When the Rich from the West Don’t Know They’re Acting Like It

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rich from west don't know they're acting like it

Today Go. Serve. Love is stoked to welcome Rachel Pieh Jones–a marathon runner, a camel rider, a cookbook author of Djiboutilicious, and a general all-out lover of Djibouti. This post originally appeared on her blog, Djibouti Jones.

From Rachel’s blog, Djibouti Jones: I have been wrestling with how to write about this for months. Starts and stops, lots of unfinished first sentences and barely coherent lists. Then I read this essay after the Rick Warren and race conversation flared up. When White People Don’t Know They Are Being White by Jody Louise on Between Worlds. She is humble yet forthright in the piece, a balance which is incredibly challenging to achieve around such a sensitive and potentially volatile topic. She spurred me on, inspired me, and clearly, informed the title of this post.

I’m giving you loads of links here that will lead to other links and I encourage you to take the time to read this stuff. I have been and don’t think I’ll ever be the same. It is hard, challenging, might make you angry. That’s okay, wrestle with it. Join me as I wrestle with it.

I am not surprised by, but continue to be disappointed in, the western attitude toward the developing world. It is an attitude I see often, though not exclusively, among Christians. It is an attitude of superiority, a god-complex. An attitude that communicates an underlying assumption, intentionally or not, that the rich westerner is the one with power and authority and agency. As this is communicated, of course the opposite is communicated as well. The local person is weak, a victim, and helpless. The rich westerner must charge in to fix things, build things, challenge the status quo.

This happens in blogs, books, movies, songs…And it isn’t just Christians. It is Hollywood and Random House and MTV.

These kinds of stories…give a paternalistic picture of urban communities as mere recipients. They do not show the heroic community leaders that are in every urban neighborhood, people working hard with little resources and little recognition… Cure for the White Savior Complex by Shawn Casselberry

For a horrifying example read this article (or don’t and just be satisfied with the title) in Glamour and then the comment section: Meet Mindy Budgor, the World’s First Female Maasai Warrior. Some people call this the white savior complex and there is most definitely an aspect of race involved, the conversations overlap at many points, but it is more than a skin color issue.

One point that must be made is that I am a rich westerner from a Christian background living in the developing world. My husband is a professor at the University of Djibouti. I am trying to figure this all out, trying to do it well, with integrity and authenticity. I am, like all of us, a work in progress.

So, when does the rich westerner not know they (we) are being a rich westerner?

When the rich westerner doesn’t need to actually get involved with those in the developing world because they can simply buy a cool t-shirt.

I was hungry and you bought a cool t-shirt is all about the westerner and is not how Jesus talked about giving to the needy, without the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. Matthew 6:1-3

When the rich westerner filters a cross-cultural experience through their own lens…

of comfort, possessions, affluence, community, and spirituality. This gives a distorted view that puts themselves and their values at the center. The other is seen as exotic, shocking, unusually positive or unusually negative. There is only room for the extreme, no space left over for commonality or understanding.

“Before we declare a woman’s life, foreign from ours in almost every physical detail, ‘poor,’ we need to seek to deeply understand that woman, her background, her place in the community, her desires, her talents. And we may discover that she isn’t poor at all but is a thriving, active, content participant in a societal system that works, different as it may be to our western eyes.” Who is Poor? Who Decides?

When the rich westerner views or presents the local as an object lesson not a relationship.

The poor ‘African’ child with hungry eyes and a ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to give generously. The poor woman with the hungry eyes and the ripped dress teaches the rich westerner how to find joy in a bowl of rice. This turns the distinctive person into a representative person and strips them of their uniqueness. It is a dangerous act of simplification (J.R. Goudeau). We can all learn from each other, we need to. I am constantly learning from the people around me (and vice versa, I hope) but let us put these lessons into the context of relationships and not form objects out of them.

When the rich westerner sees and shares what they expect to see. 

