As a white American man living in the Philippines, I’ve come across the term “white savior” a lot.
Here’s a definition:
“White savior refers to western people going in to “fix” the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.”
For the record, I totally agree that “white saviors” exist. I agree that volunteers can come into a country and do more harm than good.
I believe in the twisted way that “I want to help!” can SOMETIMES show an underlying belief that a volunteer’s home country knows best.
It all depends on what “help” looks like. If it looks like turning a country into the spitting image of a volunteer’s home country, that can be very problematic.
Isn’t the whole purpose of traveling to learn from another country?
When I look at an impoverished country like the Philippines, I simply see poverty as a weakness of the country. I don’t use that as a measuring stick to say “See! America is better!”
America has weaknesses, too. It’s not that one place is better than the other —it’s that both have strengths and weaknesses.
It’s our duty as volunteers to learn from a country, then help them in the way they want to be helped.
My problem with the term “white savior” comes from the way virtue signalers see ANY help given by foreigners and immediately label it as an act of white saviourism.
I’ll give you an example.
Not Everything Is ‘White Saviourism’
One time I wrote a post on LinkedIn telling a story of a masseuse I met on a river cruise.
In the Philippines they normally have places to get a foot massage on 1-2 hour river cruises.
I remember this particular woman didn’t have the top half of her fingers. The cruise guide said she had them cut off when she was younger. I can’t remember if it was an accident or not.
I decided to take a picture with her afterwards so I could tell her story on social media. Before I continue, there’s one big thing you must know..
Normally I give tips to almost everybody I meet in the Philippines. Tricycle drivers, waiters, food delivery workers, you name it. “Tipping” is not really required here. My girlfriend is a Filipina and whenever I give the customary 20% tip to waiters she yanks my arm and says “THAT’S TOO MUCH!”
To me, though, it’s sometimes not enough. Dinner can sometimes cost $5 here. Leaving a $1 tip isn’t exactly Christmas, but my girlfriend seems to think it’s way too much money.
I leave tips because these people deserve it. I leave tips because I know for a fact that I’d pay 5X the price in the states for a taxi ride, or a dinner, or a pizza delivery.
And for me, tipping is customary in these situations.
So I use some of the money I saved to tip the workers. It’s something nice to do, I believe, and it’s certainly not hurting anybody.
Anyway, I told the story of this masseuse in my post and I talked about how I tipped her 200 pesos for a 15-minute massage. That’s about $4. I mentioned that because after tipping dozens (if not close to a hundred) people here in the Philippines, I wanted to urge my followers to do the same thing when they visit foreign countries — even when people don’t want to accept the tip.
It’s not expected in a place like the Philippines, but it should be done anyway.
It’s a no brainer. You’re already paying a fraction of what you might pay. This is a good way to put money in people’s pocket — people who need it more than you do.
Most of the comments were nice ones, but I got a surprising amount of people calling me a “white savior” and asked me why I needed to mention this lady’s deformity.
They thought I was using her to get views on social media.
Honestly, I didn’t expect the post to go viral, but it did. It got like 500,000 views in a matter of 72 hours. And I had a good portion of people calling me out for all types of wrong-doing.
Why did I mention her deformity?
Well, as a story-teller, I just wanted to be honest.
Why did I talk about tipping her?
As a person, I just wanted to spread a good idea.
An idea that, if enacted by even 1% of the folks who read, may be a nice ray of sunlight in the lives of those they meet.
I never use social media to talk about tipping folks. I wanted to spread a good message that day. Honestly, I didn’t think twice about the views it would get.
After tipping dozens upon dozens of folks in the Philippines, it was time to relay that idea to others.
The shit-storm I got, in my mind, was unwarranted.
My Problem With The “White Savior” Detractors
Here’s the thing..
I think people take a legitimate concern — white saviourism — and take it way too far.
They start to see any act of generosity or help as an act of white saviourism.
I was just giving someone a $4 tip, and somehow that became an awful thing to do. They felt bad for the woman because they believed I was objectifying her for likes.
They felt so bad for her — that she didn’t deserve to be shown like that.
That comes with a presupposition that she needs no help, though.
That I was out of touch with reality and that she was fine.
You should’ve seen the look on her face, though.
She received the money and smiled the biggest smile. Her friends said “SANAOL” which means “I hope that would happen for everybody” in Tagalog.
If she didn’t need it, then why was she so happy to get it?
We need to call a spade a spade here sometimes. I’m not a fan of painting the Filipino people as some poverty-stricken group.
However, my story was true, wasn’t it? She was happy to get the money, wasn’t she? We need to face the cold hard truth that a white person (or any person) giving some money to someone in need is a fine thing to do sometimes.
And we also need to face the cold hard truth that talking about that on social media, in order to influence others to do the same, is also a fine thing to do.
If a $4 tip is enough to make someone dance around like it’s Christmas, then there’s a deep problem there we can’t afford to dance around.
There’s A Famous Vlogger Here Who Vlogs His Good Deeds, And I’m Not Even Mad
I’ll end with this.
There’s a famous vlogger here in the Philippines who vlogs about giving thousands of pesos away to those in need. Sometimes he buys people cars. Sometimes he buys tablets for students. Sometimes he gives people meals. Recently he paid for all of his employees’ groceries during the pandemic.
He vlogs every second of it and puts it all on social media.
You could see this as him objectifying people, not knowing the culture, not knowing the real problems people have, and, as the cherry on top, you could shout from the rooftops that he’s a WHITE SAVIOR!!!!
Except he’s not white. He’s Syrian.
Okay, well, that doesn’t change the fact that he doesn’t know the culture.
Except he knows how to speak fluent Tagalog.
Okay, well, he doesn’t know the real problems people have.
Except everybody’s reactions to his good deeds are either tears, exorbitant joy, or both.
Okay, well, why does he feel the need to post this on social media? He’s objectifying for his own gain!
Is he? Giving away small fortunes every year to people doesn’t seem like that big of a gain. Any revenue he’s making from Youtube is probably negated by all his generosity.
And let’s say he was objectifying these people. Let’s say all of it was simply for his own personal gain on Youtube..
He still bought that person a car. He still paid for that man’s meal. He still paid 20X the normal price for that old man to change his tires to show his appreciation.
The fact is, he still impacted so many people in a positive way — sometimes even in a life-changing way. To be honest, I don’t even fucking care if every Philippines vlogger copied his style (because he gets 1,000,000’s of views).
At least they’re helping people. You can’t take away the money they gave to someone else, or the groceries, or perhaps the car.
Yes, we must understand that coming into a country to help without taking any time to understand the culture is a bad thing. I know that a $4 tip isn’t exactly going to solve all this lady’s problems.
I also understand that true help comes in the form of talking with locals to figure out what solutions they believe need to be worked towards, and then working towards that alongside them.
It’s called being an ally. It’s NOT called coming in, assuming you know the solutions to problems because America is so great, and then forcing those solutions on people.
It’s coming in, understanding the people, talking with them, and then looking at them as an equal (or better yet as a superior), as you work hand in hand to help them achieve a better world for themselves.
That’s what it looks like to do it right.
Too many folks can see pretty much any post about any help you’re giving as an act of white saviorism these days.
I have a big problem with how far they can take it. Let’s stop the hostility, give people the benefit of the doubt more often, and work towards a better future.