The Dangers of the White Savior and Respectability Politics in Local Community Activism

by Executive Editor Timantha Norman

Upon leaving the City Council panel discussion on police accountability in our city, spurred on by Demanding a JusTulsa (a collective of community advocates assembled by Dr. Tiffany Crutcher) this past September, I was somewhat puzzled and, frankly, angered by the largely self-congratulatory tone of several white City Counselors in attendance. I imagined the high-fives and back slaps exchanged after the conclusion of the event for merely doing the bare minimum when it came to police oversight. This is the ever-present dilemma of the well-meaning white moderate, as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other noted black activists, intellectuals, and community leaders cautioned us about decade after decade: They desperately want to give off the image of the “do-gooder,”  the “friend of the Negro”, the “white ally”, without having to do the difficult, long-term work of becoming a authentic anti-racist. The cognitive dissonance that would result from having to concede their power, influence, and privilege might be too much to bear for them. Especially in a place as conservative as Tulsa, and Oklahoma as a whole, it is very easy for the white moderate to fall into a wholly undeserved sense of complacency and arrogance, feeling as though they are “doing all that they can” in comparison to other white Oklahomans that are obviously unabashedly racist. They are utterly above reproach in their own minds. Add to this the respectability politics that permeate almost every aspect of societal life in Tulsa hindering the brutally honest conversations and critiques that need to be had and it becomes painfully clear why true community empowerment on behalf of those that need it the most has not happened in a sustainable way.

The White Savior Complex: The Problematic Ally vs. The Supportive Accomplice

There was a time in our modern history when the word “ally” was truly meaningful and carried with it the full weight of selflessness, determination, and commitment to the greater good. However, with the advent of the non-profit industrial complex, the White Savior industrial complex, and the commodification of genuine social justice movements by multinational conglomerates, wealthy white individuals found a way to appease their white guilt and ensure that their dominant place in our country’s economic system stayed intact, all while claiming blanketed allyship with the downtrodden in our society. Essentially, the White Savior is involved with work that is supposed to be helping those deemed as “less fortunate” but always with themselves at the center of it and ulterior motives always comfortably resting in their proverbial back pockets. Tulsa is just brimming with these individuals and they have actually been quite successful at selling the general public a false bill of goods around the real impact of their work, their real motivations behind why they do what they do, and what the lasting effects of them unnecessarily playing the role of the White Savior in the North Tulsa community will transpire.

In the activist primer Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex (An Indigenous Perspective), a pointed analysis of the problematic nature of allyship in its present form takes place with possible solutions and next steps presented for white individuals wanting to partake in more transformative political activism. There is a portion of the text that outlines some of the common archetypes/tropes associated with white allyship:

  • “Salvation/Missionary Work/Self-Therapy” Allies
    • See themselves as saviors of oppressed people that they view as victims or tokens instead of fully formed humans
    • They often make those they “help” dependent on them
    • Guilt and shame are their main motivations for doing the work
  • “Exploitation/Co-optation” Allies
    • Only engaged in the work for their own self-interests (for notoriety and/or financial gain)
    • They’re often a part of the nonprofit industrial complex, which seeks out “sexy” or “fundable” issues to co-opt and exploit for grant money (“professional” activism)
    • Co-opters show up to the fight once things have already escalated or once it’s too late
    • They offer their specialized expertise in the form of trainings, workshops, etc. where these skills more than likely already exist in the community and need to be activated
    • Movement “personalities” that don’t upset the ally establishment status quo (turns liberatory intent into a passive, reformist agenda)
  • “Self-proclaiming/Confessional Allies”
    • Wear their allyship like a badge of honor where they can gather ally brownie points
    • Their actions are not consistent with their assertions
  • “Parachuters”
    • Seem to appear on the front lines out of nowhere and move from one “hot” or “sexy” spot to another
    • Fall under the “savior” and “self-proclaimed” categories that come from specialized institutions, organizations, and think-tanks with the paternalistic attitude that they are the “experts that know what’s best”
    • Even if they reject their own non-profit programming, they are reactionary, entitled, patronizing, or positioning with power over those they claim allyship with
  • “Academics/Intellectuals”
    • Maintain institutional power above the knowledge of the communities in struggle
    • Are mainly fixated on unlearning oppression with no real concept of work happening on the ground while simultaneously being critical and patronizing of said groundwork
  • “Gatekeepers”
    • Seek power over, not with, others by controlling and/or withholding information, resources, connections, support, etc.
    • Like “savior allies,” they seek to make oppressed folks dependent on them and have a tendency to dominate or control
  • “Navigators/Floaters”
    • The “navigating” ally is skilled in jargon and maneuvers through spaces or struggles yet doesn’t have meaningful dialogue or take meaningful action beyond their personal comfort zone
    • They uphold power and, by extension, the dominant power structures by not directly attacking them, merely making personal projects out of other folks’ oppression
    • The “floater” ally hops from group to group and issue to issue, never being committed enough but always wanting their presence felt and their voices heard
    • They tend to disappear when it comes time for being held accountable or take responsibility for irresponsible behavior

