Matt Hartman, Trinity Communications
“This book is going to get me in trouble,” Kathryn Mathers says.
It’s not because the associate professor of the practice of International Comparative Studies and Cultural Anthropology is looking for it. In fact, she thought long and hard about whether she had a right to tackle the subjects she analyzes in the book in question, “White Saviorism and Popular Culture: Imagined Africa as a Space for American Salvation.” Ultimately she decided it was worth the risk, because the book was born from the questions her students kept asking.
Released in September, Mathers’ new work takes on the tricky task of investigating the ways that well-intentioned, often welcomed phenomena reinforce the very inequalities they’re meant to solve. From the international volunteer trips many Duke students take to satirical critiques of the same trips and even the optimistic fantasy of Wakanda, the homeland of the Black Panther, Mathers finds the workings of systemic, structural oppression.
We sat down with Mathers to discuss why, her approach to writing the book and her advice for students. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Many Duke students are familiar with the idea of the white savior, but what do you mean in particular by the terms “white saviorism” and “the white saviorism industrial complex?”
It’s an interesting thing to say at Duke. Part of the reason I pulled these ideas together in this book was because of the disjunction between well-intentioned, smart, engaged kids thinking that they knew what the problem was and yet continuing to really embody it and inhabit it.
It consistently surprised me and led me to try and figure out why it was possible for people who by definition inhabit a white savior space to think that they were outside of it — and that it was possible to be outside of it.
I try to always talk about the industrial complex, the title of the book notwithstanding — we don’t always have a choice with those! — because it's important, I think to underscore that this isn't about individual people. This is a global set of structures and institutions that maintain and consistently reproduce a particular relationship of powerlessness through trade agreements, foreign policy, immigration policy, travel policies, but also through large-scale humanitarian agencies and development agencies and global funders like the Google Foundation and the Gates Foundation.
You know, venture capital and the tech industry will happily give some young kid with a good idea $40 million dollars, but they are terrified of giving a community-based organization in Zambia $100,000 because somehow they are going to “misuse it.” All this money is floating around to do good in the world, and it just gets funneled back into the white savior industrial complex, which is grounded in these big international NGOs in New York and London and DC and Geneva and places like that.
What do you think is clarified by this focus on the industrial complex?
It is the system and the structures that, I think, make it hard for people to imagine a truly different way of doing things. What I mean, when I call something an industrial complex, when I call something systemic, is that none of us are outside of it. We’re all in it.
I was writing the book not just in the context of COVID but also the US uprising against anti-Black violence, and these critiques of white privilege and white supremacy were coming to the fore. They had always existed of course, but weren't necessarily in the popular vocabulary.
Those were meant to be systemic categories and critiques of structural inequalities, not individuals. But I find it frustrating how quickly the way we used those terms devolved. I’d say 90% of the time they don’t mean what they’re supposed to mean. It’s like, “That person's a white supremacist, but I am not,” which to me is not what is meant by white supremacy.
The same thing happened with the #MeToo movement, with violence against women. You put a few bad men into prison, and then nothing changes in the institutions. So I’m trying to think about that.
One of the examples you write about in the book is @barbiesavior, a satirical Instagram account critiquing some of the more performative, visible kinds of white saviorism by those doing volunteer work in Africa. Many students share those critiques, but still have the urge to do good in Africa. Why aren’t those critiques enough?
That’s the question I was trying to answer with the book, and I'm not sure I succeeded. It’s kind of like: Well, because of the white savior industrial complex and white supremacy, right?
It comes back over and over again to those things and, as I tell my students, these are in and of themselves not an explanation because they're the water we swim in. They just are. They’re describing it. So I am caught in the same circle, right? Like okay, I can describe what's going on, but can I explain it? Can I push beyond it?
That's why parodies are so interesting to me. I don’t know that we’ve moved on, but the dependence on satire as political critique doesn't seem to me to be quite as dominant post Trump. I mean, when the entire world seems like parody, you don't know what is meant to be satirical. And that's the problem with parody: you don't know what is critique.
So much of the critique of the white savior was done through satirical spaces and through these funny spaces, and I think it made sense because it was very, very hard to call out, because it is good people trying to do good things. But I think the parodying of the volunteer, or even the tourists with children and all that stuff, was a critique that allowed this feeling that if you were laughing at it, you were outside of the problem.
It remains such an interesting, impossible thing. It’s why we have all these complex theories about power, right? Because it's so hard to understand how power works! But you can see it working in this permission to see yourself and understand yourself to be outside of the problem, when in fact what the problem needs is for everybody to acknowledge that it is so entrenched that you can't just do it better, you have to do something different.
On the other hand, that's very difficult. It's a well-paying job for many, many people. Breaking that down and sending all that money somewhere else to do other kinds of things? That's hard to do, because the very people whose lives are dependent on it would be the ones who would have to dismantle it.
What do you say to your students who are interested in those jobs?
We consistently tell them in ICS: Just go next door and see who needs your help. You live in this poor Black city. Go do something about it. But it's hard for them to do that. They have this kind of language like, “Well, it's not so bad here. Nobody possibly suffers as much as they do in Africa or South America or wherever.”
But as a South African, I can tell you that what would really help people in southern Africa is for Americans to stop controlling agricultural trade and manufacturing salaries. So go to DC or your local senate and advocate for better, less imperialist, less extractive foreign policies.
You really are the last person who should be going to write policy for some country where you don't even speak the language.
In the book, you also write about Wakanda, which has become a kind of rallying idea of a better future for many anti-racist activists. But you’re critical of it. Why?
I am and was always really uncomfortable with the way that Wakanda was created and presented in the film in particular. It's obviously fantasy, right? Or at least it should be obviously fantasy, but I think my discomfort comes from this sort of odd way it often doesn't read like fantasy.
Wakanda is a country in Africa that is most valorized for not having been colonized and as a site of Black American emancipation and imaginings of power and authority, of course, it’s amazing. I mean, I really hesitated a great deal about saying anything about it. I had to think about why I could.
But I think in the context of a conversation about global anti-Black violence and white supremacy as a global construct, when Africans are left out entirely — as I think they are in Wakanda — of the conversation about what is power, what is emancipation, what is freedom for Black people, that disturbs me. I think it is very sad that Black American power has to rest in this silencing of Africans.
Wakanda does a very imperialist and colonialist thing in that it extracts from cultures and histories across the continent without naming them or acknowledging them. In the film and especially the early comic books, they are clear that the rest of Africa is a shithole. They are protecting themselves as much from the rest of Africa as they are from anybody else. It's hopeless.
That to me is a kind of violence that comes out of white supremacy. Because it is a system, white supremacy does not need white people. It’s the tragedy of white supremacy, right? It’s like, yes, Africa is a space to imagine Blackness in wonderful, powerful ways. How could it not be? But when it's done in this complete silencing of African autonomy and voices, that speaks to the global inequalities that aren’t recognized and worked on and thoughtfully engaged with as they should be in this kind of imagining.
I think that comes from an American parochialism and American Empire that doesn’t even think about why Black Americans should be the arbiters of what is important in Africa or good in Africa. That's really troubling. It’s a missed opportunity.
I believe there should be an idea of global struggles and a recognition of shared oppression. But I think that's really hard to do when certain voices are so much louder and, in the end, reenact the very marginalization that they are meant to be fighting against. And I think that is founded in American imperialism.
How did your upbringing as a white person in South Africa shape your perspective on these issues and your approach to writing this book?
I really went back and forth a lot, especially in this moment when categories have become so singular and entrenched. We don't live in a great space of political conversation, right? It's all binaries and labels — and for good reason as anti-Black violence was so present. Do I, the white person, just need to shut up?
I came to this as an anthropologist of the United States and understanding the really important need for people to stand outside of the United States and try to understand it. And obviously this critique is not mine. There are a lot of voices on the continent making it. But I show how it is articulated with white saviorism in a way that I felt: Well, this is what I do.
My understanding of how Americanness is constructed in relation to an imagined Africa is an important perspective on it. In the end, I come to very similar conclusions as many other Africans writing from the continent about Black American struggles and Wakanda, etc. etc. I'm telling the story from the site of imagining and representing an Africa where Americans can feel good, and that's been consistent in my work.
When you have the power and the media resources to create images and narratives and stories about a place as complex and complicated as the African continent and you do it in the service of your own sense of well-being, that’s a form of violence that I think has to be called out. It has real policy implications. It's bad for everybody. Going back to the possibilities of a truly global struggle against white supremacy, that can't happen when everybody's voices are not treated equally.
What other advice do you have for students who are trying to figure out how to help make sure those voices are treated equally?
Students often come to me with this question, sometimes because they have this really great opportunity to go do something amazing in Malawi or Botswana or Kenya or whatever, and I would never, ever want to say to people, “Don't travel.” It’s such a privilege. Do it if you can.
But if you’re going to anywhere in the world, it should always be to learn and not go change them. If you’re going to volunteer or intern or whatever, shut up and listen to people and what they are asking you to do. I think it is absolutely possible to do it well. Let’s face it, they have this ridiculous privilege to be paid to travel to do something good.
But in a longer-term commitment to a life of trying to do the right thing, work on the inequalities in your own backyard. And if you seriously think, “Okay, I actually want to change things in Africa,” then change American policies.
This idea that the things you can do to change lives in Africa seem so much simpler, that they have nothing to do with politics and global histories of colonialism and imperialism, that they just don't have mosquito nets, they don't have medicines, they don't have school houses, so that's super easy for me to solve with my own little NGO and nonprofit? I mean, come on.