The British withdrew from the subcontinent more than half a century ago, but their enduring legacy of the colonial mentality has left us still struggling with feelings of racial inferiority.
This is compounded by the prevalence of white saviour tropes in almost any kind of media available for consumption. Despite recent diversification, the protagonists in most of the books we read or the television shows and movies we watch are almost always white. They are the heroes we look up to and aspire to be. Non-white characters are almost always either stereotypes or background noise. And even when the protagonists are people of colour, they are almost always portrayed as the exception rather than the norm.
Late last year, an obscure self-described communications expert from the United States, Cynthia Ritchie, took it upon herself to “encourage a sense of normalcy, promoting peace and progress in Pakistan” through op-eds in the local newspapers and carefully staged photographs. Riding a bike in conservative Peshawar and explaining women’s rights to Pakistanis, she hoped to be seen as a trailblazer who set right the entrenched wrongs of a society alien to her, with a snap of her fingers. And a touristy photograph.
True to our colonial mindset, we mostly reciprocated, with major Pakistani newspapers publishing her articles, and local twitter users making her tweets go viral, rabidly defending her from criticism by local activists, reformers and commentators.
At the heart of the white saviour complex, regardless of the best of intentions, is an element of narcissism. In many cases, the offenders might not even realise it themselves. The adulation the saviour receives — be it fame, fortune or even just a sense of purpose — often always outweighs the benefits reaped by ‘the saved’.
Our never-ending obsession with white saviours only rewards the already privileged
Ms Ritchie, too, received a slew of invitations to prestigious organisations in Pakistan to speak on national media platforms with an enhanced profile, whereas she may as well have been a nobody in her own land.
The decontextualised problems of people in other societies often seem simpler, more pressing and easier to resolve than longstanding issues in one’s own backyard, don’t they? This regularly leads to people believing they are best suited to address them despite not having any of the requisite education, skills or expertise, resulting in more harm than good.
White saviours often possess only a superficial understanding of the issues, leading them to try and deal with what is in front of them without addressing any of the root causes, which is akin to slapping on a band aid thinking it can cure a complex injury. On many occasions this exacerbates problems and causes bigger headaches for the local experts and relevant people on the ground whose efforts are often undermined or swept aside in favour of the white saviours. They also don’t tend to do well with criticism because it clashes with the altruistic narrative they build around themselves.
Cynthia’s innocuous photographs of her riding a bike in Peshawar or posing alongside local transportation were met with a sea of criticism from local activists on social media, accusing her of portraying an inaccurate picture. They decried the double standards that led to praise being heaped on her while they were often slut-shamed and abused for doing the same thing.
Putting up staged images of herself engaging in activities which are off-limits to most local women, without properly addressing the conservative and patriarchal cultures and attitudes, nor acknowledging the white privilege that allowed her to be able to do so freely and safely, was tantamount to blaming Pakistani women for not making enough effort to assert their freedom.
Tellingly, when local organisers tried to hold a women’s bike rally in Peshawar, they were met with hostility from religious parties and had to cancel the event.
“Imagine me, as a foreigner, arguing with Pakistanis as to why they should travel in their own country. If you can’t convince yourself to explore and invest in your own nation, why would you speak ill of the international community for doing the same?” wrote Ms Ritchie in one of her articles. Yes, imagine!
Sadly, tone deaf, patronising rhetoric is not uncommon with individuals accused of having a white saviour complex. There is also usually a disparity between their own perception of their contribution or sacrifices and reality.
Nevertheless, it seems our institutions are there to facilitate White Saviours in every way possible when given the chance. It is almost farcical when even our official state channels promote obscure foreign bloggers, touting their endorsements as some sort of achievement. It is unclear what impact their endeavours are meant to have towards creating a positive image of Pakistan when such individuals have little or no international relevance; the audience they reach is primarily Pakistani.
In order to overcome our colonial hang-ups, Pakistanis need to stop giving undue deference to people based on the lightness of their complexion, ‘benefactors’ who often exploit Pakistan’s colonial mentality for their own personal gain. It would also do Pakistanis well to be wary of fair-weather friends; for every Geoffery Langlands and Ruth Pfau, who chose to put down roots in Pakistan in spite of equivalent opportunities back home, there are plenty of others who will catch the next flight out when things get tough.
But is this outrage about a few, perhaps well-meaning, white people just a mirror to racist rhetoric about immigrants stealing jobs in the west? No. Reinforcing unfair power dynamics by rewarding already privileged individuals does not help the cause of diversity or offer a course correction to generations of colour discrimination.
It’s 2019,. Isn’t it about time we shed the shackles of this toxicity?
Mohammed Zaheer is a political commentator and a former Labour Party candidate based in the UK. He tweets @mzaheer88
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 3rd, 2019