The challenge of not being a ‘White saviour’

The challenge of not being a ‘White saviour’

Thru’ the Looking Glass

Many years ago, before moving to India, I may have had the “White Saviour Complex.” I volunteered at an NGO for underprivileged women in Kolkata for six weeks, despite being told by an Indian friend that I shouldn’t get involved. “India has too many problems and you’re not responsible for them,” he advised me. I didn’t listen, though, because I wanted to help.

Admittedly, it was partly for selfish reasons. I was going through a challenging phase personally, and I felt the need to get away and do something for people less fortunate than me. However, I was naive and unworldly. I had no understanding of Indian culture, or the difficulties the women faced in their lives.

As it turned out, the circumstances of the women who sought assistance at the NGO deeply distressed me. I wasn’t equipped to cope with it. One of the young women that the NGO permanently supported, and whom I’d spent a lot of time with, stole money from me. I was shocked, and only in hindsight can I comprehend how I must’ve been perceived as a privileged white foreigner. Although the NGO wanted foreign volunteers, my presence had inadvertently created more problems for them. Sadly, it seemed my friend was right -- I shouldn’t have gotten involved. As someone who’s concerned about injustice and inequality, I felt compelled to try and do good, though.

Since living in India, I’ve come to realise just how opposed people are to foreigners meddling in the country’s domestic matters. This was made exceptionally clear recently when the Indian government asked those foreigners who’d protested against changes to India’s citizenship law to leave the country. No doubt, the foreigners thought they were doing something positive and showing solidarity. But how much of the issue did they really grasp? The German student who was asked to leave had invoked memories of Nazi Germany.

India is not an easy country to understand. Heck, it took me a year to even begin to figure out how India functioned. And then, I kept comparing it to my western ideals and standards and ended up frustrated. I wanted India to change “for the better” -- kind of like loving your spouse but being frustrated by some of their traits and wanting them to change “for the better.” Unfortunately, westerners have a history of imposing what they think is better and right on other countries, including India. Added to this is how India is portrayed in the western media. No wonder Indians are sensitive to outside interference and insist that India will handle its own problems.

I regard India as home now. Yet, I have to remind myself that I’m not Indian, I haven’t experienced what Indians have, and I don’t know how people feel or what they’ve been affected by. I’m also not familiar with the complexities of issues related to politics and religion. I’m not entitled to vote, so it’s not my place to have a say. However, with this acceptance has come a troubling disconnect and apathy. I’ve had to detach myself and try to ignore what I can’t change -- the same way I’ve joined the majority of Indians in ignoring widespread poverty and other social woes. Living in India has opened my mind in so many ways, but I feel like I’m turning into someone harsh and uncaring, especially when horrific violence is happening and people are being hurt. I feel like I’m turning my back on humanity.

Meanwhile, as I remain silent, numerous people in India are condemning (and even insulting) Australia for culling feral camels that are damaging aboriginal communities. How much of this issue do they really grasp? Are they aware that India, too, culls wild animals to protect farms? And why do they think sending 10,000 feral camels to India is a solution, when India is already unable to adequately look after and feed its own camel population? Perhaps, they should keep quiet, too.

(Sharell Cook is trying to make sense of India, one ‘Like That Only’ at a time)

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