them this. Did they learn that not everyone has the same access to education? Yes, but anyone could’ve told them this. Did they learn that people have different lifestyles and cultures? Yes, but anyone could’ve told them this.
So, what exactly was learned in Africa that couldn’t be learned anywhere else with a little bit of time and research?
Does the poverty rate and lack of internet in the Clarke County School District not equally disturb them?
HELPING THE CHILDREN IN AFRICA
Not only is the “I saved an African child!” re-phrase insulting (because not every child in Africa is poor and malnourished, nor do they all care about your presence), I also find it to be creepy.
These children are not trophies to post on Instagram as evidence of your “woke-ness.” They are kids — real people.
Not all of them have never experienced the joys of drinking a Coke. Not all of them have never held an iPhone in their hand, nor must they do so to live fulfilling lives. Not all of them dream of one day meeting someone like you to finally come and love them.
These kids are often nameless and story-less, besides just playing extras in your stories of spiritual enlightenment.
Also, just because you’re in Africa doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to post photos of children without their or their parents’ permission.
If someone were to go take random pictures of kids on a playground in America, it would be creepy and legally sketchy.
What makes African kids less deserving of privacy?
HELPING THE CHILDREN IN AFRICA
Yes, Africa and its different languages and multi-colored beaded designs are so exotic. I mean, it’s practically a different planet, right?
What does it mean to be exotic? To not be white? To not be American? Well, in that case, literally every other place in the world is exotic.
Africa has many beautiful cultures within the continent. But, just because its traditions don’t necessarily remind you of where you came from doesn’t mean that you get to fetishize and appropriate its cultures.
The reason the White Savior narrative is so offensive is because it paints people of color as too incompetent or too weak to solve their own problems.
I understand that going to Africa may have changed your life forever. I understand that you did a lot for those who needed help. I understand that you want to be an ally.
But, being a good ally means supporting those who need to tell their stories, not directing the conversation. It means knowing when to step back and not make the conversation about you.
That’s how you can truly help.