*Follow-up posts: Good Intention, Good Practice and Earning the Right to Help Without Hurting
I have been wrestling with how to write about this for months. Starts and stops, lots of unfinished first sentences and barely coherent lists. Then I read this essay after the Rick Warren and race conversation flared up last week. When White People Don’t Know They Are Being White by Jody Louise on Between Worlds. She is humble yet forthright in the piece, a balance which is incredibly challenging to achieve around such a sensitive and potentially volatile topic. She spurred me on, inspired me, and clearly, informed the title of this post.
I’m giving you loads of links here that will lead to other links and I encourage you to take the time to read this stuff. I have been and don’t think I’ll ever be the same. It is hard, challenging, might make you angry. That’s okay, wrestle with it. Join me as I wrestle with it.
I am not surprised by, but continue to be disappointed in, the western attitude toward the developing world. It is an attitude I see often, though not exclusively, among Christians. It is an attitude of superiority, a god-complex. An attitude that communicates an underlying assumption, intentionally or not, that the rich westerner is the one with power and authority and agency. As this is communicated, of course the opposite is communicated as well. The local person is weak, a victim, and helpless. The rich westerner must charge in to fix things, build things, challenge the status quo.
This happens in blogs, books, movies, songs…And it isn’t just Christians. It is Hollywood and Random House and MTV.
These kinds of stories…give a paternalistic picture of urban communities as mere recipients. They do not show the heroic community leaders that are in every urban neighborhood, people working hard with little resources and little recognition… Cure for the White Savior Complex by Shawn Casselberry
For a horrifying example read this article (or don’t and just be satisfied with the title) in Glamour and then the comment section: Meet Mindy Budgor, the World’s First Female Maasai Warrior. Some people call this the white savior complex and there is most definitely an aspect of race involved, the conversations overlap at many points, but it is more than a skin color issue.
One point that must be made is that I am a rich westerner from a Christian background living in the developing world. My husband is a professor at the University of Djibouti. I am trying to figure this all out, trying to do it well, with integrity and authenticity. I am, like all of us, a work in progress.
So, when does the rich westerner not know they (we) are being a rich westerner?
When the rich westerner doesn’t need to actually get involved with those in the developing world because they can simply buy a cool t-shirt. I was hungry and you bought a cool t-shirt is all about the westerner and is not how Jesus talked about giving to the needy, without the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. Matthew 6:1-3
When the rich westerner filters a cross-cultural experience through their own lens of comfort, possessions, affluence, community, and spirituality. This gives a distorted view that puts themselves and their values at the center. The other is seen as exotic, shocking, unusually positive or unusually negative. There is only room for the extreme, no space left over for commonality or understanding.
“Before we declare a woman’s life, foreign from ours in almost every physical detail, ‘poor,’ we need to seek to deeply understand that woman, her background, her place in the community, her desires, her talents. And we may discover that she isn’t poor at all but is a thriving, active, content participant in a societal system that works, different as it may be to our western eyes.” Who is Poor? Who Decides?
When the rich westerner views or presents the local as an object lesson not a relationship. The poor ‘African’ child with hungry eyes and a ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to give generously. The poor woman with the hungry eyes and the ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to find joy in a bowl of rice. This turns the distinctive person into a representative person and strips them of their uniqueness. It is a dangerous act of simplification (J.R. Goudeau). We can all learn from each other, we need to. I am constantly learning from the people around me (and vice versa, I hope) but let us put these lessons into the context of relationships and not form objects out of them.
When the rich westerner sees and shares what they expect to see. They want to see or take or share photos of children in torn dresses and ramshackle housing slums but not the fancy Kempinski Hotel, not the skyscrapers downtown, not the developed shopping malls and haut cuisine restaurants. Poverty and violence and disease and hunger fit the narrative the west prefers, expects. It is easier to continue that than to swim against it.
“These sights carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing that happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and these horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
When the rich westerner comes away after spending a week or a month in a country and claims cultural competency, is now an expert because they have eaten that food! Danced in that festival! Worn a headscarf! These things are merely the tip of the cultural iceberg. It is often said that the longer an expatriate lives in a place the less competent they feel to write about it, I can attest to the truth of this. The longer I am here the more I know how much I do not know, the more I need locals to correct me, clarify, the more (and deeper) questions I ask.
Jody Louise’s post introduces the term cultural humility and it is a good one. Katherine Boo talks about the earned fact and while not everyone will have the time to spend three years researching a single slum community, everyone does have the capability of asking questions. Of being a learner. Of not taking a leadership position but serving beneath a local person.
When the rich westerner believes they are here to save people. We are here to help, to come alongside, to try and do some good, to learn, to be in community. God alone performs the saving work.
When rich western Christians impose their theology on a local fellowship. Many books (written by rich western Christians) on discipleship and Bible study materials assume that everyone faces the same needs and can meet those needs in the same way. I once heard an American say, “Let’s just translate the catechism for this people group. We’ve already figured out all the theology they’ll need.”
When the rich westerner talks about Africa but not Nigeria. Africa but not Uganda. Africa but not Lesotho. Michael W. Smith sings a song: A New Hallelujah. “From Africa to Australia, from Brazil to China, from New York down to Houston.” The United States gets to be named by city, most of the rest of the world by country name, and Africa is one solid chunk of continent. We need to learn our details, our facts, we need to name places accurately. Naming implies seeing, honoring, respecting.
When the rich westerner presents a single story, a story often about hunger, disease, filth, violence. About all the broken and lacking things. A popular blog series (by an author I much admire, respect, and who often cuts to my very soul) talks about the generic Africa and repeatedly mentions hunger, repeatedly shows photos of children in torn clothes, mentions their lack of forks and spoons, talks about the bleeding of Africa in her red dirt. This is not Africa. This is Uganda. This is not even Uganda, this is a particular village where it might be a cultural practice to not use forks and spoons. I have eaten with wealthy Djiboutians who used their hands. Rich westerners need to be very careful in how they interpret and present what they see. I am not of the “don’t tell these stories” position. I believe stories must be told and I will tell them, but we need to be careful about assumptions.