They want to see or take or share photos of children in torn dresses and ramshackle housing slums but not the fancy Kempinski Hotel, not the skyscrapers downtown, not the developed shopping malls and haut cuisine restaurants. Poverty and violence and disease and hunger fit the narrative the west prefers, expects. It is easier to continue that than to swim against it.

“These sights carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing that happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and these horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world.” Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

When the rich westerner who comes away after spending a week or a month in a country and claims cultural competency…

is now an expert because they have eaten that food! Danced in that festival! Worn a headscarf! These things are merely the tip of the cultural iceberg. It is often said that the longer an expatriate lives in a place the less competent they feel to write about it, I can attest to the truth of this. The longer I am here the more I know how much I do not know, the more I need locals to correct me, clarify, the more (and deeper) questions I ask.

Jody Louise’s post introduces the term cultural humility and it is a good one. Katherine Boo talks about the earned fact and while not everyone will have the time to spend three years researching a single slum community, everyone does have the capability of asking questions. Of being a learner. Of not taking a leadership position but serving beneath a local person.

When the rich westerner believes they are here to save people.

We are here to help, to come alongside, to try and do some good, to learn, to be in community. God alone performs the saving work.

When rich western Christians impose their theology on a local fellowship.

Many books (written by rich western Christians) on discipleship and Bible study materials assume that everyone faces the same needs and can meet those needs in the same way. I once heard an American say, “Let’s just translate the catechism for this people group. We’ve already figured out all the theology they’ll need.”

When the rich westerner talks about Africa but not Nigeria.

Africa but not Uganda. Africa but not Lesotho. Michael W. Smith sings a song: A New Hallelujah. “From Africa to Australia, from Brazil to China, from New York down to Houston.” The United States gets to be named by city, most of the rest of the world by country name, and Africa is one solid chunk of continent. We need to learn our details, our facts, we need to name places accurately. Naming implies seeing, honoring, respecting.

When the rich westerner presents a single story,

a story often about hunger, disease, filth, violence. About all the broken and lacking things. A popular blog series (by an author I much admire, respect, and who often cuts to my very soul) talks about the generic Africa and repeatedly mentions hunger, repeatedly shows photos of children in torn clothes, mentions their lack of forks and spoons, talks about the bleeding of Africa in her red dirt. This is not Africa. This is Uganda. This is not even Uganda, this is a particular village where it might be a cultural practice to not use forks and spoons. I have eaten with wealthy Djiboutians who used their hands. Rich westerners need to be very careful in how they interpret and present what they see. I am not of the “don’t tell these stories” position. I believe stories must be told and I will tell them, but we need to be careful about assumptions.

When the rich westerner presents the other as victims

by focusing only on issues like rape, trafficking, poverty while ignoring local initiatives, leaders, community strengths, progress, and the reality that these people have lived here for decades, centuries, without a westerner intervening on their behalf.

When the rich westerner presents the other as holy in their suffering…

by focusing only on their generosity, smiles, and non-verbal communication while ignoring issues like greed, selfishness, gossip, and cruelty. Katherine Boo refers to this as the “western conceit that poverty is ennobling.” This kind of one-dimensional presentation makes cardboard characters out of real, complex people.

Rich westerner, and please know I am talking to myself as much as anyone else, we must be aware of our position, our privilege, the way history and current social structures affect us, our view of the world, and our interaction with the world.

“The system is set up for us, and gives us power without us even having to ask for it… When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done.” Jody Louise

I have been that bull in the china shop. I have behaved with superiority and arrogance, have made things worse by stepping in to help, have plowed past the opinions and voices of local people in my exuberance.

Lest I leave you feeling paralyzed (which I often feel), I am not saying do nothing, say nothing. Next week I will share just one example, of many, of how I have failed and will write about the difference between good intention and good practice. The following week I’ll share an example of positive progress, ways to move forward. (Note: Find follow-up posts on Rachel’s blog here: Good Intention, Good Practice and Earning the Right to Help Without Hurting.)

What would you add to this conversation–rebukes to any wrong-thinking I’ve presented here or thoughts on moving in a positive direction?


