Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality
by Orissa Arend
Jordan Flaherty’s memoir/history/political critique is an extremely humbling guide for privileged White people who want to challenge the structures of power as allies rather than saviors in the liberation of those who are oppressed. I didn’t realize how attached I am to my heroes as saviors, how essential they are to my cherished narratives of self, country, and religion until I seriously pondered Flaherty’s many examples of egregious pseudo-saviors.
This makes his book hard to read and digest for many of us White people. As the title suggests, no typical hero escapes the fate of the image on the cover, a White guy in a red cape spread eagle, splat on the pavement. From 1096 AD (and probably before) when Pope Urban II launched the Crusades, “lies of peace and generosity mask violent self-interest,” Flaherty contends. “Moral” arguments have been used to justify all domination. Destructive control masquerades as “help.” He debunks the myth that great men shaped our history. Movies, literature, journalists, historians, and teachers, Flaherty believes, have all promoted a narrative which glorifies the singular savior and condescends to the oppressed.
To make matters worse, our gross distortion of history is rooted in the seminal lie of White skin superiority which teaches some of us that we have the answers and the skills needed to rescue others, that saving others is the burden we must bear. We’re also trained not to notice our power or the systems that gave it to us. So our best-intended assumptions are often wrong. Thus when people we have chosen to rescue tell us we are not helping, we often take it as evidence that they need more help. It’s a self-serving loop: As a savior, we can enjoy a big emotional experience that validates our privilege and our assumed superiority.
Fortunately, being a savior is not a fixed identity. Flaherty gives us some pointers as he enumerates a daunting catalog of saviors-gone-wrong – which I’ll get to later. Here are the pointers: Get feedback from people you don’t have power over. Listen and learn. Be ready to commit to accountable collective organizing. You don’t have to be in charge. Support leadership by those who have the most to lose. Be willing to be uncomfortable because when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. And finally, Flaherty suggests that we shift the political logic from “The way we solve a problem is by killing it” to “The way we solve a problem is by loving it.”
Flaherty’s challenges are radical and revolutionary, advocating transformation, not reform. He rejects concepts like social entrepreneur, change agent, and sharing economy as kinder capitalism, the idea that you can get rich while helping others. He believes that behind every fortune is a concealed crime. He quotes rapper and mogul Jay-Z on charity, “A racket in a capitalist system, a way of making our obligation to each other optional.” It normalizes destitution and diverts our attention from fundamental solutions.
“Rescuing women is probably the world’s oldest excuse for male violence,” Flaherty contends. Keeping White women safe from predatory Black men was the justification for lynching and for the KKK. “The modern police force is an institutional descendant of slave catchers, and today’s prisons are a continuation of the system of slavery.” The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, supported by Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and the National Organization For Women, actually led to more women being arrested during domestic violence calls. “Once again it turned out that the only way police know how to rescue someone is to arrest them.”
In response, feminists of color in organizations such as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance have developed ways of confronting gender violence that do not depend on a “sexist, racist, classist and homophobic criminal justice system.” Similarly, Flaherty and his comrades eschew anti-human trafficking efforts that ignore the organizing efforts of sex workers themselves. He says that Hillary Clinton embodies “the new imperialist feminism which justifies a hawkish foreign policy and cultural imperialism as rescuing women worldwide from being forced to veil, subject to honor killings, and coerced into arranged marriages.” Again war, which takes it’s heaviest toll on women and children, is justified as a very expensive rescue adventure.
As I write this, Trump is taking the helm of the free world. We have to ask ourselves, why was the hunger for a rich, White, male savior so great in a large chunk of our country, that obvious lies, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia were excused or willingly overlooked? Would a Black man or any woman have been given a similar pass? Of course not. Worldwide, several million women turned out on Trump’s first day as president to speak up and confront this. But the extremely impressive display of resistance, 15,000 right here in New Orleans, can only translate into effective organizing if we correct the mistakes of feminist history. We must allow women on the margins, those with the most to lose, to set the agenda and to lead.
I see it as a time of great hope because we have been moving in this direction in fits and starts for several decades now. In 1970 here in New Orleans the Black Panthers got aid exactly right. Their free breakfasts for children, clothes give-aways, clinics and much more were considered “Survival Programs pending Revolution.” They worked in solidarity with oppressed people to give them what they said they needed, setting an example of agency. They educated and worked against the root causes of suffering creating solidarity to challenge racist structures. A ten-point program of principles sustained them. Women worked and fought right along side of men. Malik Rahim was 22 then and in charge of security for the Panthers. So he was good at spotting enemies.
When Katrina blew in, 35 years later, and young radicals from all over the country streamed in to help, Malik and others started Common Ground and based it on Panther principles. Flaherty devotes a whole chapter to Brandon Darby, the White “savior” from Austin and the spokesperson for Common Ground for years. Despite the many perceptive women who called him out for his misogyny and abuse and an endless stream of disorder and pain and distrust spread in his wake, it took a long time for astute male organizers like Flaherty and Rahim to realize what was happening. Darby’s destructiveness left lasting scars on the social justice community in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Some of the Common Grounders were still around when Occupy came to New Orleans. “It was a new movement and it was not about saving people but about building something together.” It failed to understand and address the systemic differences of inequality amongst the 99%.
Yet for all its flaws, “it was a mass movement that was not afraid to call out systemic problems.”
Alicia Garza, a 30-year-old organizer in the Bay Area coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” She helped the rise of a movement that specifically centered race and gender along with the class analysis so present in Occupy. Garza contends that Black Lives Matter is about more than ending police violence. “Black lives can’t matter under capitalism,” she says. The movement is a critique of the whole system – capitalism, foundations and nonprofits, White supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism. “We’re not telling people what to do. Our role is to help amplify community-driven solutions and resource the ability of people to get organized and fight back.” That stands in sharp contrast to the savior model of change.
Our local organizers are well positioned to utilize these time-tested principles. A People’s Assembly Process is being launched to counter the capitalist agenda of both political parties by prioritizing the needs and actions of poor and working class people in New Orleans. This will quell the temptation to react willy-nilly to the plethora of injustices flung at us daily from all directions designed to exhaust and divide us. Another coalition of activists called Justice and Beyond gathers 75-100 people weekly at a Baptist Church to learn from each other and develop support and strategy. For the second year in a row Justice and Beyond has teamed up with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to provide an Undoing Racism workshop for organizers. All of these endeavors are led by people of color and they encourage the participation of women and young people.
Perhaps with the help of Flaherty’s book, those of us who are White and want to be part of the resistance can finally find our rightful place.
Orissa Arend is the author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans