Knowing Best, Doing Good

The other day I mentioned StuffWhitePeopleLike in a post about Ethnicity and Satire. I wrote Christian Lander to ask if I might reprint in full my favourite of his, #62 Knowing What’s Best for Poor People, and he said yes. As some of you know, I’ve written a lot about Knowing Best: how it all came about with The Construction of Benevolent Identities, that thing called Empowerment and how we should Forget Victimisation regarding what Lander’s calling Poor People.

Lander takes off the way ‘helping’ makes people feel good about themselves and how they assume that if everyone were to live the way helpers do – making the Right choices – then the world would be Good.  

White people spend a lot of time of worrying about poor people. It takes up a pretty significant portion of their day.

They feel guilty and sad that poor people shop at Wal*Mart instead of Whole Foods, that they vote Republican instead of Democratic, that they go to Community College/get a job instead of studying art at a University.

It is a poorly guarded secret that, deep down, white people believe if given money and education that all poor people would be EXACTLY like them. In fact, the only reason that poor people make the choices they do is because they have not been given the means to make the right choices and care about the right things.

A great way to make white people feel good is to tell them about situations where poor people changed how they were doing things because they were given the ‘whiter’ option. “Back in my old town, people used to shop at Wal*Mart and then this non-profit organization came in and set up a special farmers co-op so that we could buy more local produce, and within two weeks the Wal*Mart shut down and we elected our first Democratic representative in 40 years.” White people will first ask which non-profit and are they hiring? After that, they will be filled with euphoria and will invite you to more parties to tell this story to their friends, so that they can feel great.

But it is ESSENTIAL that you reassert that poor people do not make decisions based on free will. That news could crush white people and their hope for the future.

That ending encapsulates how so many commentators talk about women who sell sex, and young people who express sexualities and almost all migrants who leave home to work at less than wonderful jobs outside their own countries. If you just turn the gaze back onto the commentators you see the assumptions undergirding their concern – that everyone should and must want to live the same way, no matter how impossible that goal is.

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