When the rich westerner presents the other as victims by focusing only on issues like rape, trafficking, poverty while ignoring local initiatives, leaders, community strengths, progress, and the reality that these people have lived here for decades, centuries, without a westerner intervening on their behalf.
When the rich westerner presents the other as holy in their suffering by focusing only on their generosity, smiles, and non-verbal communication while ignoring issues like greed, selfishness, gossip, and cruelty. Katherine Boo refers to this as the “western conceit that poverty is ennobling.” This kind of one-dimensional presentation makes cardboard characters out of real, complex people.
Rich westerner, and please know I am talking to myself as much as anyone else, we must be aware of our position, our privilege, the way history and current social structures affect us, our view of the world, and our interaction with the world.
“The system is set up for us, and gives us power without us even having to ask for it… When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done.” Jody Louise
I have been that bull in the china shop. I have behaved with superiority and arrogance, have made things worse by stepping in to help, have plowed past the opinions and voices of local people in my exuberance.
Lest I leave you feeling paralyzed (which I often feel), I am not saying do nothing, say nothing. Next week I will share just one example, of many, of how I have failed and will write about the difference between good intention and good practice. The following week I’ll share an example of positive progress, ways to move forward.
What would you add to this conversation – rebukes to any wrong-thinking I’ve presented here or thoughts on moving in a positive direction?
*image credit Olga Lednichenko via Flickr
WOW. So much to think about. Thank you! Will be chewing on this and going through these links all week 🙂 All of this needs to be said! So thankful you have said it.
Oh thank you Annie. So encouraging to hear this from you, I’ve been nervous about this one – conflict avoider here. But it also is important and I’ve been deeply challenged by the things I’m learning. Am looking forward to hearing from others too.
I know this article is a couple of years old but I just came across it and had to write and say that you articulated perfectly what I’ve been thinking for a long time. It is SO nice to know I’m not alone in what I’m seeing, thinking and feeling. You are awesome and a great writer as well :).
Great post! I lived in India for a couple years after college and thought of a lot of these issues. I also wrestle with questions about what SHOULD we do? I would love to see a follow up post with some suggestions for ways that Westerners can be involved.
Such a good conversation….a hard conversation. We use the term cultural humility a lot in health care – it gives a picture of a doctor or nurse sitting at the feet of a patient saying to them: “help me understand what you think about your illness, what do you call it, what do you think makes it better”. I’ve never heard it used in any sort of overseas development or missions venture and that is a problem. I appreciate the whole post and want to copy down some of these phrases/word pictures that you give.This one really struck me: “There is only room for the extreme, no space left over for commonality or understanding.” Thanks Rachel – I look forward to next week as I have my own confessions that aren’t pretty of when I’ve been totally wrong.
Wow!Excellent post! It resonates with many thoughts and lessons I had while in Cambodia for about 2 years. I also must say that I’ve been guilty of some of these things, especially at the beginning, but then I started learning. And like you said as longer I spent, the more I discovered things I didn’t know!
Me too – both the guilty part and the growth part. It can be a hard conversation to have, but without it, I’d still be stuck in the guilty parts more often than not. I’m thankful for people who challenge me to think and live better.
So glad you picked up the theme that Jody started and riffed on it from your vantage point. Your points are excellent, especially “presenting a single story.” Looking forward to next week’s installment!
Wow, thanks for taking this on. So many streams of consciousness that have gone through my mind but nowhere nearly as cohesive as you articulated. I am new to West Africa and see many of the things you mentioned in others and in myself! Thanks for writing about it. I have such a difficult time blogging about it because it is such the balance, the good with the bad, the beautiful with the ugly…just like everywhere I guess. Thanks.
It has taken a long time to get these thoughts worked out. A mentor used to tell me: thoughts untangle themselves over the lips and over the fingertips. So through a lot of talking and many journal entries, things are starting to be come more coherent. Always in need of more, too.
This is an ongoing debate, sadly one I first got into when I started to become aware of what social justice meant when I was in my late teens (1970s into 1980s). So much has changed since then and so much has not. To anyone reading Rachel’s words, please do think about what she has to say. Oxfam had a campaign years ago trying to address this issue. The main thrust was not to give money to send a food parcel but to give money so the people could have the education and resources to look after themselves and not be dependent on Rich Westerners. Many Christians feel the legacy of missionaries and try to shake that off, please don’t tar today’s people of faith with what people did before we knew better and stop them reaching out in very positive ways now. I am happy you have raised this issue, the more we share, the more we learn and can contribute to this world in a meaningful way.
Good, important words for everyone in development work – to not be mired in the past. Either by making the same mistakes or by feeling paralyzed by the sometimes damaging legacy. It hasn’t been all bad, but there is still a lot of work to do.
This article was different from what I expected, but very good. Growing up as an mk in Asia we lived like upper-middle class or better and thot we were better than most of the people around us…That has always bothered me! I greatly admired the few missionary families I knew who lived in small apartments and sent their children to local primary schools~I expect they may have had more of an impact on those around them. The last house we lived in was a very nice 2-story brick home with fruit trees in the yard, just behind the outdoor pool at our beautiful school campus. We were in our own little white community, not reaching out much to the locals (except for my dad, who was rarely home.) When he resigned from the mission so us 5 kids could have a home in the States while in high school and college, he couldn’t settle down, so went back to Asia alone and then, I’m quite sure, lived very simply, still sending home most of his salary. He was an amazing man who spent over 50 yrs of his life ministering to the Chinese. He spent almost 4 years in prison camp in Hong Kong as a young man, and rarely complained. I can’t wait to be reunited with him! I don’t think he was an arrogant white at all, but gave his all for those he went to serve. If he had been a single missionary I believe he would have lived a much different life over there, but I’m glad he was my daddy, even tho I never knew him very well until I was an adult with a family of my own.
MK – I didn’t know this story about your dad. Thank you for sharing. He sounds like he personified cultural humility.
I agree with Marilyn, your father sounds amazing in many ways. I’m glad it sounds like you are learning more about him as you age. And it is hard to make those choices of how to live and how to educate our children, I know so many wrangle deeply with these questions.