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16 thoughts on “When the Rich from the West Don’t Know They’re Acting Like It

  1. Emily says:

    I have lived internationally for 17 years. I have lived in the Middle East for 14 out of those 17 and I’m married to an Egyptian. I agree with most of this article. I have seen Westerners destroy their witness of Jesus by bringing in a culture of needing to be a “savior” or focused on the projects and not the people. I have seen and been guilty of seeing myself as having greater “authority” or “knowledge” or “understanding” of the Bible. Unfortunately, I’ve watched “locals” be shamed by the fact that their foreign “saviors” use them for likes, Facebook/Instagram posts, newsletters, and “numbers” to prove their effectiveness. I have met many “locals” who distrust foreigners and refuse to give them a voice in their community because they have lost trust.
    I must say, though, that I’ve also seen this true among local missionaries who have either learned this attitude from foreigners or from local churches who also hold this attitude. After my years, I realize now that this attitude is a human attitude that can be perpetuated even among the poor reaching out to the poor.
    On the other hand, though, I’ve seen barriers breakdown with a little humility and grace. One of the most important things I try to live is that I must be a learner. My husband and I often struggle with “my culture is better than yours.” When we communicate, talk, and listen, we start to see the value and depth of each culture. I have a lot to say on this topic!

  2. Brad says:

    All mentioned here is absolutely true to the core. Everything I mention henceforth comes from the experience and perspective of being a full time, foreign soil missionary to Brazil. And everything mentioned in this article are merely symptoms of the greater, foundation problem — the deeply skewed, western version of the Gospel.

    So… what’s NOT happening is the required ‘dying to self’ before one decides to serve in any capacity in the Kingdom. And like the writer of this article, I have ‘been there and done that’ because I was groomed in the white, western, American church. For us (myself and my wife), God continues to grind us down into pulp (after years in the field) because the road He chose for us requires ‘taking up our cross daily’ – which reveals the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    We can only hope that greater awareness of this deeply compounded topic gets greater exposure in the days, weeks and months to come. Absolutely nothing gets accomplished unless we (Christians) step out with a regenerated heart (justification) and carry that cross (sanctification) by faith into this very broken world. This IS the ONLY way be HIS light in darkness. Thank you for your role in exposing this issue through this spot-on, heart provoking article.

  3. Maria Nieves Skinner says:

    I don’t classify myself as a White America missionary, yet I do agree with your article of how the Wstern Workd wants to change other worlds with our culture instead of bringing the gospel of hope to the world. Working in 33 countries from the Western Europe , Asia, south and Central America even in America, I can say that yes I have seen The American culture gospel being taught to all the countries of the world. By trying to change the people with our culture . Working for 45 years in different countries, now deep in the jungle of the Amazonas Peru, I can say not as an American missionary but as an ambassador of the gospel to the people of the world. I have experienced that we go there to bring hope to the lost . I believe that in every culture the change it is only introduced to the people by only representing hope to them by the gospel of Christ. When I see a tribal woman in the Amazonas I see a person made in Gods image, not to change the outward appearance but to bring them eternal hope. The real humility for a missionary is to sit , eat, live among them accept them as they are, wash their feet and love them as they are . Above all, give them eternal purpose , which is Christ. I do not feel like bashing all the White Americans, missioanries because I believe that there are many amazing unrecognized American Missioanries around the world that are doing extremely amazing sacrifificial work. Even though , those are those that have never written a book, never have been exposed to many churches, and are those that are in the frontline giving all they have to bring hope to the nations. There are some good old American missionaries out there unseen and unrecognized by media etc. Yes , but by God. Thank you for letting me share.

    • Janel says:

      Maria, thanks so much for sharing your experience and perspective. I love your thoughts that “When I see a tribal woman in the Amazonas, I see a person made in God’s image, not to change the outward appearance but bring them eternal hope.” So grateful for your work loving people around the world.

