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Repenting of a White Savior Complex

My friend Shannon challenged Mike Hogeterp and I the other day with this question: How are you sharing your vulnerabilities? Survivors of residential schools, including intergenerational survivors like Shannon, are being vulnerable with all of Canada (and whoever will listen) by sharing their stories at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a bit one-sided. They share their pain, and we listen (and hopefully are changed and respond). But are we willing to be vulnerable with them? Or with other marginalized people?

I haven’t experienced the daily grind of the effects of racism like Shannon has. I’m very privileged (besides the effects of sexism, but that’s a different article). But I’m beginning to understand a very different daily grind.

A close friend of mine was in a horrible car accident a few months ago, and since then I’ve been learning what pain is, along with the many people who love this friend. I didn't know it was possible to hurt so badly for so long. I didn't know grief hits your body as well as your soul. I didn't know that it comes in irregular waves, destabilizing you with its absence one day and with its presence the next.

I told my friend Juan about this friend last night, without really intending to. He asked how I had been doing, and out it came. I felt a twinge of guilt after I launched into the story, wondering if I was just adding to the weight on his shoulders. Juan is a refugee whose application for refugee status in Canada has been rejected. He has a chronic liver disease that has landed him in the hospital for extended stays twice since I got to know him this year. And on top of it all, their family’s car broke down a few months ago and they can’t afford to fix it. Oh, and his mother-in-law just passed away. (He’s also a jokester with an enormously generous heart, a love of history, and a beautiful, loving wife and kids.) If you’re going through your own personal Gethsemane, do you really want to hear about a tragic car accident?

But the empathy in Juan’s voice showed me how wrong I was. It wasn’t so much what he said (especially since I understood maybe half of his Spanish over the phone), but the way he entered into my pain so immediately. He was genuinely affected by my pain.

And I realized: I need Juan. He understands where I’m at in a way that someone who’s not also walking through a valley of the shadow of death can’t. And maybe I’m not adding to his burden. Maybe he’s tired of being the one who’s helped, and wants to take a turn as the one helping for a change. Maybe he wants a two-way friendship.

I suspect that the reason that he and his family have been isolating themselves lately is that they’re tired of being only takers, not givers. They love to give. Once, they gave me a whole bag of apples. Another time, they sent me home with a bag chock-full of granola bars and chocolate. But it’s hard to be a giver when your circumstances are so difficult. Maybe in letting Juan into my pain, I was unwittingly giving him dignity.

A friend of mine says that his most genuine relationships are with people with disabilities. He can reveal his weaknesses to them, and they can be weak with him. There’s a lot of wisdom in that.  

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Perhaps even by other mourners.

Maybe a way to repent of our white savior complex is to allow marginalized people into our vulnerabilities. Because we’re not divided into weak and the strong, us and them. We’re just the weak. 

Here's Shannon's blog entry that got this ball rolling. 

[Image: Flickr user Angelo DeSantis]

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