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Tales of a Recovering white Savior

Once upon a time… 

(Long enough ago,) there was a young girl who was raised in a small town in the magical region of southwestern Pennsylvania in the often mystifying land of USA.  In this predominantly blue collar, predominantly white, predominantly Christian town, she was taught explicitly of the risks of ego and selfishness. 

One day, her mother explicitly told her the imperatives of being a good person:

  • You must never believe you are better than anyone else. 

  • You must never believe anyone else is better than you.

“If you stay true to this, you’ll stay on the right path.”  The girl nodded, “Yes, mommy. I want to be a good person, always.” But there was trickery afoot! 

When she got to school, the imperatives that were once so clear started to blur in the girl’s head and heart. She was presented with many contradictions about “the right path.”

One day, following behavior that had her sent to the office,  a wise sage, er…school counselor, taught her the difference between students who receive “good attention and bad attention.”  Students who are disruptive get bad attention.  Students who get good grades and behave get good attention. Never wanting to return to the office, she took heed. 

Years later, as she was given the “Good Citizenship” award, teachers heralded her behaviors as above and beyond other students. The principal cheered “This young girl is on THE right path.” This moment was honored and celebrated  in the local newspaper. Her mother was so proud.  

And no one, in all the land, recognized how this series of rewards and punishments were teaching (or socializing) the young girl to believe that she was, in fact, better than others. Unconsciously, she began to feel she was better than those disruptive students, better than those students who received poor grades, better than the students whose clothing was stained or wrinkled.  And although not exclusively, but certainly disproportionately, this often translated to being better than the students of color.  

Unfortunately, the young girl had fallen under the spell of the culture of supremacy.  She had unwittingly drunk the poison of internalized dominance. 

The baffling part is that her heart remained pure even though her mind was filled with toxins. The young girl saw unfairness and brutality in the world around her.  She was witness to injustice that was hurting others. She still wanted to be a good person, always…  and since she knew “the right path,” she grew into a woman who believed it her duty to help others.  To help others be more like her. 

That young girl was me.

I was, and at times still am, that woman. 

“I didn’t see that coming…”

…said no one reading this post. EVER. 

I made a career in the non-profit sector.  For more than a decade, I worked for human services,arts and culture and education-based organizations. In my early 30’s, I volunteered as a “big sister” to a teenage Latina who lived just a short drive from my home.  In each of those roles, I was operating in text book white saviorism. 

I was well-intended, but not remotely effective in creating change.  My impact was minimal (at best) and harmful (at worst) to those who I had wanted to support.  

And I had no idea.  

Luckily, over time and through a series of learning opportunities, subtle callouts and a social media algorithm that sent all the right social justice articles to my feed, what had been unconscious was brought to the surface. At first, this new awareness of my problematic behavior shook me to my core. I was swirling in cognitive dissonance.

How could good intentions have steered me so wrong?  

Had I even been a good person…ever?  

Accepting the reality that I had done harm, do I even deserve a place in the work of social good, social justice and change? 

In every great tale, the lost and forlorn protagonist discovers new skills and tools.  They forge a new path ascending to their highest good. And this tale has that too!

But here’s the rub... that “spell” of the culture of supremacy is cast and recast on me every. damn. day. The poison of internalized dominance has not been eliminated from my system. 

There is no magical antidote.

Instead, there is the process of life-long learning and unlearning and discovering alternative, more effective ways of being. For the past decade, my process has included:

  • Reading A LOT  - works by anti-racist authors, both BIPOC and white writers,

  • Engaging in dialogue about what I have read, what lead to my own breakthroughs and what I’m still mulling over,

  • Joining a community of white antiracists who examine our white racial conditioning,

  • Listening to relevant podcasts and watching documentaries,

  • Attending workshops online and at conferences such as WPC and Facing Race,

  • Working closely with coaches and mentors to get deeper into the learning than I could ever do on my own.

A tale of regret. A tool for growth.

Particularly helpful in shifting away from saviorism is a framework, created in partnership with Jason Sirois called The Accountability Spectrum. What I love about this tool is that it assumes “good intentions” but offers the Interdependence side to support progress toward more effective and meaningful impact and social change. To model the framework, I’ll assess my experience of volunteering as a “big sister.” 

