Can You Save Xmas Without a White Savior Complex?

Perhaps not the direction you expected me to go after spending the day asking you to donate to help the #PghSavesXmas project?

Actually, writing that hashtag over and over really had this question front and center for me all day long. I was resisting using phrases like “It’s a miracle” or “I’m crying” when someone stepped forward to help. It isn’t a miracle. It doesn’t reaffirm my faith in humanity. And I did actually cry because someone I know very casually made a donation “In honor of Sue Kerr” which was just a really nice thing to do.

Pittsburgh Saves Christmas


But … I can’t avoid the fact that we are predominantly white group of people swooping in to save the day for community groups that are predominantly composed of people of color. There’s this thing called The White-Savior Industrial Complex that gnaws at the back of my mind.

The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.

That is what made me compare American sentimentality to a “wounded hippo.” His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.

This is the sort of shocking conversation about “doing good” we should be having as we try to figure out how to do good. We need to think about precedent and privilege and power and points of view.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action or that good intentions count for naught – but it does require us to think about our intentions, to examine them before we leap into action. Even when it makes everyone uncomfortable. Especially then.

We aren’t saving Christmas. We are honoring our commitment to these children made by the United States Marines on our behalf. Something went wrong as I mentioned and it is imperative that everyone involved in this effort require clarification on how that happened and how it can be addressed. I have my own opinions. I set them aside because I recognized that I had the skills and tools to help this effort.

But I knew what would happen. Saving Christmas is a lofty goal. Someone is going to be left out. They’ll call after the doors close the final time. They’ll email or tweet. Someone will show up asking for help. Of course they will – we said we want to help. But we’ll have to say no because we are relying on an outdated model of meeting this need. It is very broken and band aids aren’t going to be 100% successful.

Because this isn’t about Christmas needing to be saved at all.

And let’s be even more brutally honest – the need isn’t making sure kids have a toy on Christmas. The need, as I see it, is to help the community groups maintain their holiday commitments to their families because that is an important tool to the work they do year round.  Most of the kids don’t get their toys on Christmas Day. Many of them get other gifts. Some of them get toys they can’t use or need and have much bigger issues that need to be addressed. Every young black male in Pittsburgh lives in mortal danger on Christmas as on other days. These are not things we can fix or cure or save with toys.

But they ARE the things we need to tackle, not toys. I’m humbled by the agencies that asked for new socks, chemical hand warmers and gloves as gifts. And surely we should be able to meet those needs. Clearly, we don’t. We’ll need to ask again in January. February. March. Because the system is incredibly broken.

We have a tendency to reduce children into caricatures of Tiny Tim, the poor, crippled orphan waif who needed to be saved (he wasn’t an orphan but when did accuracy stand in the way of anything?) We are brought up on this mythology.


It isn’t my intent to be cynical, but I’m okay with the need for some cynicism. I often like to remind people who want to save Tiny Tim that the point of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’  was for Tiny Tim to save Scrooge. It was Scrooge recognizing that he had the capacity to help Tim that brought renewed life to Scrooge. Scrooge changed – he willed himself to change, he wanted to change. He didn’t just give Bob Cratchett a big holiday bonus and take a cruise at the holidays. He changed his entire life.

This isn’t a miracle and it isn’t magical. It isn’t about faith or humanity or any such thing. We pulled this off because some experienced, efficient people came up with a plan and lots of other people did hard work to implement it. This is a success because people were able to donate an average of $52/person. It worked because people with very big vehicles had time and gas money to invest in the transporting when we had no time to try to plan it out. It worked because it resonates with the season. It worked because people genuinely care and invested their time and energy to help.

I hope you’ll still donate because I know that we need to buy socks, chemical hand warmers and gloves for this week. I think this was the best that we could do with 24 hours to plan. I think those of us in leadership roles must push for more dialogue to “reason out the need for the need.” And we need to listen, to make time to listen.

That’s not a miracle and it is not about saving anything. Except maybe ourselves, if we try hard enough.

Are you willing to keep doing this hard work?


Below is a scene from The Walton’s Homecoming Movie – the children line up in the cold to receive used toys if they can recite Scripture lyrics. It is a pretty awful little scene.  The Baldwin Sisters look downright angelic compared to this bunch.



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