Cappelletti: Is study abroad becoming white saviorism?

Calvania in South Africa

In the spring of 2019, I wrote an article titled “Studying Abroad in an Increasingly Globalized World” in which I outlined the importance of study abroad in today’s world. I wrote about how critical it is for emerging leaders to have an informed worldview that hopefully leads to cultural understanding. 

Following a two-month study abroad trip in South Africa, I realize that my justifications are exactly what was wrong with my program and many other study abroad programs — that as western world travelers, we justify our continued exploitation of third world countries through service trips, study abroad programs and tourism in general. 

Whether it was building a school in the Dominican Republic or taking a tour of the racially segregated “townships” in South Africa, I told myself I was doing my part to help the disadvantaged, when in reality, I was simply attempting to justify my own existence of privilege. And while the existence of white saviorism in media, entertainment and politics is nothing new, its presence in my study abroad program, and many others, was shocking. 

White saviorism refers to a white person helping a non-white person in hopes of exonerating oneself from guilt. Back in 2012, following the infamous Kony 2012 viral campaign, writer Teju Cole coined the phrase “White Savior Industrial Complex.” 

The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” Cole said.

Many study abroad programs are guilty of not only encouraging this narrative, but enacting it as well. While the majority of the population in South Africa is Black African, I spent the majority of my study abroad time with the white minority. The majority of my time with white South Africans was spent doing field work. In contrast, the majority of my time spent with black South Africans was when they were asking me for my order at a restaurant or taking me on a tour through one of their communities. 

These contradicting experiences exemplify how the white savior narrative can exist in study abroad programs. Our interactions with the majority black population of South Africa were limited to observing and attempting to figure out how we could help their situation. This put students in a position of power, one in which we knew better than the local population about how to fix their problems. This is a one-sided relationship where the student leaves with a sense of success that relieves them of guilt, while the local community rarely benefits. 

While all study abroad programs differ, most still focus on the outcome for the student and their learning experience, rather than the communities that are being visited. Students shouldn’t be asking, “How can we help these communities?” but rather asking these communities, “Do you need our help and how can we help?” 

One way to create an environment where both the students and locals benefit is through approaches such as community based natural resources management. The main objective of CBNRM is to empower communities with their own voice when it comes to environmental policies and actions.

One aspect of my study abroad did it right by implementing “situational analysis,” which is one part of CBNRM. Instead of simply observing the community and coming to our own conclusions, we worked with them to form a report that outlined their history, struggles and what they would like their future to be. We gave the community the finished comprehensive report and allowed them to do what they would like with it. Instead of deciding what we think is best for the community, we aimed to empower them to make their own decisions for what they think is best.

While I do believe that study abroad programs have the right motive for helping both the student and the locals, they often end up only ridding students of a guilty conscience, while giving them a misguided idea of how to help communities. 

As Teju Cole wrote, “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” We should start attempting to make study abroad programs beneficial for all and teach our future leaders effective ways to help those who need it.