Cultural Relativism, Human Rights and the "white savior" accusations

Posted December 2, 2017 from United States

It has been some time since I have published a blog on here or anywhere but I found myself, on this rainy day here in Washington, contemplating many things that I have been through. I have been helping a woman and her school overseas for almost 3 years now and I admit that I went into this blindly, with no expectations and no experience. It has been almost 3 years and I have learned so much that I know one day I will write a book because this work has impacted me and those around me on every level.

Last year I went to Pakistan. Before going to Pakistan I did a lot of research but that still didn't prepare me for the real thing. Nothing can prepare you for the real thing but I was mentally ready in many respects. I focused on many aspects of their society and culture in the course of my research and as a result of this I had mixed feelings.

When I finally did decide to go over there I went there with an understanding of their culture, beliefs and values but I chose to go without any judgement. I believe in energy and I believe that if you go having many judgments that will color your experience differently. So I remained neutral, fully knowing that I honestly had little to no control over much going over there, as as single young American having to rely on those I knew around me for everything.

I flew over there feeling like I was being born into the world again and that is basically what it was. I flew over there with no intentions or plans of imposing my beliefs on anyone there. I kept an open mind with no judgments as well. I was a child being born into the world again, their world.

In light of this I want to explain how complicated humanitarian work can get when you involve many people and you start to branch out in the world. There are many ideas, perceptions and opinions from people everywhere about what it means to be a humanitarian worker and to be white. One would think that this is a good thing but sometimes it can be used against you. This has happened to me.

I will not name names but I used to work with a group of people who help immigrants and refugees in addition to the humanitarian work that I do for Sister Zeph. I knew them for over a year and the leader always praised me for the humanitarian work that I do. These people were from different backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds and countries that are a part of this group but the leader is American.

After I had been with them for some time they did a review of me and my work/ teaching. That is when I saw the other side of humanitarian work. After the review we talked about humanitarian work and the leader and another person (that reviewed me) both called me a white savior, told me that I was imposing my way of life on people that I help and basically told me that I was being racist by wanting to help the people so much.

I have also been told by people close to me that what I do basically doesn't matter because the people I have been helping have lived that way for thousands of years and there is no point in trying to change it.

I have several things to say in regards to this:

  • It insults me to be called racist because I want to help people in developing countries but the reality is that some people think this
  • I am not a white savior- I am not claiming to save anyone. At the end of the day it's the people themselves that have to make real changes. I cannot go into any country and force real change.
  • I am not trying to change a culture. I am simply helping support a woman in her own culture that is making changes. I don't force or impose any "Western changes" unless she explicitly asks me to teach them something related to my culture or they ask themselves.
  • If the people over there want change then they should get support in that process
  • Adopting children from any country is not racist
  • Just because I am white does not mean that I am some sort of savior or that I can fix anyones problems and it especially does not mean that I am above anyone else in this world.

In light of all of this I am going to share a post I recently created for my cultural anthropology class. I was asked if I thought that cultural relativism can co-exist with universal human rights. This is a huge question which everyone who is into humanitarian work should contemplate.

What is cultural relativism?

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than judged against the criteria of another.

I ask of you all reading this:

Can we go into another culture and judge them based on our own beliefs and values?

The answer is simply no.

There are universal human rights and I do not agree with many things that people do in other countries- even my own country ! The UN came up with a universal declarationof human rights and I will paste that here and you can judge or yourself what you think- but honestly to force another country to adopt your beliefs is not right.

So- I have concluded that all I can do as an individual is support women and those humanitarian workers in developing countries who are doing work that uplifts humanity. The work that Sister Zeph does pertains to the universal declaration of human rights. I cannot go into her country and impose that but I can support her in her endeavors in that.

explain whether you think cultural relativism can coexist with the idea of universal human rights. Is it possible for anthropologists to promote human rights without imposing their own values and ideas of human rights? Explain your position.

I have been helping a woman and her school in Pakistan for almost 3 years now and I would say that I have a lot to say on this subject. Also, because I did a lot of research on the country, it's cultures and values before going over there. It was not an easy decision. I actually got very angry and depressed for a short period of time before I decided to go over there because I got so deep into my research and it wasn't just that. I had also established a relationship with the woman that owned the school and some of the students. They are young girls that mostly come from poor families and have very little to sometimes no resources.

I started teaching them art shortly after making a connection with the woman that owns the school. All of that aside I have experienced some of the dark side of humanitarian work. I have gone at it alone for three years and I have been directly dealing with a woman who owns a school in Pakistan. I guess you could say that I have studied and still continue to look at their culture from an emic and etic point of view. I also got depressed and upset because I got close to the girls and they would tell stories of what happens to people, women, children, etc, in their culture.

