White Savior Or Woman Warrior?

When I finished Mindy Budgor’s article in The Guardian, it left a bitter taste in my mouth, as though I’d been sucking on old coffee grounds. However delicately she crafted her intentions, I couldn’t help but feel the familiar rush of disappointment and repulsion that’s reserved for the perpetrators of racial blindness at best, racial exploitation at worst. Mindy, a self-described “27-year-old Jewish girl from California,” decides that in order to “find herself,” she must travel to Africa and become a Maasai warrior.

In accordance with tribal tradition, the Maasai people do not allow women to become warriors. Budgor decides that her jaunt into the wilds of commercialized tourism can liberate the Maasai women. With an attitude that seems to have been molded by a superficial strain of 1990s “GIRL POWER,” she takes on the role of self-appointed Maasai spokeswoman. Echoing Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Budgor’s Africa serves as not only a form of escapism but a chance for (white) reinvention. It would be wrong and misguided to say that Budgor is racist or a bigot of the ranting and raving, cross-burning sort. On the other hand, the author’s vision quest adopts the time-old patterns of cultural appropriation displayed in Western-propelled colonialism. There is this idea that Africa, in all its exotic unknown, holds some kind of spiritual enlightenment, a prop for American adventure. Why must someone’s culture be inspected with the same short-lived curiosity as a fad diet? Although Budger does mention traditional customs such as male and female circumcision, she fails to mention that it takes about 15 years to officially become a full-fledged Maasai warrior. The fact that she was able to accomplish this feat in a few months directly clashes with her claims of authenticity.

In her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” Beverly Tatum states:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively anti-racist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.”

For the sake of her soul-searching and eventually, the trajectory of her memoir, Budgor conveniently adopts the cliched role of “white savior,” as she feels that “one element of modern life—women’s rights—could help the tribe continue while remaining true to its practices and beliefs.” Like the passive racist that Tatum disavows, Budgor uses her position of privilege for self-gain, ultimately as a way to to police a culture. It seems that Budgor confuses modernization with Westernization. This is not to say that the social construct of the patriarchy is not at play in African culture. But how, exactly, would her temporary excursion into the bush benefit the tribe or its women members in the long term? Budgor operates under the assumption that the women of the Maasai tribe do not have the means, whether it be the vocal audacity or feminist-inspired motivation, to obtain equality. She also says that she went to Kenya in order to build schools and hospitals before she entered business school. Again, given the short duration of her trip (three months), I have to wonder if her trip was more about the ulterior motives. How would one find time to train to become a full-fledged warrior and engage in sustainable humanitarian aid? This trip is not an exchange of ideas, but a display of power and authority.

Essentially, Budgor is saying that since she has the power and authority of being a white American woman, she knows what’s best for this tribe and its female members. If she can “become” a warrior, she believes that it will magically fix the tribe’s perceived problems. Perhaps she should have taken the time to study the Maasai culture before deciding that it simply needed a fresh breath of white feminism.

I have to again question the selflessness of her actions, her defense that this journey was solely in the name of self-improvement. In a culture where people are eager for fame and public recognition, how many of these ‘white American women journey to a foreign country’ tales are influenced by the need to “fix” someone else’s culture? How much of this self-professed humanitarianism is free of the West’s history of imperialism and colonialism? Noted psychiatrist and philosopher, Frantz Fanon, sought to illuminate colonialism and its psychological effects. If Fanon were still alive to read Budgor’s work, his criticisms would likely showcase the author’s narrative as an example of Western whitewashing, maybe even arrogance. In his landmark work, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon says, “In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. Perhaps we haven’t sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.”

Budgor does not mention any of the pre-colonial history of the Maasai. In fact Budgor’s insistence that women are ruled by the iron fist of patriarchy could be an exaggeration, bred from the cultural disapproval and ignorance of the author. According to pre-colonial history, the Maasai people did not restrict professions by gender. This negates Budgor’s point about the extreme distinction of gender roles. The lines between tradition and oppression are intentionally blurred for the purpose of hero worship.

In an article from The Atlantic penned by Teju Cole, he says that, “From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardner and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply; a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.” Readers must ask themselves: Whose emotional needs were met; Budgor’s or the women she intended to help? In an article for Glamour, the author says, “Soon after, I headed back to America. I filled my closet with stilettos again. I went back to expensive haircuts… I am more at home in the world, in my skin.”

Budgor’s not afraid to admit that once she returned home, she went back to her indulgences. For her, this transition is almost effortless, like slipping on a treasured Halloween costume. Indeed, her trip to Kenya is an exercise in novelty, escapism branded as self-enlightenment. The only thing sustainable about her efforts is the fact that it’s a self-serving business tool. After all, in today’s competitive publishing climate, any prospective author needs some sort of hook to sell his or her product. What better way to target the “Eat, Pray, Love” crowd than to venture off to Africa?

The struggles of Africa cannot fully be explained and articulated in a thousand word article, but neither can a tourist’s trip to Kenya revolutionize an entire people’s social and cultural hierarchy system. Budgor’s memoir is a case of cunning self-promotion and willful blindness. The voices of the women Maasai members are filtered through a privileged outsider’s perspective, one that heavily relies on the roles of authority and superiority. Budgor’s tone is almost reminiscent of a paternal figure that lovingly admonishes a small child for misbehaving. The Maasai lifestyle is commodified, ultimately functioning as one woman’s mission to placate her own cultural stereotypes and biases. It’s not feminism that Budor wants, but a type of universal, one-size-fits-all type of equality that is defined by vague, myopic principles. Budgor’s memoir is nothing short of cultural hijacking, casting her in a role that has yet to be permanently dismantled.

Image from Glamour magazine.

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View Comments (7)
  • Thank you Vanessa for this eloquent commentary on a troubling premise and point of view. Sad to see that the colonialist mindset is alive in this young generation. Hopefully, articles such as yours and others that have been challenging this author’s claims will bring light to this issue and help us all move forward.

  • Thanks so much Vanessa for this article… as a white woman who is constantly assessing my own white privilege and attempting to view the world through the lens of critical race theory, I was shocked/disappointed/angry/frustrated by Budgor’s obvious display of white supremacy/acculturation of Masai culture. I instantly went about googling responses about the not so subtle racism implied. I’m glad you wrote this article, it’s one of the best responses I’ve seen. Thanks!

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