I do not include this exhaustive list above merely to “call out” any one particular group, individual, or institution. Rather, it is a call to action for people of color to be honest and straightforward with themselves about their alignments and relationships when it comes to community activism and a cautionary word to white individuals in activist circles to question their real motivations for being involved in the work and whether they are engaging in the work from a non-paternalistic, selfless, and respectful manner. While allyship sometimes has its place in the struggle for liberating oppressed people, in this day and age, we need white individuals who are willing to make the same personal, professional, and political sacrifices that oppressed folks have endured for decades on behalf of authentic community activism and empowerment. We as a people do not have time to stroke the egos or appease the guilt of so-called white moderates and allies who are only serving to take up space, suck up our energy, and waste our time in their own self-centered pursuits into this work. Prioritizing the needs and wants of them will only serve to hinder and hurt struggles toward liberating ourselves and our communities.

While an ally stands with oppressed people and partakes in surface-level activism, the white accomplice is interested in activism that seeks to disrupt systems of oppression on behalf of historically marginalized folks. This can take many forms, such as providing moral support from the sidelines, assisting with less glamorous but necessary tasks (i.e. helping with outreach efforts for events or making the appropriate communication materials for a community gathering, to name a few), or using your privilege to elevate the voices of historically marginalized people over your own whenever possible. Ultimately, regardless of how well-meaning you may be, how long you’ve worked at a majority-minority Title I public school, how many biracial children you have, how understanding your parents were of you having black friends over at their home during your childhood, what charitable donations you make faithfully, etc., your white experience should never be prioritized over lifting up the voice of someone with actual lived experience in this country as a black person. Period. So the next time you feel the need to whitesplain at a City Council meeting when there are qualified Black folks in the room that can more than easily speak for themselves, or you want to advise a Black person on how to make it home alive during an encounter with a police officer without taking into account the privileged position you ultimately hold in any encounter with a representative of the State, or you want to compare your mildly uncomfortable childhood to your Black friend’s traumatic one, just….. don’t. Mmmkay? Thanks *insert eye roll* !

I know those well-intentioned white individuals that may be reading this and letting their fragility take hold over their rationality at this very moment are probably thinking, “Well, Timantha, is there any White person anywhere in Tulsa that has done, or is doing, “the right thing” in your opinion?!” After I ask those individuals to wipe away those pesky white tears, I would reply, “Why, yes, of course there are and have been.” A great example of a true white accomplice would be the late historian, activist and journalist Lee Roy Chapman. He engaged in very revolutionary research work around exposing secrets that those that held, and still hold, generational power in Tulsa would have strongly preferred stayed undiscovered. His most famous discovery centered around one of the prominent founders of Tulsa, W. Tate Brady, his ties to the Klan and his involvement in the 1921 Race Massacre. He was involved in helping local black community organizers and activists behind the scenes with important historical research to help them continue their decades-long fight against oppressive forces in Tulsa. He also supplied university archives around the country with crucial historical documentation about the Massacre. He engaged in this radical work alongside the community before it was hip and fashionable to do so. There were no accolades, a well-paying foundation job, or societal adoration awaiting him. It’s obvious that he did the work because it was what needed to be done despite the personal, political, or professional sacrifices that may have come from it. In The Tulsa Voice’s 2015 piece honoring the life and work of Chapman, Contributing Editor Joshua Kline stated that “He challenged authority and the status quo and made enemies in high places.” Ultimately, if a white person (or anyone of any racial/ethnic background for that matter) is serious about the true liberation of a people and not just, performative, self-congratulatory, self-centered community “activism,” shouldn’t this be the goal?

Respectability Politics in the Black Community

Sadly, the need to be seen as truly human for Black folks has been one that has been a constant for us since we were no longer deemed property (except in the case of being accused of a crime of course) in this country, in theory of course. The literal definition of respectability politics is a “set of beliefs holding that conformity to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior will protect a member of a marginalized or minority group from prejudices and systemic injustices.” When it comes to being Black in this country, the unspoken burden of always being self-conscious of how the dominant, mainstream (white) culture views your every word, action, and movement to the point that it suffocates your very existence is compounded exponentially when one has to contend with members of your own culture also upholding these damaging standards. There was a time when not “towing the line,” so to speak, was the difference between life and death for a Black person in this country. In some contexts, it still is. 