[…] When rich westerners don’t know they’re being rich westerners by Djibouti Jones […]
” Africa but not Uganda. Africa but not Lesotho. Michael W. Smith sings a song: A New Hallelujah. “From Africa to Australia, from Brazil to China, from New York down to Houston.” The United States gets to be named by city, most of the rest of the world by country name, and Africa is one solid chunk of continent. We need to learn our details, our facts, we need to name places accurately. Naming implies seeing, honoring, respecting.”
Love this! I would also add- when the rich Westerner only includes history of Nigerian/Ugandan/Kenyan, etc people in history lessons starting from the time they were captured as slaves. Nothing is taught prior to that which places the power dynamic as whites are in control and owners, blacks are inferior and controlled.
Yes! Very good words about the history of people and places that goes so much deeper than when the west came along (discovered them?!).
I’m pretty sure he isn’t slighting Africa, just as he’s not slighting Australia–also a continent. Maybe it’s a principal of continent, country, and city. Just as Jesus told us to go into local regions and then beyond. Is it better to go farther at the neglect of the closer? Of course not. And the reality is, you can’t name every country, region, section of region in a short song. I think it’s important to examine our own motives and actions, but also not to label the motives of someone else. –Not a Smith groupie, just a music lover.
I was actually thinking the same thing when I read that portion. This article is awesome! LOVE IT! And I’m not a MWS fan other than I think he’s a good man. I don’t even recognize that song. But when reading the lyrics provided, it seems he’s just listing continents, countries, then states. To give a context that God is so great that he deserves praise from the biggest, to the smallest… that’s just what I thought when I read that part.
The snippet style of journalism is something we see even in the biggest news outlets. An anecdote or image is used to illustrate something, and readers tend to globalize it as if it described all they need to know. We do the same thing with our short-term missions or tourist experiences, even within our own countries.
While living in Central America in my 20s and 30s, I discovered how different Honduras and Costa Rica are from each other and from Colombia. Now in my 50s and recently married to a Colombian, I am learning things about the culture that I had no clue about when I was an ex-pat child in Medellín.
One thing I have learned is how vastly more open my future has always been. Most of my Latin American friends who are professionals have worked far harder than I have to get to where they are, unless they happened to be born into the upper class.
This is a beautiful comment and example of how we can always continue to learn and grow. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
I HATE THIS. and I LOVE THIS.
loving the questions this article brings to my head and heart.
loving that I am even aware of this to struggle with it.
embarassed that I resonate with so many ‘no no’s’ in this.
excited to be moved in this area of my heart.
can’t wait for more…
I hear you Holly! Hate and love, me too honestly, because of how often I have made mistakes in the past, because of how far I have to go. But I am buoyed by conversations like this, knowing that I’m not alone and that others are along on a similar journey. We can sharpen and help each other.
Thanks for this post. It is so full of things to read and think about – pray and make changes. It is going to take me at least a week to walk through this one – Praying that the Lord will show me where I need to change as a result.
Such an ugly side of myself… Even when tring to reach out in love I find my self “looking” down. Only after bringing a dear girl into my home and working along side her did I see clearly how my mind works. Thank for the reminder to be gentile, carefull, and to think through things before diving in!
As a westerner married to an Ethiopian these are issues my husband and I discuss quite frequently. He worked with short term missionaries for qute a few years and loved every minute of it, but saw a lot of these attitudes among well intentioned people. I’ve had some “ah ha” moments due to living w a person cross culturally, as he had had some too. Rachel this is a must read for the western church as a whole- we have so much to learn and see from out eastern friends. I can’t tell you how much this I loved this blog!!!
I get a similar perspective from my East African husband. Lots of “ah ha” moments the first few years, and they still strike me from time to time.
Thanks Holly. Appreciate your perspective, and Anita’s as well.
Brave and important. Thank you.
[…] When rich westerners don’t know they’re being rich westerners by Djibouti Jones […]
Lots of good thoughts to process! I admit that I had some feelings of “but those things DO need attention brought to them!” as I read but the thing I keep coming back to is relationship. If we don’t KNOW people, how can we love and care for them in the best way? I never considered how hurtful that lumping an entire continent of people together as victims could be. 🙁
Relationship – exactly. Because in the context of a relationship we are able to ask questions, confess mistakes, honestly critique and help one another, find joy in the things done well…
I was just talking to my husband about Jody’s article and how do we change these things with our family. Then here was your article. Her term ‘cultural humility’ really resonated with me. But then in reading your article I realized the pride that is still so much a part of my own lens. My own pride of ‘cultural competency’ I’ve thought myself to have. Thank you for more challenging words. This is a conversation that the Western Christian Church needs to so desperately have! I believe it was Jody who talked about if we really looked at our beliefs we would see that they aren’t solely based on the Bible and Christ. Our history, our country’s history, our own feelings and experiences tint the lens through which we see and think. I pray that my heart would be open to seeing through God’s lens. Seeing His beautiful and diverse creation!
I’m working on a post to follow this that will have some suggestions and am totally open to hearing from readers too. What are some practical things to do? Always, I recommend the book When Helping Hurts, which maybe you have read, but is worth rereading.
Wow. Powerful article. I can tell you’ve been mulling this over for a while – each point is so compact and rich in its observations.
I wonder how much of this is perpetuated because what we read is largely ex-pat or outsider observations of a culture. Whether it’s that there isn’t much literature from a particular culture, or much written in English, or much published in written form on the web, or something else… I don’t know. But I can’t help thinking that if we got our hands on more stories told by people living within the culture, there would be much more understanding going around. Thousands of books get translated from English into other languages every year… I wish there were more being translated the other way around!
for those who may want to know more details regarding Ann Voskamp’s trip to Uganda this summer, here’s the link where she goes into even greater detail about why she and Hope traveled there: http://www.aholyexperience.com/2013/07/when-you-are-done-with-pundits-soul-wrestling-looking-at-the-sky-25-things-i-learned-from-staying-with-katie-davis/
And Kisses From Katie by Katie Davis is an excellent book about how truly encountering Jesus changes us all.
Thanks for sharing these links Cathy.
