March 2, 2017

CULTURALLY SHOOK | CNN Has a White Savior Complex, and I’m Not Surprised

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Recently, CNN published a story—a love story that, CNN insists, “defies borders.” Carly Harris, a Mormon college student, was volunteering at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, when she met Soufiane El Yassami, a Muslim fast food worker. El Yassami had studied industrial refrigeration and was seeking a better life in Europe, fleeing the dismal economic situation in Morocco. “After several weeks of flirty conversations with Harris,” the article states, El Yassami was denied asylum into Europe, arrested and sent back to Morocco. The two continued to converse through Facebook messages, trying to find a way for El Yassami to visit Harris in the United States. Yet they soon realized the possibility of El Yassami obtaining a visa was bleak, if not impossible. The couple now plans to move to Guinea-Bissau after Harris graduates from the University of Utah.

You might read this story and deem it bittersweet. You might read it and think, “Wow. It’s terrible that politics has come to this—tearing love apart! It’s so sad that these two innocent individuals have to jump through so many political hurdles to simply be together. It’s so cute that they aren’t letting the evil immigration police and cruel national borders dictate their feelings. So inspiring that, despite their differences, they have united. Kind of reminds me of Romeo and Juliet! I really hope they make it.”

Yet such an outlook is, at best, a superficial understanding of the complicated issues broached by this article. But if such thoughts occurred to you while reading this story, fear not—you are not alone. Harris shared this CNN story to her Facebook page, and the comments she received overwhelmingly reflect this problematic mindset. These comments praise Harris and her selflessness, admiring her “beautiful” story: “love it!!’re an awesome person Carly Harris!” “Carly! You are amazing. I love your story and your heart.” “You are an angel.” “Thank you for your example of unconditional love and genuine kindness.” “I’m so happy for you Carly and so proud of you.” “This is a beautiful story.” “The world needs more people with your desire to understand, acknowledge, and unify.”

Through these comments, it becomes apparent that Harris has immediately been positioned as the noble heroine of this story. She is the star; she is the “amazing” “angel” who has selflessly provided the world with the perfect “example of unconditional love and genuine kindness.” She is applauded for her benevolence, because she is generously helping make the world a better place. She has a good heart—open your eyes! Look at all she’s doing to help the unfortunate! We should all learn from her.

In lauding Harris for her goodwill as they completely ignore the real issue—the refugee crisis—these comments become the voice of performative allyship. They confirm that Harris is “a good white person, that [she’s] ‘woke,’…refocus[ing] the issue back on [her].” She is praised for her generosity—yet her generosity wouldn’t have been needed had there been no refugee crisis, so wouldn’t it make more sense for these comments to thoughtfully consider the roots of this humanitarian crisis, perhaps productively ponder the refugee experience, instead of Harris’ allegedly magnificent compassion?

Why do we have to make it all about Harris? Why do we need to make what could have been a productive discussion on the global immigration crisis, instead a story about a privileged white woman—a woman from a Western country, with easy access to the social, political and economic opportunities systemically bequeathed her just by virtue of her whiteness—opportunities routinely denied refugees, who are barely granted recognition of their status as legal humans by these very same Western countries? Why is it that, just because of her romantic association with a brown refugee from a non-Western country, this white woman becomes revered as someone we should all aspire to emulate? Why have we invoked the white savior complex so readily, casually overlooking the reasons that refugees have been forced to leave their native countries?

Judith Butler, notorious feminist philosopher, provides us with valuable insight regarding this situation—a familiar one, in which the West’s need to make everything about the West features prominently. In her book Precarious Life, Butler condemns this habit of the United States—this compulsion to, as Butler puts it, “[assert] US priority and…omnipotence” at every international turn. She considers this a manner by which the US asserts its “supremacy,” arguing that “the United States [always feels the need to] occup[y] the site of…subject, and [insist] that no other subjects exist or, if they exist, [the United States requires] their agency [to be] subordinated to [its] own.”

