The White Feminist Savior Complex

01/23/2014 04:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

I am a white feminist.

I want all people everywhere to be able to live lives free from oppression. This is what I, and other feminists, work towards. We have lofty goals, but we also have enthusiasm, stamina and faith in our cause.

My intentions are good and my heart is, as they say, in the right place. All of our hearts are in the right places. All of our intentions are good.

But intent isn't magic, and sometimes the ways that we carry out our intentions cause more harm than they do good.

Here in the West, we are frequently schooled on just how lucky we are to live the way that we do. We are often reminded of how wonderful it is to be in a nominally-secular country, a country that promotes equality between men and women. We are taught to pity the women, those other women, living in other places, who do not enjoy the same rights that we do. We are taught to be thankful that we are not these women. On the surface, these lessons seem to be fairly innocuous -- after all, it's a demonstrable fact that we in the West, especially white women in the West, face less oppression than non-western women of color. When we take a closer look at these statements, however, their core message becomes clear: our culture is better. We are more enlightened, more rational, and more civilized. Other cultures should strive harder to be more like us.

We live with this strange sort of racism that tells us that oppression for any reason is wrong, but that only us white folks understand how to successfully end oppression.

We, as white feminists, are really not so different from the missionaries of several generations ago. We want to travel to far-off, dreamily exoticized lands and bring the light of the truth to the people there. Like the missionaries, we assume that we will bring wonderful, life-changing revelations to these people. We imagine ourselves standing before a crowd of dark-skinned women, their mouths little round Os of amazement as we reveal to them that no, they in fact do not have to wear a hijab. We think with delight of how appreciative these women will be, how they will fall about our feet with thanks for the truth that we've brought them.

We imagine how wonderful, how fulfilling it will be to know that we have saved these women.

What we do not take into consideration are if and how they want us to save them.

This isn't about whether or not women of color, specifically non-western women of color, face more discrimination and oppression than white western feminists -- the fact that they do is pretty incontestable. This isn't about whether or not white women should speak critically about the various ways that women of color are marginalized -- this discussion is important, and I'm grateful that it exists. This isn't even about whether or not we should work to better the lives of marginalized people -- of course we should. This isn't about any of those things. What this is about is agency.

As Teju Cole said in his essay The White-Savior Industrial Complex, "There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them."

I cannot emphasize this point enough -- the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them. The idea that, before we do anything else, the best and most important work that we can do is to listen to marginalized people, give them a platform from which they can reach a wider audience, and use our platforms to help amplify their voices. This is the real work that we should be doing. Anything else -- any other way of "freeing" women of color -- is at best condescending and colonialist and at worst downright harmful and dangerous.

There are so many examples of white folks charging to the rescue without considering how those they are rushing to help might feel about their "rescue." Take FEMEN, for example, the feminist group that tried to "free" Muslim women by organizing the International Topless Jihad Day, during which they held protests (topless, naturally) in front of mosques. Though Ukrainian feminist group claimed to be protesting on behalf of oppressed Muslim women, numerous Muslim women felt that their voices were being co-opted, and disagreed with both FEMEN's message and their tactics. There are many, many western women who will tell you that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and that they need to be freed from the shackles of their oppressive religion, but few seem to consider the fact that telling women that they should not wear a hijab (or even ripping the scarf off a woman's head, as one Quebec woman recently did) is to continue to disempower an already marginalized group.

We could also look at Mindy Budgor, the white American woman who became a Maasai warrior, in spite of the fact that warrior status is reserved only for men. She was championed for breaking down age-old barriers; many felt that now that Budgor had become a warrior, it would pave the way for other women, specifically Maasai women, to do the same. Unfortunately, many Maasai didn't agree. Rarin Ole Sein, a Maasai woman, called Bugdor's stunt, "Insulting to the many Maasai women and Maasai Culture in general. Especially all the brilliant women working towards equality for themselves and girls. As far as I know Maasai women don't become warriors and don't want to be warriors. But if they want to and choose to ... they don't need an 'outsider' to come fight their fight for them. We can fight our own battles ourselves thank you!"

A third example would be the western world's treatment of Malala Yusufzai. And just to be clear here, I want to say, up front, that I think that Malala is absolutely incredible, and her story is worth sharing. But that doesn't change the fact that what the western world seems to love most about Malala's saga is the fact that her life was saved by civilized white people. We love to pat ourselves on the back for the fact that we took her away from her barbaric homeland and healed her in one of our bright, gleamingly white hospitals. We feel so good about Malala's story, because it's one of the very few things that might convince us that the war in Afghanistan was somehow justified. And yet, as Assed Baig rightly points out, "The West has denied more girls an education via their missiles than the Taliban has by their bullets." But we don't talk about those other little girls, the ones killed by American drone strikes. We don't talk about the girls struck by stray American bullets. We don't want to think about the collateral damage. We just want to believe that, somehow, our colonialist intervention was right.

This is the white feminist savior complex. This is white western feminism. We are not, as a whole, bad people, and our goals are commendable. We want all people everywhere to be able to live free from oppression. We want equality and fairness. Where we often stumble, however, is in the examination of our own privilege. Because it's uncomfortable, isn't it? Especially in a movement built on the idea that women in general suffer from misogyny, inequality, and various forms of oppression, it can be incredibly difficult to look at ourselves and say, "We are so much better off than others. Although as women we are all marginalized in some way, non-western women of color are more marginalized than we are. We fought to have a voice, our own unique voice, and these women deserve the same thing -- to be able to speak for themselves rather than having someone else do it for them. Our white privilege colors our perception in ways that are hurtful to other people, and even when our intentions are good, our actions can be problematic. The only way to get out of this trap -- and, as feminists and anti-oppression activists, we should very much want to get out of this trap -- is to humbly listen to women of color when they speak. We need to set our egos aside, stop loudly proclaiming that we're not that type of white feminist, close our oh-so-knowledgeable mouths and listen.

What we need to do most of all is stop making it all about us. When we cry out that we're not like those other bad white feminists, we are making it about us. When we ask women of color to take the time to sit down and educate us on the specific issues that they face and how we can be better allies, rather than doing the research ourselves by reading blogs and articles and books by women of color, we are making it about us. When we ask why women of color need to be so divisive and whine that we're all in this together, we are making it about us. When we decide to swoop in and play the hero without asking what type of help is, in fact, needed, we are still making it about us.

It's not always about us.

So with that in mind, I've put together both a list of 101 articles about race and privilege and a reading list of blogs by smart, thoughtful western women of color who write brilliantly about race and intersectionality. I am acutely aware of the fact that I am a privileged white person talking about race, and know that I'm talking about things that are outside of my experience -- it's incredibly important that you take everything I say as secondary to what people of color have to say on these topics. Please take some time to read what their writing, try to take everything in with an open heart, and keep in mind that this isn't about you. And then, once you've done that, ask what the best thing that you, as an ally, can do to help.

Because that's what white feminism should be like.