Oh wow. Yes. LOVE your description of how we make “cardboard characters out of real, complex people”. I have encountered both extremes of this attitude while working in development…
On the one hand, by far the dominant narrative I had encountered before ever setting food in Africa was the “poverty is ennobling” one. Then I traveled to Burkina at age 20 and was shocked — SHOCKED — to find that some poor “African” Christians could be materialistic, or selfish, or arrogant. It hadn’t occurred to me — as if the “other” weren’t just as complex and multifaceted as we are. As if their poverty somehow required them to be more holy.
On the other hand, as annoyingly simplistic as that (often Evangelical) attitude is — annoying because it erases the individuality of the other person, as illustrated in the blog post about the Ugandan church service and offering — it at least has the virtue of acknowledging that there is something to be learned from the other. I have found this acknowledgement to be virtually absent from much of development work. (I am just now working on the start-up of a project that, for the first time in my 10 years of development experience, begins from a description of local communal initiatives and actively seeks to work with and through these to bring innovations for improved food security and nutrition. The proposal was born out of a dialogue with a grassroots organization, and my hope is that the whole approach be one of dialogue between local communities and their traditional resilience strategies, and (mostly Zimbabwean) technical experts with their improved, but appropriate, technologies. We’ll see — it’s an approach that is new and foreign to many of us!)
Such good words Elisabeth. You can clearly see your own journey and willingness to learn in this comment. Thanks for being honest about that shock in Burkina – I think that is so important to recognize, myself included. And to even be able to say, ‘i thought this, but i was wrong.’ That’s okay, that’s great in fact! To be willing to recognize it and change the thinking. The new project you’re working on sounds wonderful and important, a good change in direction. Probably not an easy one, either, but good.
Thanks Rachel for opening up how you perceive white rich westerners to function. This was extremely helpful, and right on target.
White church, please take notice!
Have you read “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself'”? I love the idea put forth in this book about how the first step is recognizing that we all suffer from poverty. Poverty is rooted in the brokenness of four foundational relationships: relationship with God, relationship with self, relationship with others, and relationship with the rest of creation. Only when we have this frame of mind, when we recognize our own deficiencies and embrace our own brokenness, will we do more good than harm.
The book is packed with things I want to quote to the refugee ministry team I’m leading – not because we’re doing ‘wrong’ things, but because it seems so easy to veer off course without really being aware of it.
Yes yes! Just finished rereading it and taking loads of notes. I think everyone should have a copy, probably multiple copies because you’ll borrow it to someone and never see it again. I’m going to address the area of relational poverty briefly in an upcoming post, I find those categories so helpful to guide my thinking.
Loved this article! Spot on! My only complaint, when I tried to “share” on my FB from my phone, it would only attach the “man stabbing woman” photo as the thumbnail, ugh! Couldn’t even remove it! Completely off putting and scary 🙁
Carol, thanks for mentioning this. I’m not sure why it is doing that and am working on it. HOpefully will have it fixed soon!
Carol I think I’ve got it fixed now, if not please let me know. Thanks.
This is wonderful and captures so much of my own discomfort with the current paradigms. I just returned from a conference where the emcee was encouraging us to sponsor children in the developing world. She repeatedly told us that her family “has” ten children that they sponsor. I was horrified by what that one verb choice communicated about how she viewed those children.
Thanks for sharing this example Hannah. It is hard to use the exact right words and yet…we have to be thoughtful of what they are communicating, and this is a good example of that.
Thanks for this. I just got back from 10 days in central Asia. It was my first non-Western experience – and it was overwhelming. I found myself struggling (and in conversation with my fellow travelers) about the beauty and brokenness that surrounded us in this very foreign culture – and much of what we tried to parse out was how we could interpret, understand, and value a culture that was so different from our own – and still think about how we could support efforts that would empower healthy change. In the end, we decided that we had to fight for cultural humility to even have the conversation – not something that comes naturally to ‘Merican’s like us. Thanks for digging in and helping me think more about this.
It IS hard, it is still hard for me after 11 years. Good for you, to struggle through it on your own and with the group, to see the beauty and/in the broken. What remains clear to me over the years is that there is beauty and broken EVERYwhere.
This is such a well done piece that accomplishes its aim without being cutting and overly scolding. So very many things come to mind from our experience, but truth be told most of our lessons are ones that we had to learn the hard way. One key is to invite into our lives people from inside the culture that can actually tell us when we are seeing things in a warped way or through our own cultural context. I truly wish every newspaper, reporter, channel, and magazine could truly examine themselves in light of what you have written…I know I have.
I know that this is why I struggled with writing it for so long – initially my heart was angry and scolding, that is a good word for it. But as I’ve dug deeper into my own attitudes and then read Jody’s post, somehow things emerged more clearly and because of looking at my own weaknesses, I’m overwhelmed by grace. Writing angry isn’t going to help anyone or anything and I’ve learned that when I’m writing angry the writing is still far from done because the work on my heart is far from done. Long response, but thanks for your words!
Yay! It’s fixed! Thank you so much! I reposted it with the corrected image. By the way, I read the post again and I really want to commend you for writing such a bold piece with conviction! It’s a painful thing to objectively view how things have been done and realize we were off. the first step to change is acknowledging there’s a problem. Thank you again!
Thanks Carol, glad you saw that. Thanks for pointing it out, I think the fix I did will help with future posts too.
I really appreciate you writing this. What is more, I think that we “rich westerners” do this across subcultures here in the United States as well! We think, “if we can just get “those people” to drive out here to our church meeting then God could really touch their life, help them, etc!” We’ll spend untold dollars on marketing this idea on bilboards, radio stations, etc and If they can’t drive then we will even pump money into buses and vans to get them to us. It was this realization that has led me to spend the rest of my life helping folks begin simple, organic church families within their own subculture…
True, true Gavin. Thanks for addressing that.
I am most impressed by your words. I would just like to re-emphasise the idea of cultural humility. I am a 3rd culture kid, born & raised in Djibouti, of Ethiopian & Eritrean parents and migrated to the US in my teens. I thought for many years, in my young adult life that I could fix and tell my elders how to do things the “right” way because I’ve seen how it’s better here in the US. And one time, my mother said something wisely admonished me by saying: “It is not your place, show respect, and be quiet.” At the time I was really angry, but then realised she was right. We are commanded by Christ to love one another, not “fix” or “save” one another. We are taught to respect our elders, and care for the sick and the weak. I’m saying all this that even those who have been around that foreign culture all their life, sometimes need to be reminded to have cultural humility.
