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MLive, Betsy DeVos and White Savior Politics

September 11, 2017

Last Wednesday, MLive ran an article that was based on a segment in a recent NPR edition of This American Life, entitled Vouching Toward Bethlehem.

The headline of the MLive article reads: Betsy DeVos’ history volunteering in Grand Rapids school featured on This American Life. One question to ask ourselves is, why did the MLive reporter use this particular headline? There were numerous themes within the 30 minute NPR piece. Producer Susan Burton talks a bit about the history of Betsy DeVos and school policies around Charter Schools and School Vouchers. The NPR segment also discussed the function and role that Kids Hope USA played in Betsy DeVos deciding to become a volunteer within the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Kids Hope USA was created to provide an opportunity for Christians to “live out their faith. The mission statement of the group says, “KHUSA offers churches and schools a proven, award-winning model to meet the emotional, social and academic needs of children.”

This dynamic that Kids Hope USA engages in, is part of the NPR segment, with a representative with Kids Hope USA talking about how they area white group of people who were looking to have real life experiences in urban schools. The NPR segment even stated that someone from Kids Hope USA was even driving around in  urban neighborhoods looking for a school that would provide mentors with a great opportunity.

The school that was picked was Burton Elementary School. Burton Elementary is a school that is made up of mostly Spanish speaking students, with parents from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

The NPR segment focuses on what impact Betsy DeVos had on the lives of 2 particular families that had students attending Burton Elementary School.

In one case, Betsy DeVos bought the family a car and donated presents a Christmas time. In the other case, the current Secretary of Education hired the student’s mother to come work for the family cleaning their house in Holland. In both cases, Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, took these students out of the public school system and paid for their tuition at private religious schools.

The NPR segment producer discusses this dynamic to some degree and even has an excerpt from a speech that DeVos gave at a recent ALEC conference. The NPR segment chose to focus on the private vs public school angle, but in many ways it seems that they were missing a major component of what was also happening. The very fact that Betsy and Dick DeVos took these students out of the public schools, paid for their tuition and then hired one of the mothers to clean their house in Holland, is nothing short of what is means to practice White Savior politics.

In a recent piece on Everyday Feminism, white savior politics is described this way: 

In the simplest terms, it’s when a white character or person rescues people of color from their oppression. The White Savior is portrayed as the good one, the one that we’re meant to identify with as we watch or read these narratives. They usually learn lessons about themselves along the way. There are many problems with this kind of narrative, some of which I’ll go over.

For instance, it racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems. It implies that they always need saving, and that white people are the only ones competent enough to save them. This is very obviously untrue, and it’s a harmful message to relay.

In many ways this is the deeper message of what Betsy DeVos did with these 2 students and their families, while mentoring through Kids Hope USA. It is bad enough that MLive chose to make Betsy look like she really cares about students (as if there aren’t hundreds of volunteers who give their time to mentor kids in the Grand Rapids Public School), but the larger problem with the MLive piece is that it selects a conservative vs liberal narrative that plays well with the public. By creating this left/right dichotomy, the MLive piece conveniently misses the larger White Savior narrative that is the real story highlighted in the NPR segment.

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