  4. Penny says:

    Wow! I am feeling led to do missionary work and I’ve read similar articles 3 times in this week! God is surely letting me know that we don’t go into this as a saviour to the people but with love and where can I help. I read a story yesterday about a Romanian being rescued from an institution but didn’t know how to act in a regular family and went back to Romania after the fact! It was an eye opener for me. Or how orphanages in Uganda are being run as businesses now when they only need help staying in a family. Eye opener!! We are sometimes keeping them victimized
    Thank you for this article

    • Janel says:

      Penny, I’m so grateful for your humility and your desire to go–as well as your desire to love well, as the rescued rather than the rescuer. Loving your open heart!

  5. Mary Gebhardt says:

    Very thought provoking essay. Thank you for your insights. I was in Honduras once, and the local women had prepared a lunch for us. As we all stood around the table for prayer, I “peeked” and saw the local missionaries all waving their hands over the food. I discretely asked one later what was the meaning of that ritual? She laughed and told me they were keeping the FLIES off the food!!!

  6. Donald Hallock says:

    This is a good article. My wife and I had the opportunity to teach English
    in China for four years. We were actually employees of the Chinese
    government for those four years. Sadly our biggest problem in China was
    other Americans. They were just plain rude. It took between two and three
    months for our students and colleagues to realize that my wife and I were
    not “Americans.” Or at least not typical Americans. I actually knew
    something about China. I was curious about why things were done the way
    they were. After a while we began to share that “people are people.” While
    initially everything was different, after a while we began to see more and
    more similarities. I had colleagues who were cautious at first to explain
    that my behavior was offensive. They soon realized that I took this to
    heart and changed. This was a bit of a shock to them. Gradually our
    colleagues and students wanted to go places with us and discuss our
    differences and our similarities. We really looked forward to these times.
    This also gave us many opportunities to share our faith in Christ with our
    colleagues and students. You will notice I use “colleague.” We considered
    our “colleagues” as equal and even superior to us. One of my private
    students told my that I was an enigma because he had been taught that
    nobody who is intelligent or a scientist believes in God. From our
    discussions he perceived that I am intelligent (not bragging-his
    observation) and that I am very scientific YET I believe the Bible and I
    believe in God. Because of this we took him to the local Chinese church for
    the first time in his life. He met a friend and a coworker there.

    Then when we came home and gave good reports about China, the government
    and the church in China, I was shocked and even appalled at the disbelief.
    I was told, “Don, we don’t want to hear any more of your propaganda.” I was
    telling some people about handing out Bibles that were printed in China. I
    was told, “It can’t be that way. We heart on the radio.” So, I spent four
    years in China and you will call me a liar BUT a person on the radio that
    you have never met and has never been to China you will believe. It has
    been disheartening at times.

    I was able after this to be in Poland for two weeks and in Romania for two
    weeks. I found it easy to be comfortable with the people because I have
    learned, “People are people.”

    ShangDi zhufu ni

    • Janel says:

      Donald, thanks so much for sharing what you’ve witnessed in China and the imperative nature of this message–that we must come humbly, as Jesus did. I am so thankful for your persevering love of the Chinese people and your great hope that they’ll continue to witness truth!

  7. Sheila Sweeney Andonaegui says:

    I am so grateful you took your time to share you experiences and the truth of our “mission”.
    i am currently in West Kenya working with H s students and actually anyone who comes into my life here. The hardest part is seeing how so many have grown up with and accept oppression and outright sin as natural, and to be emulated. I know in my heart of hearts, that my dying to self is necessary several times a day, and my battle is within as my gifting is perceiving truth from error, right from wrong. I can not change anyone’s heart, but I can not turn a blind eye on sin that is keeping so many at arms or miles length from our gracious Savior. i MUST be concerned for their hearts and share truth of Scripture, as setting captives free, bringing orphans to the knowledge and love of a Good Father, speaking HOPE to all…. the rest is our King’s doing, even if I will not see the results before returning home.. Lord make me more like you and less like American me.

    • Janel says:

      Sheila, thanks so much for your insight on this, as well as your passion for the people of Kenya and for Christ to be proclaimed as He is. May God continue to grant you the perseverance and love you crave!

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