White Savior Barbie Nails It

by Rachel Pieh Jones on June 15, 2016

Barbie has an Instagram account. In case you’ve missed it, White Savior Barbie goes to Africa where she poses in a variety of absurd scenarios with over-the-top hash tags that perfectly capture the White Savior mentality.

Of course, as this article points out, Savior Barbie is largely preaching to the choir; people who are already savvy and aware and debating the issues. Most people outside the aid and development world or not engaged in the global South probably don’t care and their attitudes won’t be challenged or changed by a parody Instagram account. Fine, point taken.

Also, the photos reek of sarcasm and cynicism and stereotypes. Got it.

But can we poke a little fun? At ourselves even, as how many of us (myself and Savior Barbie’s creators included as they admit to the Huffington Post) have been guilty of some of these things? Maybe, hopefully, not to the extremes of Savior Barbie, but most of us start our experiences abroad pretty naïve and at least in my own case, rather arrogant. Sometimes then we turn cynical, then bitter, then mockingly cruel toward the new, naïve, generations. I hope instead that these hilarious and in-your-face hashtags and photos will help keep us from going that route. If we can laugh about it, then maybe we can talk about it.

The hashtags are the real genius of Savior Barbie. Photos do communicate, but as a white person who lives in a country of brown people, I take photos with friends who aren’t the same color as me. I’ve held black babies and smiled for the camera. Because the baby is the son of my best friend here, not because I intend to ‘save’ this baby or mother. So judging me as a ‘white savior’ based on a photo I post would be misguided. The beauty of a diverse world is being able to engage across cultures and colors and if we take pictures, so be it. I don’t think that people should only post photos of people in matching skin tones.

It is when the hash tag, or the attitude, conveys something like, “Poor cute orphan baby! Good thing I brought bananas and clothes and vaccinations,” that there is a problem. When the hash tag or attitude is, “My (actual) friend just had a baby!” no problem.

One thing about the Instagram account that makes me really sad is the profile. The first word is “Jesus.” The obvious conclusion is that the majority of the good-intentioned and utterly ignorant White Saviors who inspired the account and who have propagated this attitude are Christians.

Perhaps this is because we have somehow twisted Jesus being the savior of the world to ourselves, as his ambassadors, being the saviors of the world. Perhaps this is because Christians are so eager to serve and Christian organizations are so desperate for staff that people will do things for which they are totally unqualified. People in the developing world are not stupid.

I once translated at a UN meeting and a government leader from a Muslim country stood up and said, “We are tired of these NGOs coming and pretending they know how to teach or how to do construction. They don’t know what they are doing. Why don’t they ask us what we need and send people qualified for that? Most of these people are Christians.”

That also made me really sad.

Perhaps the lesson of White Savior Barbie is that there is nothing wrong with service or with enjoying another culture but it needs to be done with integrity. Let’s be qualified and well trained for the work we do. Develop authentic relationships based on more than great photo ops. Educate ourselves. Be wary of quick clichés like, “I fell in love with Africa the moment I got off the plane.” Be learners.

**As of June 1, a blog is now associated with the Instagram account and it is here that the creators actually wrestle through the issues. I’m glad they aren’t just poking fun but are providing a space for thoughtful discussions.

What do you think of Savior Barbie?

Beyond criticism or poking fun, any tips on appropriate cross-cultural engagement?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Thanks for this honest exploration of the may sides of this issue, Rachel! I agree—it’s both hilarious AND convicting. It made me wonder, though, how we can get to the place where ‘Christian’ is no longer the first word associated with this idea. I love the dialog evolving about how we interact with and represent ourselves in the world, but I still long for the day that ‘Christian’ is associated with compassion, humility, or hope instead of the current words we tout 🙁

  • Sherri

    I also love Africa. I have been here over 10 years. Some days, I don’t like it much, but I never stop loving it. Thank you for nailing this article! I have followed barbiesavior for a while. It both convicts and saddens me. I see the attitude in others. I see it in myself at times. It is so hard to come in and help without trampling. I am sad there are times I have to pull out my ‘white power’ I call it to make sure the children (we work at an orphanage) in our care get the care they need. For example, if I send a worker with one of our children to the clinic, the worker may be turned away as the line is too long. I go to the clinic with the child, the child will be seen by a doctor. Should I use that power? I struggle DAILY with such decisions! There are times, I stay totally out of a situation as my ‘white power’ will do more harm than good. The price will be higher, the location puts my employees in more physical danger if I am there, etc. Being having the ‘white power’ in the land of dark skin is HARD and a constant struggle of asking THE FATHER to lead me, to guide me when to speak and when to shut up!

  • Joey

    ‘People in the developing world are not stupid.’
    No, they aren’t. Thank you for saying so. Outsiders, whether expats living in country or pray-ers who keep them out there, must always be wary of the sneaky, subconscious thoughts and attitudes towards the people, organisations and governments of the nations we strive to love. We must always see that our people, organisations and governments can just as easily be corrupt, biased, inefficient or malicious – just in ways that we’re used to and that feel okay, or even comfortable, to us.

  • Wendy Marshall

    I’m in Japan long-term. So it’s a different scenario, but we still have people who “fall in love” with Japan off the plane. Japan does such a fantastic job of presenting a beautiful face to the world that if you don’t make an effort to see below the surface you miss the tragedy. Less than 1% of people know the Lord, it has one of the highest suicide rates in the world etc. Plus short-term teams form and come with misconceived notions of what it is that is needed here. I was pleased to hear a missionary who actually refused a team from their home church, the church was asking what they could do to help, she suggested that instead of coming here they could pay for the family’s children to go back to the States during the summer to go to a summer camp associated with the church. The ministry the parents are in doesn’t lend itself to being helped by short-term teams so I was glad to hear that instead of making up “busy work” for a team she said the hard thing.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I really like the fact that the creators of the Instagram account are now hosting serious contemplation of these issues elsewhere. So thanks for sharing that!

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