The desire NOT to support the “white savior complex” makes every potentially good movie that is not of the DC Universe seem like a taboo.
I saw the Green Book previews, then read the reviews and critics said that it does not adequately tell the story of the black man, instead it is about the white man who drove the black man around. Kind of like a reverse of Driving Miss Daisy — a movie I liked.
If I do go to see the movie, then I am supporting yet another film that focuses more on the white person’s than the black person’s accomplishments. If I don’t go see the movie, I am not supporting Don Cheadle’s performance — and I like his acting and movie choices.
Same goes for the new release The Best of Enemies, which is receiving the same criticism as Green Book, and I like Osha Gray Davis’ acting. In both cases, I am less familiar with the white actors than I am the black ones.
Most Native Americans know very well the white savior complex — Dances with Wolves was a perfect example, but movies are not the origins of the complex, just a reflection of our white-dominated society.
Before I went to teach on the Navajo Reservation through the Indiana University cultural projects program, I was told that I am not there to “save the Indian.”
The irony was that I had to become friends with a family in the community and learn the culture. I became friends with two families, but neither lived in the Many Farms community. One lived in Pinon, and the other in Lukachukai, both communities are populated with many traditional families. I went to Lukachukai more often while I was student teaching.
I would get on the bus with Chris Loomis, a student whose grandmother, Angie, befriended me. I traveled to their home on the Chuska mountains. I slept on sheepskin and listened to KTNN. I went into a sweat.
I learned that my new friends did not want to be the subject of some college study or assignment. I learned that my new friends loved to laugh and joke, and took their beliefs seriously. They tolerated white people, and to be invited into their homes was a sign that you did something right. If you tried the food, learned to make bread, and laughed with them at yourself and the follies of this world, then you were more than a friend, you were family.
I wrote this explanation in my report for school after completing my student teaching. I said I could not divulge any more details about the people I met. I wanted to respect the fact they did not want to be a part of some report.
I focused on the long ride to and from school, the simplicity of the homes still packed with modern conveniences, the hikes along sheep trails, the smell of sage in the rain and the generosity of the people I met.
My grade for the student teaching course and report was a C. I was docked a grade for not meeting a family in Many Farms, and I was docked another letter grade for not more specifically capturing the culture on the page.
I felt that the cultural projects program was an effort to expose college students to new cultures and ways of living. I thought that with all of the excellent training we received before going to the reservation in culture sensitivity courses, student teaching at a boarding school and living in boarding school dorms, and then going to stay at the home of a Navajo family on weekends, our exposure would help us to better understand our place in the world.
What I saw was differences in decor and varying degrees of access to resources and money. Many people I met always got what they needed, but were not well-off. They knew how to navigate the systems in their communities and did what they had to do to be content or get ahead.
This was the same way that my family operated.
I chose to teach in Navajo country for many years following my student teaching, and I jumped around from Chinle to Pinon to Ganado. In each school, I became friends with other Navajo teachers and with families in the communities. I had one white friend in Chinle who ended up quitting his job by the end of the first semester because of health reasons.
I am not sure why my friends were mostly Navajo, but I began to get the idea that there were many white people who went to the reservation to teach, because they could not get a job elsewhere, or because it was a way to get student loan forgiveness.
I had many Navajo people who did not like me too. I was young and naive, and it was not easy for me to learn to control and handle my emotions and frustrations far from my home and family in Indiana.
When I left the reservation and went to teach in Indiana, I learned that it wasn’t easy for me there either.
The problems I had in my workplaces were a result of my sensitive and stubborn nature, a quick and thoughtless tongue, and a desire to do right by my students.
Let me backtrack a little to my student teaching again. My mentor teacher had just had a baby, and she had a good rapportt with her students, but one aspect of her classroom I did not like was that it looked like an elementary school classroom for high school students. Her resources were limited, and she faced the challenge of having students with low reading skills, but they were not elementary students, and I took offense to data that said their skills were too low for high school level reading and work.
That situation and my interpretation of the design of her room, and the message it sent to the students made a huge impact on me. I felt that I was defending the intelligence of the students I worked with against a well-meaning but misguided system and paradigm.
However, the very position of thought I found myself in was and is another version of the white savior complex. So, while I did not see myself as a savior, I embedded myself as one anyway. I could not escape my white-ness despite myself.
Even now, I take offense to anyone who uses the phrase, “I’m just a rez kid.” The implication being that if a person is from the rez, he or she has an immediate and indelible handicap, when this could not be further from the truth.
So, every time the white savior complex argument arises, I have an unresolved debate bantering in my mind.
White privilege and supremacy is a problem. I am white. I am not a supremacist but I do have privilege. I am not a savior, either. I see myself as an advocate who could be perceived as, and will probably be perceived as by some, a wanna-be savior.
Sometimes I ask myself if I should be elsewhere. Should I purposely go to an all white community and try to change the way those people think about black and brown people? Would that make me a perpetrator of the white savior complex too? If I want to change the way we in this country think about race, where do I go? Who do I influence? If no one needs saving, and everyone can save him or herself, then I should just take care of me. However, I am a socially conscious and concerned person.
I want to make the world a better place. I want to be involved in changing the way people think about race, and I want to find ways to bridge divides in our society.
So, to do what makes me happy, causes me to be a savior of sorts in that I am trying to save us from our fears of others through education.
Whether I am on a reservation, or in a white, affluent or poor, black or Hispanic, community, nothing would change about my efforts to teach people how to be good to one another and listen and write effectively so as to be heard clearly.
I had been holding out — I was not going to see Green Book, and I was not going to see The Best of Enemies, but now I am going to watch both. Why?
Because even though they are framed as white savior films, I think they may hold some truth that a white person could learn from. I know I will save no one but myself in this world, but I can help others become better people, and in doing so, I help myself to become a better person. My way of doing that is through writing and teaching.
How do you save the world?