My last and short comment:AMEN to the part about Africa not being a country! It drives me UP the WALL!!! LOL
Oh I love hearing this from someone who has lived in Djibouti, you captured me when you wrote that. What great insight into how this crosses into other areas as well, like relating to elders. And thank you for the humility you exhibit in saying that even those who have lived places like Djibouti, or are from here, don’t have it all worked out. Amen.
What would I add to this list? “When the rich westerner assumes that the well-to-do in other cultures don’t commit the same offenses laid out in this list.”
It is a good list, and it is true that as westerners we often make these mistakes. But after living in India for almost two years I can tell you that the well-off in any culture will make these mistakes when visiting places that are foreign to them. And they are often blind to the poverty that is “right in front of them,” just as westerners are when we are in our home environment.
Very good point, thanks for bringing this up Laura. I agree. I wonder what expats and locals could do together to help each other engage, you know? To help both do better. One might be blinded to the issues and one might be offensive in responding to them.
Much learned here, and good reminders to be culturally humble. We can be blinded by the peripherals, the very things prized in our own culture (US). John 3:16
I have little to add to the conversation, but thank you for writing this peace, Rachel, for daring to walk into the turbulent waters. This is an important topic and we all need to be learners.
Excellent! I have traveled to Nepal, Tanzania, Liberia and Brazil and know I’m guilty of some of these conceptions. You did a great job presenting each and not being judgmental. One of the points about people referring to Africa instead a country. When people tell me they want to visit Africa, I always ask where? They look at me like I’m crazy so I enlighten them about the 7 continents, countries, cities and areas of the world! LOL!!
a very insightful article. However I hope, Rich Westerners doesn’t just conjure up the thought of a white Caucasian person. All rich people, especially from the west might have these same traits and outlook on life.
a side note: when I came to Kentucky from India as an 18 year old (having lived in Zaire and a Christian International school in India). I was shocked to see poverty in America. We never heard of poor Americans or Westerners. So to see so many struggling to make a living was perplexing. And yet I saw a humbleness in the poor..a beauty and similarity to the simple life of many in the developing nations.
I wanted to find a way that nations whether rich or poor could walk along side each other to help each other learn from both material and spiritual poverty that we suffer globally.
Thanks for addressing this – yes, not just caucasian, or even western. I have seen this attitude in all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds. And the comment by Simret even mentions how those who grow up around it can become blinded to it. And I’m glad you brought up the poverty in the US as well. The idea seems to be that poverty exists only in those ‘other’ places, those ‘strange’ places. What if people only wrote about or noticed the poverty and violence in the US, that would be an unbalanced picture too. We have to open our eyes to both good and bad both in the west and in the east.
I have always believed that God can use any one. He has a purpose for the little girl in the shack who survives on rice and beans and lives her days caring for her younger siblings. He has a purpose for the widow of ten children who provides by washing clothes. He has a purpose for the educated lawyer who lives next door but worships the idols that adorn her living room. He has a purpose for the man who spends his days working in the fields and evenings drinking the night away in a bar. He has a purpose for me the wife, mother, teacher, and daughter of the King.
Amen and amen and amen again.
so… I think you are getting very brave and writing beautifully about a topic that I’m really just learning about. Keep on… keep on… I want to learn right along with you. Cultural humility bridges/dovetails/and a whole bunch of other similar words right into what I’ve been learning about privilege and perspective. Thanks for this, Rachel.
Rachel, thanks so much for writing this…extremely brave, honest, thought-provoking, and challenging. One aspect of this whole issue that I haven’t seen anyone else mention is FUNDRAISING. Often, when Westerners are sharing stories from far-away people and cultures, they are doing it in an effort to raise funds to support a particular ministry, relief organization, etc. And that puts a whole nother spin on things…because then you’re not just sharing stories for the sake of awareness and education…you’re hoping people with give money. There’s a fine line to walk in sharing other people’s stories with cultural sensitivity and humility…while fundraising. It’s tricky, because Westerners (perhaps humans, in general) are so conditioned to respond to “the sensational.”
Much to think about, much to learn…thanks again!! 🙂
I think you got secret access to my post for next week! It directly addresses the issue, at least partly, of money and manipulation. This is right on – part of the pressure to present a certain story is to pull those heart strings i.e. purse strings.
Oh, good…I’ll look forward to reading that one. 🙂
Another great analysis of this issue can be found in, “When Helping Hurts” a recently published and released book. Great read!
Wow. I am in the midst of figuring this stuff out, after living 5 years here in Honduras. I’m glad someone brought up fundraising because we have to do that too – but I must say that in the interest of not exploiting people, we have been very unsuccessful in raising adequate support to help them, not to mention to maintain our own household. It’s a struggle all the time.
In this country I see a lot of spiritual abuse coming from indigenous pastors toward their congregations. I am told that I don’t understand, and that it’s just local culture, but I don’t buy it. I didn’t even notice the spiritual abuse until I became more acquainted with the culture. It’s been hard to separate local culture (which should be celebrated) from cultural strongholds (which should be pulled down). I want to rescue people from these abusive situations and other cultural strongholds.
Also, this country doesn’t really seem to have a culture of its own apart from being generally Latin American. Honduras has never, in all its history, been a country standing on its own two feet not being exploited by some other people, whether they be pirates, conquistadors, Guatemalans, Chinese, or North American businessmen. I would love to see a dignified autonomous country here, but I don’t. And when I have discussed this with intelligent Hondurans, they agree with me.
But I’m going on too much. I really just want to find out how to carry on with my mission here without being an ugly norteamericana, and you seem like you have a bit of a clue. Subscribing..
Chinua Achebe (sp?) wrote a book called __Things Fall Apart__ with some of the same observations. Change does not always fit/be needed/etc.
I’ve lived in Africa 38 years. Raised my kids here. After visiting the notorious Kibera slum in Nairobi last weekend, my African host said, “God has really blessed Africa”! He was referring to the many relationships that form his community. He had been to America and noticed our poverty – of relationship/companionship.
