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White Savior Politics and the current immigration crisis

June 26, 2018

The recent news that the US government, through the Department of Homeland Security, has been detaining children of immigrant families. The detention centers are cruel manifestations of the nation’s immigration policies, which are punishing immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants.

The images that we have all been seeing of immigrant children being separated from their families are awful, traumatic and gruesome. Therefore, it is not surprising that people have been outraged. All one has to do is look at social media and these images of children in detention all everywhere.

In the past few weeks, there has also been a variety of responses to this revelation that families are being separated. People have been calling members of Congress, holding protests and attempting to raise awareness about what is happening at this moment. Wanting to do something is understandable, in fact it seems rather natural for many people, since humans will respond to tragedy.

However, it is crucial that we step back and think critically about what it is we are responding to and how we respond. This is particularly important for white people. Why, you might ask? Well, the reality is that we live in a society that is permeated by white supremacist ideology. Activist and organizer, Elizabeth Martinez, defines white supremacy as:

White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.

Within this system of white supremacy, white people are taught to take action and to fix things, even if doing so causes more harm or perpetuates inequality. Within white supremacy, this dynamic is called White Savior Politics. White Savior Politics is fundamentally about white people taking action because it makes us feel better, plus it has the benefit of not getting us to think about our privilege.

The current immigration crisis is a good example of how white savior politics can play out, so lets look at what this means in the context of how people are responding to the separation of immigrant families. The following talking points are important for all of us, but especially for white people, when we are moved to do something in the face of injustice.

First, white savior politics means that we do not recognize the agency of those who are being oppressed have. White people often assume that those being oppressed don’t have agency and can’t speak or act for themselves. What this means is that white people erase the voices and agency of people who are being oppressed at that moment, but it also erases a long history of resistance by the very same people who are being oppressed. In the current immigration crisis, white peoples actions often erase the voices & stories of those impacted by having their families torn apart, plus it erases a long history of how immigrant communities have been resisting the same kind of oppressive treatment they have been experiencing for centuries.

Second, white guilt is also part of the white savior dynamic, wherein we take action out of guilt, instead of taking action because those being oppressed have asked us to. White guilt doesn’t serve any purpose, except to limit our ability to engage in radical imagination. We shouldn’t take action because of guilt, but rather out of a sense of compassion and justice.

Third, white savior politics often is a result of our own historical amnesia. It is well documented that during the Obama administration, roughly 3 million people had been deported and ICE agents were arresting and detaining people, thus separating families. Where was the outcry then? People in the immigrant community were experiencing fear and separation at the hands of ICE then, so why is it now an issue? Part of the reason why the issue is front and center now, is because immigrants and immigration activists have made it an issue. However, another reason it is causing such an uproar, is due to the fact that the separation of families is taking place under a Republican administration. is the primary entity that has been promoting the June 30th rallies across the country, but was not challenging people at the grassroots level to resist the deportations during the Obama administration, thus demonstrating the absurdity of partisan politics. The separation, detention and deportation of immigrants and their families should always be opposed, not just when it is politically convenient.

Fourth, in order to counter white savior politics we have to recognize our own privilege, understand history and begin to develop relationships with the immigrant and undocumented community. Countering white savior politics means we must practice relational politics, which in turn should be based on solidarity. Solidarity is not just some lofty idea, but it is a commitment to being in relationship with those who are oppressed, listening to them, asking what they need and then working with them to fight against anti-immigrant policies and practices.

Fifth, we have to come to terms with larger US foreign policy dynamics, which is often the root cause of migration. We have to come to terms with the fact that US foreign policy towards Latin American countries are at the root of the immigration crisis. The US government support for dictatorships, providing military aid & training, drug policies and economic policies (like NAFTA) are the real reasons why so many people are coming to the US from Latin America. Fighting against US imperialism and white supremacy abroad would radically alter the realities of immigration to the US. We have to see the bigger picture in this struggle and cannot afford to simply say we are against the treatment of immigrants without also being against US Imperialism and White Supremacy.

Lastly, the current immigration crisis must always be about the affected communities of immigrants. We cannot make this issue about what white people are doing and how wonderful we think we are. Immigrant lives and voices must be centered in this struggle, not the lives of white people. We need to elevate and amplify the voices of those most impacted by ICE repression, not our own. We need to practice humility and stop trying to pat ourselves on the back doing things that are of no real consequence or cost to ourselves.

I recognize that people want to take action in the face of injustice. I get that. However, unless we begin to deal with our own privilege and recognize how white supremacy is embedded into our privilege, we will continue to practice and perpetuate white savior politics.

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