However, as uncomfortable as this is for me to say, I must: the prevalence of respectability politics that is ever-present in the North Tulsa political and activism spheres is seriously stifling to the transformative community empowerment that needs to be taking place. The two biggest areas of concern for me personally (and for others that have quietly voiced their own shared concerns with me over the past year or so) would be the timidity and cultural conservatism of some of the “old guard” leaders in North Tulsa when it comes to holding the appropriate parties accountable for decades of disenfranchisement and subjugation in the community and the elitism, cliqueness, and exclusivity of the younger community activist/advocate/organizer circles operating in the community. I’d like to clarify that when I speak about “the old guard,” or elders, in the community that I am not speaking about more radical community leaders that I have seen engaging in more traditional grassroots community organizing and empowerment work for years that I don’t feel like always get their just due or respect.

A good portion of my childhood in North Tulsa was spent under the leadership of City Councilman Jack Henderson. Even though my mother was one of the least politically aware people I know outside of educating my sisters and I about the 1921 Race Massacre, even she was cognizant of the lack of substantive activity that took place in the community under his tenure. I don’t use this example to merely highlight one particular person but to use this individual as a symbol for the complacency and passive leadership of some of the older political and religious leaders in the community. It’s baffling and angering to me that individuals who have seen the destruction of the community through white supremacy masquerading as solid governmental policies for decades would be so naively trusting of (or dangerously aligned with) these same entities. It’s almost as if these individuals have something to gain (or lose) by not pushing for real transformative change in the community. I know criticizing religious institutions is very taboo in this region of the country. However, while it is important to highlight that mainstream Christinity has definitely provided hope and refuge to Black Americans, there has also been societal and political progress that have been hindered by the often conservative leanings of some major denominations. Simply put, if we’re wanting to truly liberate Black people, it has to be ALL Black people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, history of substance abuse, or any other societal category deemed as “undesirable” or “unworthy of redemption.”

The mind-boggling elitism, cliqueness, and exclusivity of the younger community activist/advocate/organizer circles and the damaging effects of their ineffectualness is next on my list. These often self-appointed “change makers” have taken up the work of helping their fellow man while simultaneously never leaving their comfort zones or actually making any measurable dent in the larger, structural issues that caused the societal inequities they’re rallying against to begin with. In the previous section focused on the White Savior archetype, I spoke to this dynamic but there are, unfortunately, Black individuals (and other folks of color) in the community that fit into several of the categories of problematic allyship as well. The Exploitation/Co-optation Ally is one of the most common archetypes that I’ve seen with some Black folks engaged in questionable community activism. These are the individuals that say all the right things when it comes to caring about the community but they’re still tied to entities that have had a detrimental effect in said community. They’re mainly interested in enhancing themselves (financially or otherwise) and engage in the same paternalistic, condescending, selective social change work in which white establishments of power and influence partake. And, of course, these individuals (Black, white, etc.) all hang out together and commiserate together in their own strange groupthink mentality framed in their professional training from problematic institutions. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have one foot in, one foot out. Either you need to be fully committed to liberating and empowering the community and doing whatever it takes to that end or don’t do it at all. However, this opportunistic, pseudo-activism has got to stop.

Final Thoughts

What folks in the actual community are you organizing and mobilizing and to what end? What are the long-term strategies around building political awareness and leadership development within the community instead of just having the same collective of people speaking on behalf of the community all the time? What are you actually doing to challenge the status quo and break down systems of oppression at play versus just pushing some watered down, reformist agenda that doesn’t “rock the boat,” so to speak? If you can’t clearly and concisely answer these questions, then you aren’t really doing shit. Bottom line. 

Unceremonious crumbs tossed to disenfranchised folks in the form of temporary social service benefits and low-wage manufacturing jobs are something in a vast wasteland of nothing. However, that isn’t everything and this kind of conciliatory gradualism will never truly liberate anyone. In the age of Trump, we really do not have time to continue to play by the same community activist playbook from 10+ years ago, rely on so-called “thought leaders” from outside of the community to tell us what to do in our community, continue placating disingenuous people in this fight, continue being too afraid to make the sacrifices that will more than likely need to be made to get the outcomes we need, or continue propagating the garbage “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rationale. I do not claim to have the exact blueprint that should be followed. However, having spent some time on the inside of this fascinating scene locally, there is something terribly amiss here and it’s the North Tulsa community that I’m worried about being left behind and in shambles once the smoke settles.

Illustration: Patrick Norman