Thanks for this post. I hope it goes viral.
Love your name!
I love.love this comment “God has really blessed Africa”…Amen and Amen.
Boom. You are amazing!
[…] challenged by the words of writers like this who are working cross-culturally. After reading When Rich Westerners Don’t Know they are being Rich Westerners I feel the need to share this response. Jones writes about Westerners and how we act (or react) to […]
Hey, I’m a TCK, from South Africa and the US, thanks so much for this article, I will be using it with short-term volunteers I work with here in South Africa! 🙂 Several resources I have found useful (besides just When Helping Hurts)–
Walking with the Poor by Brent Meyers– I love this book because it was much more practical and positive than WHH. It is a bit more technical, so it might be “slow” reading for someone who is not doing community development. I felt that WHH raised really good issues, and showed that good intentions are not enough, but didn’t have tons of practical ways to implement humility and listening and empowerment within the work you’re doing. I finished Walking with the Poor and thought– I can do this!!
In terms of fundraising, the website re:humanity has some great articles about how we represent things to overseas/local funders. How to honor the humanity of everyone around us, rather than turning people into passive ‘fix me” projects. The site highlights bad examples, but also has some really funny and really positive examples, too. It really helped the organization I’m with think about how we portray what we do.
Great! Thanks for this book suggestion. I agree with your thoughts on WHH – a fantastic and important conversation starter, but have also been looking for more practical stuff. Thanks for sharing this.
[…] THIS: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Rich Westerners. […]
[…] (if you are just joining today, please read this post first: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners) […]
Thank you Rachel.
This is a great article. I am making my 6th trip to Kenya (from Australia) and one of the leaders of our next Mission Awareness Trip in January 2014. Your article will be a great discussion piece for our MAT team members in their final weeks of preparation for the trip.
Thank you again.
Glad to hear it, Rob. Hope it helps stir good conversation.
I agree there is an inherent arrogance when the west comes to a different type of country, especially the church. However, on some points like, “When the rich westerner believes they are here to save people”, I disagree with. I’ve seen countless times the Church be done a DISSERVICE by capable leaders taking a backseat in order to let locals “do it”.
The roles and the callings of the body of Christ are set by God alone, irrespective of ethnicity. If a westerner is called to be an apostle or teacher etc. in China, then he should do just that. Or whatever it may be. Running certain projects, leading certain outreaches.
I agree with about half of that article. I think it’s great though that people are addressing the issue.
Absolutely people should serve as God leads them to serve, my husband is teaching at a university in Djibouti and we’ve done many projects here, some better than others. But I do think there needs to be a humility and willingness to learn when working in cross cultural contexts that is too often sadly lacking.
Just a small side thought. People often take pictures of things that are most different from their home. If someone visits Texas, they take pictures of all the cowboy themes, even though that certainly isn’t a true reflection of Texas. If they visit the Middle East it’s camels. Waterways if it’s Venice, mountains if it’s Colorado, even though Italy and Colorado have different things to offer. And yes, abject poverty can be something most different to many tourists/short termers. It’s not a dishonest depiction or a negative focus, it’s just the most exotic of the differences.
This is a valid point, thanks for bringing it up. Yes, people are drawn to what looks different and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But when things like poverty are spun as the only reality in a certain place, or even the dominant reality, I take issue with that. There are also positive things that are different/’exotic’ but most often, at least in Africa, it is the negative that is most often promoted.
Rachel, thank you for adding to the growing conversation about these issues. I have been told to “write what you know.” But what I’m finding is that I don’t know much of anything. I want to learn, to walk in humility, write honestly. I look forward to hearing more from you!
I really just want to say thank you for your paragraph “When the rich westerner talks about Africa but not Nigeria.” It’s just as bad as when people say “In the African Lanuage.” Arg!
Throughout your entire article you’ve so articulated a point people need to hear and understand! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
[…] rich and white, but too often we are without even realizing it. (Read more on Between Worlds and Djabouti Jones. Yes, read […]
Well put! I moved to Northern Uganda in 2008 and have lived there and in S. Sudan since. During that time I have experienced so many of the things you’ve talked about from Westerners. I’ve also been guilty of many of these things myself. I definitely have a clearer understanding of the culture I live with than I did in the beginning, but realize I will never fully understand … it’s impossible. I’ve also learned through my own suffering and what Jesus & the bible teaches, that we have an incorrect view of ‘suffering’. As I share in the lifestyles of these beautiful people that a deeply love, I’ve come to believe that America is ‘suffering’ much more … just in a different way. Hard work is a GOOD thing! Walking instead of driving is a GOOD thing! Using a pit-latrine is actually better than sharing a toilet seat with 100s of others :). Eating for sustenance instead of entertainment … beans and rice … with your hands (which everyone ALWAYS washes first) is actually quite healthy. Living in a community of huts is wonderful! Spending our evenings out under the stars together, talking, singing … even dancing is so much better than everyone in the home sitting in front of their own computer or TV. So, westerners, we need a proper perspective and have much more to learn from these ‘undeveloped’ countries than we have to teach (not saying all is perfect or that there isn’t true, horrible suffering). There is definitely a huge need, but let’s approach with love, wisdom and understanding … thank you for your post Rachel.
Thank you for this! You have given a voice to many thoughts that run through my mind. I’m a missionary in Uganda… and while yes I have made many mistakes along the way I BELIEVE THAT AFRICA IS ABLE AND IS ALREADY ABLE! Sure, there are incredible challenges… but there is also incredible beauty in Uganda. My desire is to see a different image of Africa…. a positive, joy filled, BEAUTIFUL Africa not a poverty assumed, disease filled under developed Africa. Its there – it really is there – we just have to speak about it more often… to tell the world about it. All the while we cannot ignore the incredible challenges faced by those in certain areas – but also not ignoring the beauty that is evident.
Thank you for this post.