CNN’s coverage of this “[border-defying] love story” seems to confirm Butler’s theory. It should be noted that the public is not the only party guilty of the crime that is positioning the West as the center of attention of the international scene—the media is also guilty, and this is exemplified even in the title CNN elected to give this article: “She fell in love with someone who won’t be allowed in.” This title designates Harris as the subject of this transnational issue. The title is not “He fell in love with someone, but he won’t be allowed in.” No, Harris is—quite literally—the grammatical subject of the sentence, even though she is not the victim here. In reality, El Yassami is the victim—he is one of the millions of victims of international prejudice and inherently racist Western immigration laws, yet he is not even allowed the privilege of occupying the subject of this sentence, let alone the subject of the global conversation. Why is it that, when discussing issues that pertain explicitly to non-Western populations, we must always don the Western point of view? Why can’t we ever allow non-Western individuals to be the focus of these transnational discussions, even when they so rightfully deserve it?

Moreover, what is so special about this love story? The refugee crisis is historically notorious for its brutal separation of refugee families. The UN Refugee Agency has found that over 70,000 Syrian refugee families live without fathers, while thousands of refugee children are separated from both their parents. The refugee crisis can be characterized by “the destruction of the family unit…[a process facilitated by the countries to which refugees relocate—countries which] act to reconfigure, and separate family members through restrictive immigration policies.” Yet how many stories have you read about the refugee families torn apart through the process of immigration?

Not many, if any. Then what makes this couple’s separation so unique, that it merits such extensive media attention? I would argue that the involvement of a white, Western individual in this story makes it “important” in the public’s eyes. This is an incident reminiscent of the Allie Dowdle story, in that, in both instances, white people become the protagonists of “struggle” as the public overlooks the real struggles endured by non-Western populations and people of color. It suggests a running theme in public discourse, in that the focus always somehow rests on the white Westerner—their struggle is always perceived to be the most important, overshadowing the struggles faced by non-Western persons.

This is not the only instance where this trend is exemplified—remember when, after the Paris attacks, Facebook offered Paris profile filters, allowing users to show solidarity with Paris? There were no Lebanese profile filters for Beirut, which had experienced a terrorist attack just the day before Paris did. Why are we not given the option to show solidarity with Beirut? Maybe it’s because, according to the dominant Western state of mind, the lives of Lebanese and other Middle Eastern peoples are worth less—they are uncivilized, Muslim monsters; they are murderous terrorists who despise social progress and hate women and the West. And, after all, there is always political and social unrest in the Middle East—so what is another instance of unrest? It doesn’t matter. They’re used to the struggle, after all. And so non-Westerners are dehumanized, lacking the importance publically granted to Westerners. They are not considered, as Butler would say, “grievable,” and so their deaths pass without acknowledgement. Likewise, considering this framework, it makes sense that the separation of refugee families is almost never profiled in the media as this ostensibly star-crossed love story has been. Because, in the eyes of this dominant Western mindset, brown, non-Western lives are not considered as important as white, Western ones.

By approaching the refugee crisis with sentimentalized, syrupy, “feel-good” stories such as this one, we detract from the actual issues on which we should be focusing. The real issue becomes conveniently forgotten, hidden underneath shiny layers of Western self-aggrandizement. What people should be talking about is the unnecessary restrictiveness of immigration policies fostered by the West—policies that conveniently overlook the prominent role of Western imperialism in producing the global conditions that prompt the departure of these refugees from their native countries. What people should be discussing is how “the refugee crisis is a crisis of imperialism…[that] wherever the U.S. and its imperialist allies have intervened, whether through direct military action or indirect proxy wars, economic sabotage, and coups…death and despair have been forced upon millions of innocent people, who have been left no other choice than to abandon their native lands to embark on a dangerous future of desperate struggle.

So, CNN? Stop distilling the refugee crisis through this myopic filter of sentimentality. Don’t center the Western perspective in your coverage of non-Western struggles. Next time, maybe a better article to write would be “Without Western imperialism, there would be no refugee crisis, but refugees won’t be allowed in.” Maybe then, you could teach us something, instead of just patting America and its allies on the back and perpetuating this centuries-long, Western-minded, inherently racist state of mind.