What I did (saviorism)

I took every opportunity to boast to friends, families or co-workers about all the things I had planned for our “sibling dates.” (focusing on intent…and ego to boot.) 

I asked for her ideas, yet I always made final decisions.  And if we weren’t doing an activity together, e.g. seeing a movie, going swimming, I would host her at my home. (maintaining power over)

In part by the design of the program, my relationship was nearly exclusive to my “little sister.” Everything we did together was removed or separate from her family and friends (individual oriented)

Other than planning our in-person “sibling dates” and then spending time together, essentially once a month, I had no other contact with my “little sister.” I did the bare minimum of what was expected from a volunteer and completed only 1 year as required.(transactional) 

What I wish I’d done (toward Accountability)

I wish I hadn’t given a flying turd about what others would think. I wish I had centered her interests and spent more time just listening and being a friend, a big sister to her (focusing on impact…and relationship)

I wish I had deferred to her ideas more often.  I wish I had suggested, “hey, let’s hang out in your backyard, or take a walk around your school, your neighborhood to gain greater insights into her everyday experiences (sharing power with)

I wish that I would have had the finesse to center my relationship with her, but also build a stronger connection with her mother and other family members.  I wish I would have seen the value in more holistic connections (community oriented)

I wish I would have encouraged her to call or text me anytime, day or night.  I wish I would have reached out to her just to talk, to share with her some of the things that I was struggling with, and shared a more vulnerable, more authentic me. I wish I would have understood our sibling pairing as more than something for her, but for me too.  I wish I had made an effort to build the kind of relationship that was still thriving today. (transformational)

Opportunity for Application

For readers who might want to engage with the Accountability Spectrum, thus embarking on a journey AWAY FROM saviorism, the following prompts offer a place to start:

  1. Where in my life was I socialized to believe my way was THE right way (as in the only right way)?

  2. Who - by social identity, or other traits - was I socialized to believe I was better than? (either consciously or unconsciously)

  3. How might these beliefs have reinforced a saviorism approach in my DEI or justice efforts, both personally and in my organization/community?

  4. How can I use the Accountability Spectrum to assess my current DEI and justice efforts?

  5. What support or learning will help me and my school move further toward interdependence and meaningful, effective change?

Is there a Happily ever after? 

Yes and not entirely. 

This tale of a recovering white savior offers a happy turn, yet not without regret.  Although I feel good about where I’m growing, there is healing and repair yet to do.  

Today, the inconsistencies that confused my young understanding of “a good person” have been cleared away.  Once I rejected the premise of one right path, I found infinite possibilities for how to be of service.

I stopped asking if I deserved a place in the work of social change and instead found my place.  

My place is not to save communities, but to be part of them.  My place is not to help others be like me, but to follow their lead and answer their calls to action. My place is to strategically leverage where and how I hold social privilege in order to dismantle systemic oppression. 

The magical place where I exist now is beyond fear - on the other side of cognitive dissonance. I still mess up. I still slip into saviorism on occasion. The difference now is that I am surrounded by a community of care that guides me back to accountability, holding me in grace and love along the way. Connecting with others, developing deeper, more trusting relationships, feeling TRACTION for social good and reveling in solidarity with those most impacted by oppression… It brings me joyful purpose.  

And so, dear one, my wish for you is to find your most meaningful and effective place in social change…. Joyfully and purposefully ever after!

P.S.  If you found value in the Accountability Spectrum and are interested in more tools like it, please check out the EMBRACE Online Course and Community, where you’ll get more from Jason, from me and from the six other anti-oppression practitioners who created the in-depth curriculum. Once upon a time… 

(Long enough ago,) there was a young girl who was raised in a small town in the magical region of southwestern Pennsylvania in the often mystifying land of USA.  In this predominantly blue collar, predominantly white, predominantly Christian town, she was taught explicitly of the risks of ego and selfishness. 

One day, her mother explicitly told her the imperatives of being a good person:

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