Thank you for putting your astute observations into words. I’d like to point out that while I agree with a lot of what you say, I believe the ‘wrong-doer’ spans a much greater population than “rich and white.” We tend to lump ourselves into the “rich,white, western” clump of wrong-doers and beat ourselves up, partly because that’s what the privileged do when they realize they have, by the sheer fortune of geography, been born to social and economic privilege – kind of a survivors guilt. I totally agree about the cultural superiority, however, it isn’t just the ‘rich westerner,’ nor is it just the white westerner. In my personal experience, I see the superiority (they don’t realize they have) and the – “let’s help” them “fix” them “save” them mentality – more from Christians (poor, middle class and rich, uneducated and highly educated) than by the “rich.”Additionally, I have often seen the same cultural superiority and judgement by foreigners (those poor, mixed-race, undereducated, self-aggrandizing, over-materialistic, fat Americans…) I don’t know exactly why this phenomenon happens… I know a lot of people from different parts of the world, who totally transcend that malady you speak of. I think we are better served rising a little above the self-beating and into a more boundary-less examination of the problem as a human problem. I believe that people who grow up to look upon others of different cultures in the way you describe have certain things in common: 1. nationalism-based education that excludes a well-rounded understanding of all people of the world as equal (whether their belongings amount to a few body wrappings, a headdress, and a knife, or millions of dollars), 2. an outlook that is based on appreciating people for people, not in the economically-guided order of technologically advanced, developing, or third world country status, 3. an outlook on cultures measuring the worth of a being based on which denomination of Christianity – saved, or not saved, born again, or not, etc., or any other religion “hierarchy,” 4. an outlook on people that is still, even today, based on purity of ‘class,’ ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘geographical origin,’ and other typical social class standards. In conclusion, and at the risk of over-simplifying, we begin fixing this by teaching our children growing up in any part of the world, to view other people as simply human beings, with bones and muscles and skin and hearts and souls – and not as people worth more or less based on our particular rubric of what’s important.
Bertina I love your 4 points, very well put. As well as your conclusion of teaching our children to view people as humans with intrinsic worth. It sounds over-simple but it really isn’t and it can have a profound affect on the future. Unless I did in the post and overlooked it, I intentionally didn’t refer to skin color (although Jody’s post did) because this could be a person of any color, and by saying rich and western, I pretty much mean anyone in the western world. I know people are poor in the west too, but by comparison most westerners are exceedingly wealthy and fit the rich category whether we know it or feel it or not. And in fact, as another commentor said, this attitude exists in people of all nations, economic levels, and colors. Basically it is a problem of othering and exorcizing that other. I guess for simplicity’s sake I narrowed it down, but thanks for pointing these things out, you are right on.
Thank you Rachel, for your response. and thank you for having the courage to point this out in public. As you, Holly m. and others mentioned it often takes being married to a non-westerner, or living outside the country in order to fully understand this phenomenon – in order to simply SEE it. Also, it is a rather difficult issue for us to embrace – that sometimes our magnanimous and philanthropic actions are more about us than they are about them. I will admit when I began reading your entry I was prepared to be annoyed 🙂 But I am grateful for the opportunity to share thoughts on this, and to continue to expand my own analysis of this not-often talked about societal glitch.
It IS hard to embrace, to see at all, what happens in cross cultural situations. Now that I’m learning more, I see it more, both in myself and others. The next step is learning to react with wisdom and grace, and learning how to behave differently myself. I’m so thankful for this conversation – both here and on other blogs – I feel challenged, chastened, and encouraged.
Well, again thank you for bringing it out for us to read about it!! I feel enlightened and grateful that more people are able to appreciate this concept openly and gracefully. I’ll share something interesting… I have had occasion to work side by side with high school dropout blue-collar laborers and inevitably we had great big philosophical discussions that always lead to religion (plus I’m living in a small city in the deep southern US). That same phenomenon you speak of is present in folks that live below the poverty line and have little formal education. I want to say that its cultural and geographic to a great extent, but it most often boils down to dogma – we tend to wrap ourselves in a cloak of specialness – our religion makes us better, we’re “in” the club! And sometimes SO in, that we begin to see everyone else as OUT. And then we either revel in our special membership, among other special members, or reach out to all the others who we see as needing to be rescued and given a bit of our fortune… (and as you say, if it makes for an exotic-looking endeavor with a cool picture, all the better) its a bit like Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” – Thanks for listening.
I do not often comment on blogs. But I must say thank you for these thoughts. I was struggling with some internal questions this very morning…. that led to me paying attention to our speaker who touched on some ways to show compassion around the globe without leaving my armchair (not at all a bad thing but so easy to say ‘done” with that) which made me want to get on a plane and go somewhere (but then I always want to get on a plane and go ‘do something’) but… I know that I really don’t know what the Holy Spirit is whispering to my heart about the neighbors down my street, much less across the globe. Your comment about “cultural humility” might be the place to start. And you know what? I can’t make myself humble by any amount of self effort! But… slowly, tenderly, Father is teaching and molding me, and (here’s my part) I’m learning to let him. I’m learning to ask for more and then yield, surrender, submit to the hand of the potter. You have well spoken to the “don’t know” part – the ‘problem’ – now, help me with the solution. I know that there is not a one size fits all solution just as the ‘problem’ isn’t a one size fits all problem. Thanks for writing.
Good to hear from you Laura, thanks for taking the time to share your heart.
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Thanks for your thoughts and the conversation you’ve created. I struggle with this topic too while working for an American multinational company on a project in Brazil. I’m also a TCK, so I like to think I have some “cultural competency” but I still find myself in my American mindset of “I know better than you”. Yet, God continues to humble me as I make language and cultural mistakes, and as he reveals my sin of prejudice and pride. Thank you for your writing!!
Interesting post. I see some of these behaviours here in Bali, especially Ubud, coming from the New Age spiritualist groups flooding into the village now. Just one example was the uproar in the expat community over the rumour that a McDonald’s was going to open up in Ubud. Hundreds of posts on social network sites demanding that McD’s not be allowed in. When some brave soul suggested that the Balinese might want a McDonald’s in Ubud, the response was that Balinese needed to be educated by Westerners on what was bad for them nutritionally. The McD never did open but the attitude that Westerners know best came through loud and clear.