It can be upsetting to hear about an honor killing, a woman getting gang raped and society doing nothing about it, little boys getting addicted to heroin and used for sex, children doing hard labor, severe pollution to the point that the whole country doesn't have an ounce of clean air because the government either lacks regulations and laws or they have them but they don't bother to reinforce them.

So going back to how does this tie in with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? I would say that I agree with that Declaration of Rights but... there is so much gray area it's insane... and after working with Pakistan and how strict religious views and interpretations can be over there and in other countries I don't have any one answer. If I had an answer to all of this then there wouldn't be war or conflict. I think that honor killings and all of these other things are a direct threat and assault on everything that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands for but to go into any country and implement that directly would be wrong.

I also think of the Native Americans. The Europeans put their childen in schools by force, forced them to walk on the trail of tears to new lands and so on this is a violation of human rights. I think that there is gray area and that each situation should be looked at individually and investigated (in a perfect world) but I know that, that is probably not feasible. I just don't know what to say. I see and hear about abuse with the girls that I work with in Pakistan but I don't know what to do about it sometimes. I have no clear answers and I am at a loss of words because of that. I just keep giving them what I can and encouraging them as much as I can.

“The thing is, you cannot ask people to coexist by having one side bow their heads and rely on a solution that is only good for the other side. What you can do is stop blaming each other and engage in dialogue with one person at a time. Everyone knows that violence begets violence and breeds more hatred. We need to find our way together. I feel I cannot rely on the various spokespersons who claim they act on my behalf. Invariably they have some agenda that doesn't work for me. Instead, I talk to my patients, to my neighbors and colleagues--Jews, Arabs--and I find out they feel as I do: we are more similar than we are different, and we are all fed up with the violence.”

―Izzeldin Abuelaish

Comments 7

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Dec 02, 2017
Dec 02, 2017

Hi Malee,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, experienced, views and opinion. One of the many things I am bringing in my heart as a humanitarian worker when deployed or in the field is “DO NO HARM” You have a big heart. 

Sister Zeph
Dec 04, 2017
Dec 04, 2017

Malee thank you for writing your thoughts and for sharing your feelings in such a beautiful way, I have been with you in all your journey with Zeph Education and now after three years I must say that it was your calling by God to help people specially girls in Pakistan, you have helped me a lot and we have accomplished a lot with your help and you have never ever tried to impose your own culture on us and you are not a racist but a true humanitarian and we are blessed to have you in our lives as our sister and our one of the biggest supporters in the World 

Lily Habesha
Mar 23, 2018
Mar 23, 2018

Every time I see you on Fb, I used to think you never have any problem in your mission. I see today, you have a lot of ...the and so.
Wherever you go people say anything about you. They commented, because you are a foreigner. In my place, it's easy for the white people to run NGO. My close friend said...Air Organization(AO) plate number- in my language- the abreviation- Crazy Organization.
She hates people working as NGO owners, she thinks or labeled them, Users ..In the name of helping the poor, they live lavishly. LOrds of The Poor.

Ambassador Stella asked me to open office for BGG and to be the director, because their is a great misunderstanding here, i still refuse to go for it.
Now, we have many initiatives, we're moving as grass root movements.
They don't know us, but we help schools, fistula victims, cancer societies...we reach everywhere.

Go write your book.
Forget the comments of others and serve the people with Sister Zeph.

Love from Ethiopia


Ngwa Damaris
Apr 08, 2018
Apr 08, 2018

Hi Malee, Thanks for this wonderful piece. I am overwhelmed because I am in same line with you. I was a featured story teller in November 2017.I wrote in response to the call" who are you thankful for" I will kind refer you back to my story because it will encourage you and give you some of the energy you need. I am working on a project to see how I can use women to help our world live together in peace despite our diversity. Keep on doing the good work. Society is the problem not you but that's why we are here. So the good news is that there is hope for a solution. Let us not keep silent. One day we shall overcome

Apr 14, 2018
Apr 14, 2018

Hello Malee,

Follow your passion and your big heart to do the good work that you are doing for humanity. Naysayers are always around to bring people down, do not be distracted by them. Keep on with your good work to impact the lives of the disadvantaged in the society .

Princesse MUHINDO
May 30, 2018
May 30, 2018

Congretulation dear, that's right about liberty not to force a person.

Sally maforchi Mboumien
Jul 03, 2018
Jul 03, 2018

I am super inspired by you. service to humanity comes from the heart so no amount of criticism can quench your passion. I wish you the best!!!!!!