By: Brad Kneeland
When I was little, my grandma had a picture of a little Guatemalan girl on her fridge. When I asked who she was, my grandpa replied sarcastically that this was my “aunt”. My grandma clarified that the picture of the girl on the fridge was a little girl that she was sponsoring through a church program. For something like $20.00 a year, my grandma was (allegedly) able to support this girl’s education in Guatemala. Sponsoring children through these programs became trendy in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. To be clear, I think these programs are, for the most part, commendable. On one side, they brought a lot of attention to the issue of children living in impoverished countries. They encouraged us to donate money and resources and they heightened our conscience as a society to acknowledge not everyone lives as privileged lives as we do outside the United States. On the other hand, I don’t know if the money ever made it to where it was supposed to go. In fact, I’m sure if you did more research on the topic, you would find corruption, lawsuits and accusations of unfair practices. There have long been claims for lack of transparency on the part of these organizations, as demonstrated in an article by Diaa Haddid, written for the New York Times about one man sponsoring an “impoverished” child, only to discover that (eight years after the fact) the child was actually educated, preparing to go to University, had a penchant for Call of Duty and had never heard of him or received any money.
I think another downside to the increase in “sponsor a child” programs has been the development of what has been coined the “White Messiah Complex”. The White Messiah Complex is best exemplified as upper/middle class people who travel abroad with some volunteer relief program with the intention of helping people while reaping gratification of quenching their narcissistic needs for exposure and admiration. I’m not pointing the blame on anyone here; I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. I have so many Facebook pictures with the “solidarity filters” (the French terrorist attacks, the Beirut attacks, the Brussels attacks, Pulse Orlando), yet these filters do absolutely nothing to help the situation. With the exception of the Pulse Orlando shootings, I didn’t donate money to any of the causes I’ve put on Facebook. My generation is one saturated with social media. If we don’t take a picture of our food and upload it to four different sites, we’ve failed. How will people know what we were doing, what we ate or what we saw unless we snap/insta/facebook/tweet a status update showing them what we are doing or what we support? But the White Messiah Complex goes deeper than Facebook filters.
The White Messiah Complex often runs the risk of further oppressing those we seek to help. When you go overseas and you take pictures with the Ugandan orphans in the village and post it with an inspirational message, who are you actually helping? When you refer to the child you sponsor as your “child”, what is that doing other than reinforcing a barrier of systematic oppression? You aren’t their parent. If that were your child, they would be coming back to the United States with you. In fact, the fact that you get to travel to this impoverished country, fill your phone up with pictures for your #ThrowbackThursday posts and then get back on the plane and fly back to the United States while, editing those pictures on the plane’s WiFi while enjoying a glass of merlot only adds insult to injury. It is like dangling a toy in front of a child, just high enough for them to not reach it.
Helping those who can’t help themselves is admirable. I was raised Methodist, and like Hillary Clinton, my life was/is shaped by the quote “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can”. But posting pictures of your trip for the likes or by referring to these people as your children only further oppresses them. It places your dominance and ownership over them; it strengthens the societal hierarchy of you being better than them. You get to sweep in- the White Messiah- and treat their lives and their struggles as your humanitarian vacation. You can build a house, you can care for the children, you can help purify water, but at the end of the day, have you done anything substantial and permanent if you are filtering it with an Instagram picture or making it your profile picture? More often than not, these trips fulfill your need for experience while taking little consideration of these people’s needs.
So as someone who has dabbled with the White Messiah Complex, I implore others who are similarly situated to be more cognizant of what we are doing to help others. I ask that we look at the ways in which we donate time and resources and that we do so in a way where we use our privilege as a means to achieve a greater good instead of reinforcing the barriers that hold the rest of the world down. In a world where so much divides us, we should be working to close the gap instead of expanding it. Whether you are traveling across the world to help children or whether you are sponsoring one from home, do you research- both technically and internally. You should make sure the organization is not scamming you but also that you are not scamming the recipients by doing this for your own self-indulgence. When you refer to these people as your children, you reinforce ownership over them. Your Instagram pictures aren’t saving anyone’s lives. We should be working to replace the White Messiah Complex with human decency and compassion. The people we seek to help (yet often exploit) are human beings- our brothers and sisters; not lawn ornaments or accessories for your profile picture.