[…] I didn’t realize how those surface things are rooted deep, connected to my sense of identity, the way I viewed people in the developing world, my values, even my sense of humor. I didn’t realize that letting go of what I knew, to embrace […]
I’m a bit late to the party in reading this but so very glad I did . . . thank you so much for these words! I work for a Christian relief and development org and wrestle with these tendencies always. Someone else recommended Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers and I would highly second that recommendation. Myers’ focus is transformational development – the work of transformation in all of us, how we all need each other in this process. When Helping Hurts is a great springboard for Myers’ book. Especially helpful to me (to the point pages are falling out) is Chpt 7 – Development Practice: Principles and Practitioners. He lays out some attitudes of the holistic practitioner. A few favorites: ‘cultivate a repentant spirit’, ‘be a good neighbor’, ‘everywhere is holy’ and ‘be humble before the facts’. He also examines the question of ‘whose reality counts?’. I’d also recommend CrossCultural Servanthood by Duane Elmer. Pages are falling out of that one too. Both books lay out extremely wise yet practical principles to help guard against our god-complex default. I haven’t read your follow up post but that is where I’m headed next – thanks again!
Welcome at any time to the ‘party’ Lisa and thanks for your comments about Myers’ book. Good stuff!
I love you so much for writing this Rachel. I’m a Nigerian christian but have lived in North America for the last 7 years and attended church here. The pious superiority towards “africa” is so infuriating. There’s a round of thoughts that are perpetually in my thoughts when it comes to westerners, western churches and africa.
If you care enough to go there on a mission trip, please know the name of the country and the city you’re visiting.
Do people realize you do not have to go ALL THE WAY to Africa to find hungry children. There’s quite a few in your city if you would be brave enough to go to those neighborhoods
A lot of African names have complex and beautiful meanings. Please don’t be condescending when someone tells you the meaning of their name. I once read a blogger say in reference to her compassion child “who names their kid that?”.
Yeah; I’m a little peeved and really appreciate reading the writing of someone who gets it. Good job Rachel
Thanks so much for writing this, Yetunde.
[…] is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations. This debate was raging around […]
[…] I am of the opinion that the stories of the poor need to be told and that sometimes it takes an outsider to get those stories heard, ála Katherine Boo or Nicholas Kristof, author of Half the Sky. But we need to be careful about the attitudes we bring to these stories. […]
You’ve made some decent points there. I looked on the net
for more information about the issue and found most people will go along with your views on this site.
[…] is an inconvenient truth in my heart that I like comfort and ease. And yet, when I am comfortable and life is easy, I do […]
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Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reafing through this post reeminds me of
my good old room mate! He always kept talking about this.
I will forward thus article to him. Fairly
certain he will have a good read. Thank yoou for sharing!
[…] this article the author states “I am not surprised by, but continue to be disappointed in, the western […]
What a great article and some good links too! Well written – thank you for this to chew on!
Now I am a “rich westerner” but I was raised in a tar-paper shack with a dirt floor, no power or running water.
Poverty is not enobling – but boarding up that shack, working hard to pay to get the power connected – that is.
Back in the late 1990’s a woman I know was showing slides of her visit to Vietnam, her first to a third world country, as it still was then. They had been invited to dine with a local family, and she had taken a picture of how the table was laid. She went on at length about it.
There were eight people at the table, a couple dishes of rice, some sauces, and a smallish carp, baked and sitting sideways on a steel rack in the middle of the table.
In all her enthusiasm she failed to notice that the main meal of the day, for 8 people, was a single carp, with rice.
And she admitted to eating some of it.
Thanks Rachel, many great points for me to mindful of. A few of your points reminded me of clips from http://www.rustyradiator.com/, who also address the same concern about ‘Saving Africa’. They award NGO advertisements that don’t play into this white savior complex to raise money.
[…] is not ISIS, Muslims killing Christians. It isn’t Band-Aid 30, rich white westerners saving a dark continent filled with nameless poor and ignorant […]
[…] idea that a miracle device will solve all the educational issues for girls in low-income countries. Rich westerners can toss some menstrual cups at a problem and be done with it. Voila, world saved. But I’m not […]
[…] See Please Don’t Say They Are Poor But Happy and When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners. […]
Thanks for the thought provoking and wise use of words here. Truth humbly spoken in love. 🙂
Another late comer. I believe this is about being an ally rather than a savior – much as an activist ally to an LGBT or American civil rights organization or movement. Thank you for framing it beyond those situations to even a broader context.
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Thank you for such an insightful and beautiful post. I have been guilty of at least some (probably most if not all) of these if I am honest over the course of my life. For that reason I always worry about criticising others when there is so much to improve in myself.
One example that upset me very deeply was something I came across on a visit to Cambodia (a country I have visited but never lived in). One village we drove though had a well and that well had a huge plaque with the name of the kind benefactor who had donated the money for the well. It reminded me of the story of those who wear tassels on their clothes when they fast to advertise their piety. The well was a wonderful gift to the village but whether knowingly or unknowingly the gift was given for the benefit of the benefactor and not the recipient.
I have also seen many examples of people who strive to do good in a community by doing what they think should be done rather than asking the community what they need.
中国に進出して５０年余りの日本シチズン会社、50歳の年に「ネット」、中国で控えめ起動時計ネット直販。1月24日、本紙記者からシチズン時計（中国）有限公司（略称シチズン」）によると、2007年の試運転の1段の時間後、IWC スーパーコピーシチズン中国でネット直販公式サイトが開通し、2008年には一層の発展。 http://www.eevance.com/News/9d4c2f636f067f89.html
[…] out, Savior Barbie is largely preaching to the choir; people who are already savvy and aware and debating the issues. Most people outside the aid and development world or not engaged in the global South probably […]
Out of curiosity, any reason why you use the phrase “rich westerner” as opposed to just “westerner?” I realize that poverty here is still considered “richness” in comparison to other countries but poverty here is still poverty, a lack of being able to provide the essentials for your family (food, shelter), lack of hope and inability to change your situation….
[…] his pregnant fiancee. A woman in labor turned away, the needy ignored in the streets. Maybe we feel comfortable imagining that in ‘those’ places people only had dirty torn clothes to wrap around their babies, that in ‘those’ places […]