The “White Savior Industrial Complex” – Lit Review – Part 3

Invisible – now Digital – Whiteness

Cole (2012) implores the reader to realize that “those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” (Cole, 2012) What his subtext is alluding to is that invisible, white privilege allows for charities, NGOs and the West to make decisions about the rest of the world without their consent.  Whiteness, in particular, according to Dyer (1999), implies that “whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” (Dyer, 1999, p. 541) The invisibility that goes along with whiteness and, as a result, the advantages afforded to whites – known as white privilege –  is what makes confronting it so difficult. Without naming it, how can it be dismantled?  And more importantly, how can we believe that we can fix issues of justice around the world if we don’t confront white privilege first? Dyer summarizes the situation perfectly: “The media, politics, education are still in the hands of white people, still speak for whites while claiming – and sometimes sincerely aiming – to speak for humanity.” (Dyer, 1999, p. 541) The invisible whiteness that persists and manifests as white privilege is what allows charities, NGOs and international development agencies the ability to raise awareness and further their causes while simultaneously proposing solutions to “Third World” countries’ problems – they are the subjects because they are the ones with agency, money, and power.  According to Macintosh (19998), this privilege “can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate.” (Macintosh, 1998) Macintosh’s point rings true in every facet of development, and is precisely why it is a complicated and frustratingly abhorrent phenomenon.

Zhang, Gajjala, & Watkins (2012) take the discourse a step further by examining a concept they call “digital whiteness”, whereby images, digital texts and media propagate and reinforce white privilege by subjugating “the other” to a position of “voicelessness” and disempowerment. Digital whiteness, they assert, relies on “text in the forms of stories, mission statements and solicitation for donation that implicitly revive White supremacy inherent in a White standpoint” (Zhang, Gajjala, & Watkins, 2012, p. 210) Websites, media and stories purport Western values and binary “master/native” narratives in order to solicit donations and encourage action. Digital whiteness is white privilege in a new media age, but is apparent and widely appropriated in films; for example, Hughey describes how there exist a “spate of Hollywood films” which he calls “white savior films (WSF).” (Hughey, 2010, p. 478)  From Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers, these films employ a white (often woman) savior character to fix the dysfunctional, criminal group of “natives”; using Cole’s theory, the narratives in these films are primarily focused on the viewer  to have “a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” (Cole, 2012) Hughey posits that movies serve as “one of the main instruments for establishing a context in which whiteness – whether victimized or valorized – is framed as ultimately superior and normative.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 478) Digital (film or web-based) whiteness is especially dangerous because it serves massive audiences on a very large scale, and is propaganda to pushing white privilege and indoctrinating it into the discourse.  It perpetuates the binary relationship between Savior/Saved, White/Black, Master/Native, and burnishes it under the guise of personal history or even humanitarianism.  Hughey (2010) goes as far to say that there “remains a substantial gap in empirical analyses of how active audiences comprehend these [white savior] films.” (Hughey, 2010, p. 476) This issue of agency, in particular, bubbles up in Cole’s work and in other empirical examples of media-driven participation, which will be discussed later in this paper.


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