Teju Cole opened his presentation with a video clip. A white girl with shaggy bangs and a colorful headband plays her violin while another sings Rihanna’s song, We Found Love. The scene cuts and we discover that she is in Africa, playing her violin and smiling among native Africans, from the classroom to the field.. From the classroom to the field, she interacts with the Africans. The clip ends with her reflecting on this life-changing, sentimental experience.
“There’s something going on in a video like that that is worthy of our attention and our worry,” Teju Cole said to the crowd that nearly filled Leverone Hall.
It’s what he calls the White Savior Industrial Complex. The concept is that white people go to Africa thinking they can do good and solve problems without first consulting the local people on what the problems they face truly are.
“If we are going to interfere in the lives of others,” Cole writes in the Atlantic, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”
There is an air of superiority and a desire for sentimentality associated with the complex. In a series of tweets that garnered attention, Cole wrote, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”
Cole described how when white people travel to Africa to help, their hand that gives is above the hand that receives. This element of superiority and supremacy in the “exchanges” creates a one directional flow of favors being done from one group for the other.
To illustrate his point, Cole created the character Brad, admittedly hoping that nobody in the crowd was named Brad. Brad is a nineteen-year-old white boy from Minnesota. He goes to Haiti to do medical missions, yet he knows essentially nothing about medicine.
“You think the people don’t know that Brad is nineteen?” Cole asked the crowd. “They’re poor, not dumb.”
Brad leaves Haiti feeling accomplished and fulfilled, with a new Facebook profile picture in tow. The profile picture is one we’ve all seen before: Brad crouching down with a few African children near him smiling. What you would never find on Facebook, Cole elucidates, is a picture of Brad with a homeless man in a shelter in Minneapolis.
“Happy African children are available in that way,” Cole said.
Cole was not condemning all aid. What he was saying is that we need more constellational thinking, Cole said. Similarly to how we look at the stars and draw lines between them to make shapes, we need to look at events, causes, and effects and connect them to each other to create understanding. Aid has to be applied strategically and carefully with know-how and knowledge, Cole explained. The first question we should always ask is, “How much do I not know about the situation I’m stepping into?” It is respectable to want to provide aid and relieve suffering in the world. However, for this to happen, Cole believes you must leave your sense of superiority first.
“Unbalance is inefficient,” Cole said. It does not succeed as much as it fails.